Turned Off by TV, Soft Music and Sweets, Four Nuns Rebel, Aiming to Keep the Cloister Their Oyster

updated 10/31/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/31/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

They are passionately religious women, and they find themselves now in a bizarre circumstance they could never have wished for and hardly imagined. They are four nuns who sought refuge from the world in a New Jersey convent and instead have attracted the curious gaze of a nation. For Sister John of the Cross, Sister Maria, Sister Bernadette and Sister Teresita, sanctuary has been reduced to a tiny second-floor infirmary at their beleaguered cloister. It is there that they have locked themselves up in order to protest the actions of a prioress who has, among other abominations, made them watch TV. "Right now, we're very tired," says Sister John, 28, speaking for the mutineers. "It's a constant strain."

Part of the strain involves simply talking. The four rebel nuns holed up behind the whitewashed walls of the Morris Township convent are members of the Discalced (or barefoot) Carmelite order, and have taken a vow of near-total silence. Theirs have been lives of prayer and penance, much like that of St. Teresa of Avila, who founded the order in 1562. All were content, or at least not complaining, until August 1987, when a new prioress, Mother Theresa Hewitt, arrived at the 13-nun convent, bringing with her an unwelcome worldliness.

A proponent of Vatican II, the historic council in the 1960s that advocated broad, liberalizing changes in the Roman Catholic Church, Mother Theresa, 71, sought to soften the sisters' austere existence. TV was high on her agenda. "With our previous prioress, we saw the funeral of Pope Paul VI," says Sister John. "That was the only live broadcast we saw, and that was done with the permission of a priest. Now, with the new prioress, TV has become an obligation. It started off with, 'Let's watch Pope John Paul come to America.' Then it snowballed. She planned an entire slew of television shows, but because we kept objecting she cut back. Then there were the videos. We saw 30 of them in 11 months. Babes in Toyland was the most secular one we had to watch."

The next temptation to be served up was music at mealtime, which, according to Sister John, also got out of hand. "First it was religious music—Gregorian chant," she says. "Then it was classical music, followed by Mantovani-Burt Bacharach-type music. I wouldn't be surprised if Peter, Paul and Mary were next." Next came "sweets," she says, which "became a daily event. A tin of candy was passed around, and everyone was supposed to take a piece. We took a piece to satisfy the prioress, but we were upset."

Finally, there was the matter of the lights. Mother Theresa favored high luminosity. "Prayer is supposed to be performed in a darkened room," complains Sister John, "but Mother Theresa has installed four spotlights in the chapel. How can you pray in a spotlight?"

Although their vows of obedience required them to bend to the will of the prioress, the four nuns felt they had to rebel against her authority. Reportedly they showed their disdain for the modern "distractions" by walking out of the room when the TV was turned on. Their refusal to cooperate, they say, led to talk of an ouster from the convent and possibly a transfer to the company of more conservative Carmelites elsewhere. According to Sister Eliane, spokeswoman for the convent, they were told at the beginning of September that they had to be off the premises by Oct. 5. It was on Oct. 4 that they took over the infirmary.

In the opinion of the four rebel nuns, Mother Theresa has "violated the rules" by turning monastic living into "one big party." Speaking in support of Mother Theresa, a nun who has resided at the convent for 50 years says that the prioress is being ill-used. She says Sister John and her colleagues were not forced to watch television and that there was nothing wrong with watching Babes in Toyland anyway. She says, "St. Teresa of Avila, during recreation time in the 16th century, would have castanets, and she danced." As far as this nun is concerned, "Mother Theresa Hewitt has the real spirit of Carmel."

The Paterson, N.J., diocese denies any attempt to oust the nuns and blames the imbroglio on their refusal to transfer allegiance from the former prioress to Mother Theresa. According to Bishop Frank J. Rodimer, head of the diocese, the dissident sisters have created a "scandal" that "doesn't fit in with the life of a contemplative nun."

Surprisingly combative, the sisters have retained a canon lawyer to advise them, and they have phoned Mother Teresa of Calcutta, asking the Nobel Prize winner to intercede with the Pope in their behalf. (Mother Teresa has said only that she will pray for everyone involved in the dispute.) The Vatican, for its part, sent Rev. Kevin Culligan, a Carmelite priest from Milwaukee, to meet with the protesters and the other sisters at the cloister. Speaking with the rebels through an air duct in the infirmary, he was quickly rebuffed. Claiming that Culligan had had earlier dealings with their prioress, the mutineers noted that his identification papers lacked an official Vatican seal and maintained that they were, therefore, invalid.

As their protest wound into its third week, the sisters gave no hint of surrender. For Sister John, at least, the commitment to persist seems as strong as the vows she took 5½ years ago. "I was just a normal person," she recalls. "I went to movies, watched TV. I loved rock and roll and the Yankees. Joining the convent was a sacrifice, but I was called to transcend the world."

William Plummer, and Victoria Balfour in Morris Township

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