Defiant Texas nuns seek restraining order against bishop, Carmelite association

Bishop Olson Teresa Gerlach Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, and Rev. Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach of the Most Holy Trinity Monastery in Arlington, Texas. | Credit: Diocese of Fort Worth; Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity Discalced Carmelite Nuns

In direct defiance of a Vatican decree, a Texas monastery of cloistered nuns is asking a judge to grant a restraining order against the parties the Vatican has tasked with overseeing the monastery — an association of Carmelite monasteries and Diocese of Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson.

The request, filed by the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington on Monday, came just days after the Vatican issued a decree concerning the governance of the monastery. That decree entrusted the monastery to the Association of Christ the King in the United States — an association of Carmelite monasteries — and named its president, Mother Marie, as the lawful superior of the monastery. 

The decree also ordered the monastery to regularize its relationship with the bishop, with whom the nuns have feuded over the past year.

If the District Court of Tarrant County grants the monastery’s request, it would prevent Olson, Mother Marie, and any representatives of the diocese or the association from entering the premises. 

Before filing for the restraining order, the nuns indicated their intent to defy the Vatican’s decree, labeling it “a hostile takeover that we cannot in conscience accept” and warned Mother Marie and the association that they are not welcome there.

The dispute between the diocese and the monastery began in April of last year when Olson launched an investigation into the former prioress, the Reverend Mother Superior Teresa Agnes Gerlach, over alleged sexual misconduct with a priest. The prioress, who was dismissed from the religious state by the bishop, admitted to sexual conduct occurring through the phone and through video chats, but later recanted her confession and claimed she was medically unfit and recovering from an operation when it was given.

The situation escalated when the monastery filed a lawsuit against the bishop, accusing him of illegally seizing property from the nuns during his investigation. The claim was later dismissed by a judge. The Vatican originally granted the bishop the role of pontifical commissary over the monastery, which gave him temporary governing authority over the nuns, but the monastery never recognized that authority.

Michael Anderson, a lawyer representing the diocese, said in a statement provided to CNA that the monastery’s argument in its request for a restraining order “is basically a rehash of the lawsuit filed last year,” which was dismissed by a judge. He said the only new part of this filing is the addition of the Carmelite association.

“The Arlington nuns’ decision to file suit on this basis is squarely at odds with an affidavit filed in the first lawsuit, wherein Ms. Gerlach testified that the [monastery] only answers ‘directly to the pope,’” Anderson said. “Apparently this no longer applies since the catalyst for this new lawsuit was a decision by the Holy See.”

What the monastery is arguing

The restraining order makes legal arguments against the bishop and the association and includes an affidavit signed by Gerlach — whom the Vatican no longer recognizes as the monastery’s legitimate superior.

In its request for a restraining order, the monastery states that Olson attempted to take over “full governing powers” and “full governing responsibility” of the monastery. It said that now the Association of Christ the King in the United States is seeking to take over management of the monastery “under the guise of some religious backdoor.”

Although the bishop’s authority was recognized by the Vatican and the association’s authority was decreed by the Vatican, the monastery states that it is a legal nonprofit corporation that is protected under “laws of the State of Texas.” It states that neither the bishop nor the association has any legal authority to govern the monastery, according to state law. 

The monastery asserts that both the bishop and the association are “trying to utilize a religious back door to usurp the laws of the State of Texas to take over the management and assets of the [monastery].”

In an affidavit, Gerlach states that if the nuns lose their ability to govern the monastery, “it would allow the defendants to remove us from our home, as they already have threatened to do.” 

“The level of emotional trauma and infliction of psychological distress this whole episode has caused me personally and the sisters is incomprehensible,” she said. “We have never faced such moral violence and adversity. These actions are affecting my emotional and physical well-being as well as that of our sisters. I pray they be stopped.”

A spokesperson for the diocese told CNA that the monastery “is not owned by the diocese and the diocese has no interest in owning the property.”

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The Vatican has not yet issued any orders in response to the monastery’s most recent defiance of its decrees.

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