Apr 30, 2024 - News

Arlington nuns fight Catholic Church control

Illustration of a stained glass window with a fist emoji design.

Arlington nuns are at odds with a Fort Worth bishop over control of their cloister. Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A cloistered order of Carmelite nuns in Arlington spend most of their time secluded from the public, even during mass. They don't grant media interviews, and they devote their lives to prayer.

  • But they are now at the center of a publicized dispute with the Fort Worth bishop they claim is abusing his power.

Why it matters: The Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity is fighting what it calls a "hostile takeover" by the organization the Vatican has appointed to govern them.

  • The nuns are working to maintain their organization's independence within the Catholic Church, where the highest level of governance is almost entirely male. They wrote they "are not 'things' to be traded or given away in back-room deals."

The big picture: The conflict has garnered national attention in part due to claims of broken vows of chastity, abuse of power and allegations of drug use.

  • The Carmelite order has been locked in a legal and church dispute with Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson for over a year, stemming from his allegations that Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach of the cloister broke her vow of chastity. She has denied it.
  • The order says the bishop overstepped his bounds and interrogated the prioress while she was "medically unfit." The nuns no longer recognize the bishop as having authority over them.

The latest: The Arlington order filed a request for a temporary restraining order last week, seeking to prohibit Olson, the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth and the Carmelite Association of Christ the King from entering the monastery.

  • The nuns allege that their monastery is a separate entity from the diocese and that the Vatican did not communicate directly with the nuns about the appointment of the association as their new governor.

Driving the news: The Vatican wrote a letter appointing the new governor because Gerlach's tenure expired in January.

  • But the Arlington order doesn't believe they need to elect a new prioress because the Vatican has not resolved their complaint about the bishop's authority.
  • "It is our understanding that while matters are under appeal, nothing is to be changed and the status quo is to be preserved," the order wrote in their online statement.

What they're saying: The nuns claim in a request for a restraining order that the Fort Worth diocese is "trying to utilize a religious back door" to gain control of the monastery and its property, per the Fort Worth Report.

  • They say their religious profession doesn't deny them the right to "justice according to the law."

The other side: The diocese calls the monastery's statements "sad and troubling," per an online statement.

  • "This is an internal church matter that the former prioress continues to attempt to exploit in the civil court — in which it has no standing."

Flashback: The order was established in 1958 with just a handful of nuns. The group moved to Arlington after they were given 56 acres.

  • They dedicated their Arlington chapel in 1985.

Catch up fast: Gerlach was undergoing cancer treatment in 2022 when she befriended a priest in Montana who also had cancer. She confided in another nun and then a senior priest at the Fort Worth diocese that she feared they had become too close, per Texas Monthly.

  • Father Jonathan Wallis, who is now vicar general at the diocese, told the bishop about the conversation.
  • Olson later questioned Gerlach and confiscated devices from the monastery. He told her she would be put on administrative leave during a canonical investigation of the matter, per the Star-Telegram.
  • Olson then made the allegations public, alleging Gerlach had told him she was "sexting" with a priest on the phone. She denied it.
  • Gerlach and another sister sued Olson, alleging he had stolen information and personal devices from the monastery. Gerlach also claimed the bishop defamed her and invaded her privacy.

Context: Gerlach had undergone a medical procedure before one of the bishop's visits to the monastery in April 2023 and was groggy from anesthesia and painkillers. He insisted on questioning her anyway.

  • The diocese also publicly claimed there was drug use at the monastery, which a lawyer for the order has denied.

The bottom line: In the order's latest court filing, Gerlach says the group appointed by the Vatican to oversee the nuns would have control over the monastery's assets, meaning they could remove the nuns from their home, per CBS Texas.

  • "I pray they be stopped," the reverend mother wrote.

What's next: A hearing on the restraining order is scheduled Tuesday.

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