U.S. priests, reclusive Italian nuns wage holy war over ancient Roman church

September 06, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

ROME -- U.S. missionary priests and reclusive Italian nuns have fought one another for six years to win control of one of Rome's oldest churches. Anonymous phone calls and bureaucratic manipulation became the battleground of a war that escalated at one point into an ecclesiastical street brawl.

The war for the historic Santa Susanna church became a clash of centuries, pitting inward-looking nuns, chary of the outside world, against outward-reaching priests, who embrace it.

The trouble began at Santa Susanna in 1985 when Roman fire marshals turned up one day and declared the church and its long-sagging roof unsafe. Their action dismayed the U.S. pastors of the church, which includes more than 3,500 U.S. parishioners, but delighted the small community of cloistered Cistercian nuns in an adjoining monastery.

In fact, disgruntled parishioners suspect that it was the nuns who had summoned the inspectors.

Santa Susanna has been closed ever since.

The Paulists came to Santa Susanna in 1922.

For the white-cowled Italian nuns, most of whom come from a handful of villages in the Abruzzi mountains east of Rome, the Americans are newcomers who represent a noisy, distracting and ultimately destructive nuisance to their monastery's way of life.

The Cistercian nuns, daughters of an order founded in 12th century France, have been here in their Roman monastery since 1557. They live in complete seclusion as contemplative ascetics.

At its peak, the Roman monastery sheltered up to 150 nuns. Today there are about 15 left.

"A positive interpretation is that . . . they feel we make their presence obscure -- that nobody knows they're back there," said Rev. Ronald Roberson, one of three Paulists in Rome. "They think if they make the Americans go away, they'd have more public exposure and more vocations. We sympathize but don't think our departure would be a solution."

A less positive interpretation favored by many Santa Susanna parishioners is that the troubles were stoked by a new abbess and an Italian Cistercian priest, Domenico Paccherini. After more than half a century of apparently peaceful coexistence, the Paulists began to feel sisterly ire soon after he became the monastery's chaplain.

In 1989, Father Paccherini even blocked the U.S. pastor, the Rev. John Foley, from entering his office at Santa Susanna while Pope John Paul II was arriving for a visit. A police officer separated the priests in time to greet their pope.

In the meantime, Paulists' sacristy, as well as an upstairs 10,000-volume English-language library widely used by the city's U.S. community -- both Catholic and non-Catholic -- survived the closing of the church. But Father Foley says the Cistercian abbess complained continually about their use.

One day in 1989, the Paulists found the locks changed on the doors to the church office, sacristy and library; the furniture was outside. The office roof was later removed. Mail addressed to the Americans began being returned marked "Addressee Unknown."

All the while, roof repairs by the Italian fine arts ministry -- the church is a national landmark -- advanced at a snail's pace.

Then the electrical inspectors came.

Santa Susanna was the first church in Rome to install electric lights, Father Roberson said. The inspectors were not impressed with the way the pioneer system had aged. It was decrepit. Shut it down, change everything, they demanded.

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