My Secret Garden: La Casa de Maria

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The resurrection of Montecito’s vibrant retreat center is underway.

As 2018 gets further away, the memories are still raw of the night when the giant explosion lit the sky, when water, mud, and boulders drove debris through the heart of Montecito, destroying so much on the way. Our house was gone in minutes and more than half of our neighbor’s property, La Casa de Maria Retreat Center, was gone as well.

La Casa, as it’s called, had not just been my neighbor, but also my secret garden. I had cleared overgrown vegetation between our properties, planted ground cover, and created a pathway to have easy access to their grounds. I roamed their 26 acres freely, circling around the Spanish-style buildings, crossing through the orange groves, and passing the original estate’s stone mansion, designed in the 1920s by Santa Barbara’s legendary architect Mary Craig. I sometimes met my friend Gwyn to tackle our 10,000 steps and solve the world’s problems. 

If I ran into the La Casa director, former nun Stephanie Glatt, she’d wave me over. An earthy woman with a wonderful heart, she and I had become friends. For years, Stephanie and other former Immaculate Heart nuns had kept La Casa going, through good times and lean times, to welcome retreatants from around the world who they hoped would experience spiritual renewal on their visits. She’d ask for my advice, “What can we do to make people of all faiths feel even more welcome here? We’re thinking of creating a Buddhist Garden. What do you think?” There was nothing sectarian about her.

Catholicism and the 1960s

The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary were legendary for their open-heartedness, their commitment to social justice, and their courageous rebellion against Catholic Church patriarchy. Over time I learned their riveting story, told in the 2022 Amazon Prime documentary Rebel Hearts, about how the nuns gambled everything. 

It was the 1960s. At the time the Immaculate Heart Sisters led two premier educational institutions in Los Angeles: Immaculate Heart High School and Immaculate Heart College. They taught in numerous Catholic schools throughout the diocese and worked in hospitals. La Casa was their novitiate, a retreat center for novices. 

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The college had become a mecca for independent-minded women who were drawn to the intellectual, creative, and free-spirited atmosphere of the campus. The Mother General of the order, Anita Sister Humiliata, was an English scholar and former president of Immaculate Heart College, a strong leader who gave reign to the nuns and brought liberation theologists and philosophers to the campus to ignite new ideas. 

The most famous nun was Sister Mary Corita, head of the art department at the college. A diminutive dynamo, Sister Corita created an enormous body of work, pop-art serigraphs, with symbols of love, peace, and justice that became iconic in the 1960s peace movement. Stephanie said, “Everybody loved Sister Corita. She had a big smile. Was demanding. Lively. Passionate. She’d say, ‘See this object. I want 100 drawings in a half hour.’ You’d work so fast so you couldn’t censor yourself. That was the idea. It was exciting and freeing.” 

In that era, women across America were rebelling against their conventional roles. Vietnam protests broke out as brothers and sons were conscripted. The Immaculate Heart students and nuns joined marches for peace in Vietnam, civil rights, and women’s rights and were increasingly restless for freedom for themselves from the church’s rigid rules and paternalism. 

Sister Corita’s growing fame as an artist and the nuns' social activism and independence alarmed the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Imagine how the powerful Cardinal Francis McIntyre reacted to photographs of the nuns in their habits wearing flower-child wreaths on top of their veils and carrying peace placards in marches.

La Casa became a vibrant interfaith center under their leadership and available to groups of any background dedicated to good works — environmental groups, social justice groups, faith groups, yoga retreats. Over the years, tens of thousands of individual retreatants and nonprofit groups have spent weeks there in reflection and renewal of their missions.

With the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Pope John XXIII called for a spiritual renewal of all the communities of the church and the Immaculate Heart Sisters seized the opportunity to envision their transformation. That’s what the Pope asked of them.

Becoming Independent

One night when I visited La Casa to talk about the history, several of us sat in the wood-paneled music room of the estate house, which has the most beautiful acoustics. We listened to Bach to appreciate the sound, then formed a circle as a former nun spoke of those momentous times.

“We spent almost two years asking ourselves what our roles should be in the changing world and how we should live and serve. We spoke to theologians, reflected, and finally prepared our response … our vision … nothing radical. We could wear regular clothes, allow flexible prayer times, expand our activities for the poor, and learn modern educational principles. Church officials in Los Angeles denounced the plan, considered it disobedient, disruptive, and threatened to disband us if we sent the Vatican our proposal. We thought long and hard what to do. … It was too late. We were changing. We sent in our proposal to the Vatican anyway.” 

Cardinal McIntyre drew a sharp line in the sand. He insisted the sisters conform to his definition of religious life or give up their vows. The church, in his view, could only hold together with discipline, order, and piety. There was no negotiating. “We gave our answer respectfully,” the nun told us. Sixty percent of the Immaculate Heart Sisters chose to give up their vows. The Cardinal dismissed them from all teaching responsibilities in the diocese.

As we rebuild, we want to go beyond the requirements of sustainability, LEED certification, and do everything with appreciation for the environment in mind.

– Executive director Jean Holsten

To hold their community together, the nuns formed their own independent nonprofit, The Immaculate Heart Community, of which the college, high school, and La Casa remained part. The real estate had always been held in the name of the Immaculate Heart order, not the church and soon La Casa became a vibrant interfaith center under their leadership and available to groups of any background dedicated to good works — environmental groups, social justice groups, faith groups, yoga retreats. Over the years, tens of thousands of individual retreatants and nonprofit groups have spent weeks there in reflection and renewal of their missions. 

Recovering and Rebuilding

In March 2023, I visited Stephanie, almost six years after the catastrophic event, to see how they were faring on their road to recovery. It was great to see my old friend. She introduced me to the new executive director, Jean Holsten, who struck me as cut out of the same spunky mold as the nuns, well-grounded, smart, with a sense of humor. The restoration work had yet to begin given their challenges with the insurance company and Edison, but all that was finally settled. 

Jean said, “As we rebuild, we want to go beyond the requirements of sustainability, LEED certification, and do everything with appreciation for the environment in mind.” 

We walked around the property. “We had big rains this year and weeds took over. We brought in a herd of goats and sheep, thinking that was the most sustainable approach we could think of. You feed the goats and sheep, they clear the weeds, and animals fertilize as they go. What could be better? The best laid plans turned into a fiasco.” She laughed. “The goats broke through their fencing. They were the baaaaad kids, the sheep just followers. The goats climbed the oak trees, preferring oak leaves to weeds, chewed the bark of the olive trees, jumped the wall into luxury San Ysidro Ranch’s manicured gardens and played chicken with the cars on San Ysidro Lane. Two of the goats ran off and one has never been found. The Bible warns it’s not good to mix goats and sheep. Now I get it.” 

Jean and Stephanie walked me into the estate house and the music room to show me the new La Casa plans envisioned by architect Bob Glaser. They were almost giddy, so enthusiastic, about the new La Casa, pointing to details, what would be where. Of course there are hurdles to cross with the County of Santa Barbara and the approvals that take time. Given their history, I have faith they will prevail and create a new and vibrant retreat center, a beautiful sustainable oasis in the heart of Montecito, a refuge for people in a world that needs renewal and reflection more than ever. 


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Victoria Riskin
Victoria Riskin
Victoria is the President and Founder of Bluedot Living. She had a long career as a writer-producer in television and is a past President of the Writers Guild of America West. She’s served on numerous nonprofit boards and won numerous awards for her writing and for her human rights activism.
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2 COMMENTS

  1. Wonderful to hear about rebuilding La Casa de Maria! My mom, Stella M. and I just drove up to the front gates last weekend and reminisced about all the joyful times she had leading the Alleluia Dance Company annual retreats and the Wholistic Women’s retreats. Thank you for the update and hopeful news.

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