SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! Pedro Kos’ documentary Rebel Hearts spotlights the first of two implosions of the Catholic Church in the United States. The conflict is set between Arch-Bishop James Francis McIntyre and the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart. This split not only divided the church in Los Angeles but also had repercussions across the nation.
In the late 1950s and early 60s, Arch-Bishop McIntyre was assigned to run the Arch-Diocese in Los Angeles and headquarter right out of Hollywood. Through his business savvy, he oversaw not only the physical and numerical growth of the Los Angeles Diocese but his growing power and influence.
Then there are the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart, led by Sister Anita Caspary. Not long after World War II, an incredible number of women wanted to dedicate their lives to helping the world around them and saw that becoming a nun way to find focus, discipline, and make an impact almost immediately. The only downside was the vows, which seem stricter than their male counterparts, the priests.
In the 50s, McIntyre had the brilliant idea to open dozens of Catholic schools across L.A. To save money for the operation, the diocese staffed its growing number of nuns as teachers… whether they were qualified or not. He quickly established 62 schools teaching 24,000 students. As McIntyre boasted about the numbers, he turned a blind eye to the inhuman number of hours and horrible working conditions forced upon the sisters.
“…spotlights the first of two implosions of the Catholic Church in the United States.”
McIntyre would also establish several colleges. The secondary institutions were a whole different beast. While McIntyre ruled the school with an iron fist, he gave the sisters great freedom to run the colleges by trusting (more ignoring) them. So much so, they became some of the top universities in the nation. This freedom led to open minds. Open minds led to independent thinking. The reality of the world surrounding the sisters opened up. They joined the march at Selma, protested the Viet Nam war, and removed their habits for a more contemporary dress.
Meanwhile, in Rome, the Pope started what would be known as Vatican II—an attempt at modernizing the church with contemporary culture. While great news for the congregants, the old guard would have nothing of it. When the arch-bishop uncovered what the sisters were doing in the form of activism, he began to crack down on them, starting with the habit’s return and strict regimens of prayer and meditation. This decree created the first major split in the catholic church, and The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart would take the blame.
As a documentary, Rebel Heart allows this era of Catholic history to speak for itself. It employs standard talking-head interviews with some of the key sisters, including Lenore Dowling, Anita Caspary, and Helen Kelley. There’s also an homage to beloved Sister Corita, the art expert, who spoke volumes through her protest posters. Ultimately, the problem with the church was the power and discipline Rome and Arch-Bishop McIntyre lorded over the sisters and the suppression of their passions and desire to be a positive influence in the world God placed them in.
I found the history presented to be fascinating and engaging. Kos unpacks a great deal of information and story. I was soaking it up. If you’re an outsider, like me, to the Catholic Church, informative is an understatement. Rebel Hearts doesn’t make the Catholic Church look good, as it exposes the flaws and the adverse effect power can have on “God’s” leaders.
Rebel Hearts screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
"…allows this era of Catholic history to speak for itself."