Pope John Paul II blesses the head Catholic order of nuns, the Brigittines, Sister Tekla Famiglietti, in the Clementine Hall at the Vatican. Image by Osservatore Romano. Vatican City, 2013.
Mother Tekla Famiglietti. Image by Jason Berry. Vatican City, 2013.
Tekla Famiglietti greets Cuban President Fidel Castro March 8, 2003 in Havana. Image by Getty Images pool. Cuba, 2003.
Pope John Paul II poses in the Clementine Hall at the Vatican during a meeting with nuns of the Bridgettines order. Image by Osservatore Romano. Vatican City, 2004.

ROME, Italy — If the leadership of American nuns is the vanguard of a progressive spirit up against the Vatican, Mother Tekla Famiglietti is a throwback to the past: an orthodox leader who learned the rules of the game and wields power in the all-male world of the Roman Curia.

The 75-year-old head of an international order and a staunch traditionalist, Italian-born ‘Mother Tekla’ has for more than three decades built a power base with considerable financial prowess.

She established a long relationship with Pope John Paul II and was among the small group in vigil at the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace the night he died. Her relationship with Pope Benedict XVI was not as warm, and she was kept at a distance from the small circle Benedict called La Famiglia that was central to his daily life. With the cardinals now gathering in the Vatican to elect a new pope, Mother Tekla is here in Rome, but it remains to be seen whether her connections in the Curia will yield access to the new pope. But few would disagree that she has already left a distinctive imprint at the Vatican and on the Catholic Church.

As the Abbess General of the Order of the Most Holy Saviour of Saint Bridget for the last 32 years, she has cultivated global relationships with everyone from Fidel Castro to casino owners to further the goals of her order. She oversees a small empire of hotels, restaurants and high-end guest houses from Israel to India and from Darien, Connecticut to Assisi, Italy that bring in big revenue for her order. Mother Tekla has been taken to task by the media for exploiting nuns who clean, make beds and cook in this tax-free enterprise, but her order has also been widely praised for a bold, worldwide initiative against the trafficking of women. She is a unique and complex player in the global Catholic Church, often referred to as “the most powerful woman in Rome.”

One morning, Mother Tekla sat in the elegant, if understated, parlor of St. Bridget’s House at Piazza Farnese in Rome, a few blocks from the Tiber River and short walk to St. Peter’s Square. She wore a gray habit, her broad face framed in a dark veil with the Bridgettines’ trademark metal strips, resembling a helmet shaped like a crucifix. There was a framed image of herself with John Paul II — and Castro.

In a long and wide-ranging interview with GlobalPost in late November, she spoke in a demeanor that shifted from genial to a steel-hard seriousness, and she seemed to sum up all of the journey in her life, saying, “We are a tool for history, but the one who really acts is God.”

James Nicholson, a US ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush and now a Washington, DC attorney, said, “We used to euphemistically call her the Popessa.”

He credits her help on several initiatives, including organizational assistance on a 2002 sexual trafficking conference the embassy organized, with representatives from 39 countries.

“Mother Tekla has an unusual ability to ennoble others — like cardinals and bishops,” added Nicholson. “You’d see a line-up of red hats and this woman in a habit like a helmet, as they showed respect for her stature. Some people are born with good leadership.”

Marco Politi, a veteran Vatican journalist and biographer of the last two popes, is more blunt. “Mother Tekla is a power machine with high-ranking connections in the Curia,” he said.

“By donating to cardinals you help them in their good works – such as supporting a home for young people,” said Politi. “Of course you don’t know for sure where the money is going…Money is a form of prestige and connections in the Curia.”

Benedict’s prosecutorial arm in the Vatican, known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, has investigated the American leadership of nuns, or the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for pushing “radical feminist themes.” The pope was respectful of Mother Tekla, but unlike John Paul he kept her at a distance from La Famiglia, the tight circle on which he relied in his daily activities. Her access to Benedict was much more limited than her access to John Paul. Yet her presence in Rome is longstanding.

In an era when Western religious orders are shrinking, the Bridgettines have 800 members and a remarkable growth rate of 4 percent, adding 30 women a year. Backed by politically conservative donors, the order also generates revenue through a far-flung network of religious homes that double as hotels, or high-end guest houses, in Europe, Israel, the Philippines, and in sixteen places in India. The paid lodgings are part of the Bridgettine charism – or vision — of “Christian hospitality.”

It is also a form of religious capitalism.

A Bridgettine estate in Darien, Connecticut, charges $110 a night, which includes meals, and a $45 day rate for lunch and dinner. The facility has low labor overhead with nuns vowed to poverty.

“Nestled within hidden inlets of the Long Island Sound,” the estate’s website states, “the Vikingsborg Guest House offers a tranquil 10-acre manse ideal for meditative pleasure. Members of all faiths are welcome for private retreats, rest or study.”

The Darien house pays taxes. The one in Rome is tax-exempt.

St. Bridget’s House at Piazza Farese charges 140 euro per night, which includes breakfast, access to chapel, a distinct religious milieu, and optional meals in a dining room. Nuns in wimples and traditional habits serve tables and work in kitchens and front desks, reducing labor costs. Bridgettine houses in other countries are run the same way, including the one in Havana.

Mother Tekla met Fidel Castro in 2000 at the inauguration of President Vincente Fox in Mexico City. This was two years after John Paul’s historic trip to Cuba, which began a thaw in state-church tensions.

Castro allowed her to open a small convent. Tekla’s career hit its zenith in 2003 when she commemorated the fifth anniversary of the papal trip with a ceremony for another, larger Bridgettine house in the colonial section of Havana.

Castro spoke at the event, which was televised on state broadcast.

“The Holy See regretted Castro’s turning the opening ceremony into a propaganda opportunity, but is willing to grit its teeth,” said a US State Department intelligence cable made public through Wikileaks.

The Vatican hoped the event would spark “greater church access to the Cuban people,” according to the cable. But the Havana Cardinal-Archbishop, Jaime Ortega — who had recently issued a pastoral letter critical of the regime on human rights — boycotted the ceremony, feeling snubbed by the Vatican planning.

Later, Tekla told officials of the US Embassy to the Holy See (under Ambassador Francis Rooney, who succeeded Nicholson) that she had asked Ortega for a convent site, but the cardinal could only offer one some distance out on a country road. She asked Castro; he pledged a building in Old Havana. The cable states:

Mother Tekla herself told us that no special honors were accorded Castro at the opening ceremony, and that she invited him to the inauguration out of “charity” and Christian courtesy...The renovation costs were covered by donations solicited by Tekla’s order, and the Vatican [embassy in Havana] assisted with importing building materials and fittings usually hard to come by in Cuba.

The cable summarizes the view of Msgr. Giorgio Lingua, an official in the Vatican foreign affairs ministry at the time:

"Lingua agreed that Cardinal Ortega and the Cuban clergy had a legitimate beef with how Mother Tekla had organized the construction and inauguration of her convent (i.e. via direct communication with Castro and the Pope rather than via the Cuban bishops). He admitted that the Holy See had not managed the event well, noting that Mother Tekla 'is not controllable...'”

At a 2006 meeting with US officials in Rome, reported in another cable now on Google, the abbess argued for lifting the Cuban embargo before Castro died. “Mother Tekla said she had been to Fidel’s house many times” but on a recent trip Castro was “too weak and ill” to meet.

The Bridgettines eventually established four houses in Cuba.

Tekla’s move into Cuba capitalized on Castro’s ties with John Paul and his tolerance of the church’s social assistance to people on the edges of an economy, no longer under girded by the former Soviet Union. Moreover, Cuba’s burgeoning tourist economy needed hotels.

Hostal Convent Santa Brigida has four and a half stars in the TripAdvisor ratings for international travelers. Among the plaudits posted, one calls it “a haven of peace and of comfortable sleep. The rooms are large with modern marble bathrooms. The breakfast included was delicious. And the location can't be beat. It's right in the middle of Old Havana.”

All of this tracks the mission Mother Tekla inherited from her predecessor, who revived the order founded by the 14th-century St. Bridget of Sweden. After a dormancy of several centuries, the Bridgettines were resurrected in 1911 by another Swede, Mother Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad. Tekla remembers her from her early years in the convent. Hesselblad died in 1957. John Paul made her a saint in 2000.

Framed by Corinthian columns, St. Bridget’s House is a four-story structure composed of adjacent buildings, which Pope Pius XI donated to the order, under Mother Hesselblad, in 1931. The foundress, Saint Bridget of Sweden, is said to have died on the premises.

The order’s mid-twentieth century growth was spurred by Mother Hesselblad, who cultivated wealthy benefactors, some of them political potentates she admitted to the Order of the Most Holy Saviour of Saint Bridget. The High Patrons and General Grand Masters included men with bloody footprints in history: Juan Peron of Argentina, who welcomed Nazi fugitives; the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, who fled in exile to Paraguay where he was assassinated; Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista who was overthrown by Castro; the late Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco; the lurid Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo, subject of Mario Vargas Llosa’s scathing novel "Feast of the Goat."

The expanded list from the 1980s has ironic bedfellows. Among them: Dr. Salvadore Allende of Chile, a Marxist who died in the 1973 coup; President Ronald Reagan; and former Guatemalan President Efraín Ríos Montt, now under investigation for human rights crimes by a national commission.

A long list of archbishops and cardinals joined the list of Hasselblad’s donors in the pre-Vatican II symbiosis of a Catholic hierarchy and political tyrants who trampled human rights.

Mother Tekla courted new benefactors, notably José María Guardia, Mexico’s reputed “Lord of the Casino.” In 2000, she named Guardia a Commander of the Order. “I’m helping the church to get a discounted sentence in purgatory,” Guardia joked to Milenio, the Mexico City daily at the time.

Guardia, who made his early money in a dog-racing track in Juarez, “served as a bridge between the church and Fidel Castro,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2003. The Mexican gambling mogul helped opened the door for Mother Tekla with Castro.

She later named Castro a Commander of the Order.

Bestowing honors in societies of chivalry is a long tradition of the papacy for major church benefactors. In that sense, Mother Tekla was expanding the realm. But in 2003, religion writer Sandro Magister of L’Espresso tartly referred to her “copious offerings” to Monsignor Stanislow Dziwisz, the Polish secretary and gatekeeper to John Paul II.

The Legion of Christ, a now-discredited religious order, arranged a $50,000 donation to Dziwisz from a Mexican benefactor who took his family to a private Mass with John Paul. Dziwisz has since become a cardinal and lives in Cracow.

No city has as many huge, historic churches as Rome, nor such a visible presence of nuns wearing traditional habits, and priests in black clericals with white collars. Rome, like Washington, is a seat of bureaucracy with headquarters of religious orders from across the globe. Missionary orders that work in Africa, Latin America or Asia send priests or sisters to America every year, making their appeals at parishes on Sundays, relying on designated collections at Masses to help support their missions.

Italy does not tax convents and religious houses, like the Bridgettines, that rent rooms at B&B or hotel prices. This cottage industry helps many orders survive. There is even a French restaurant, L'Eau Vive, just off the Tiber, run by nuns. “I imagine people in America would be scandalized by nuns serving French food,” a Western diplomat, on background, dryly notes, “but it goes toward their other work.”

The Bridgettines’ orthodoxy shows in the traditional habits, veils and cycle of prayers similar those in monasteries. The order has attracted hundreds of young women from poor countries, particularly India, who see the convent as a path up to the betterment of life.

That is how Tekla Famiglietti became a nun.

She recalled her childhood in a village near Naples, her father and an older brother were serving in World War II. Now her voice races, describing how as a girl of seven she scrambled to shelter a younger brother as bombs exploded outside. Tears well, her voice choking. “People died!" she said. "So much suffering – people losing arms, a foot... I saw missiles, too much for a girl to see. I thought, ‘I must do something.’”

After the war her father returned from Germany, and the brother from North Africa — minus one leg. “I decided to spend my life for Jesus,” she said. Her father opposed the idea; after long arguments, with the help of her godfather she won her father’s permission and entered St Bridget’s in Rome, at 15, following several girls from her village.

Her family moved to America, settling in Long Island.

“I was attracted by prayer and adorations in reparation for the evils committed in the world,” she said.

Fingers arched in a steeple for prayer, Mother Tekla speaks of Mother Hesselblad as a holy mentor. Her eyebrows arch like twin parasols, lips parting in a beatific smile: “I am a nun who strongly believes and is happy in my vocation.” At times Mother Tekla radiates a scripted sense of urgency, as if stories told now, and before, must be told again.

Her 32-year tenure as abbess general took a jolt in 2002 when six young nuns from India fled their Bridgettine houses in Italy and took sanctuary with a Benedictine abbot at St. John the Evangelist in Subiaco, near Parma. (The priest gave an interview on condition that his name not be used.)

In 2004, Adista, a liberal Catholic weekly, ran a lengthy series on the events, laying the blame on Mother Tekla for an order run “as if it were a chain of hotels, subjecting the non-[European Union] nuns to grueling work without pay, such as washing, sweeping, cooking and making the bed in monasteries – the work schedule was so intense that the religious were not even left with time to work and pray.”

At the abbot's request, Bishop Silvio Cesare Bonicelli of Parma issued a special decree, letting the fugitive sisters enter a monastery of Benedictine nuns. Mother Tekla pulled out the stops, trying without success to halt the bishop’s order, then refusing to release the women’s passports, and reported them to police for deportation.

Under Tekla’s prodding, the Vatican congregation that oversees religious orders ordered an Apostolic Visitation (read: investigation) of both the monastery where the abbot had given shelter to the sisters and the convent where they ended up. (This happened before Cardinal Franc Rodé became prefect.)

The Vatican pressured the Benedictines to force the resignations of both the abbot and his superior. The six sisters went before an Italian magistrate for not having papers. The court ordered that they receive the passports and awarded them national health cards.

In an interview with Adista, after being sacked as abbot, the priest said, “The integration of foreigners is not yet supported in today’s church through respect of human values. We’ve got to fight for a new mindset [so] that...the Italian, Romanian, Polish or Filippino all have the same dignity. One can’t look at other people as if they were barbarians to educate.”

Eight years later, in November 2012, on an overcast, wind-blown Sunday morning, the priest stood outside a church in Rome where he had come with choir members from his parish in another city, for Mass.

“I had a vow of obedience,” he said somberly. He spoke about canon laws that govern the elections and internal workings of religious orders, shaking his head in recalling how Vatican officials had run over those rules.

“It was painful to lose my position, but I did the right thing.”

Mother Tekla refused to discuss the events, saying, “I didn’t read the newspapers.”

When asked if other sisters had fled the order, she said: “No, thank God.”

“It is all behind us now,” one of the sisters who fled, now a Benedictine said by telephone, on condition that her name not be used. “We are doing fine.”

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