Our Lady of Malibu celebrates the Sisters of St. Louis

Our Lady of Malibu

A Malibu legacy will soon be turning a page and closing a chapter at Our Lady of Malibu Catholic Church. The community gathered recently to celebrate and pay homage to the Sisters of St. Louis. The order of Catholic nuns has been tirelessly serving the Malibu community for 61 years. With the order aging out, its two remaining sisters in Malibu, Sr. Mary and Sr. Carmel, will be moving soon from the local convent. 

The Sisters of St. Louis first arrived in Malibu in 1958. For the first five years, they commuted from the Louisville Convent in Woodland Hills. By 1963, Our Lady of Malibu built a convent for the nuns. The first two who came to Malibu were Sr. Canice and Sr. Maria Socorra. Over the years, there have been well over 30 Sisters who have lived at the convent and worked at the school or parish. Now, according to Sr. Judith Dieterle, regional leader of the Sisters of St. Louis, “We’re getting to where we’re aging and we’re much smaller than we were. 

“The median age now is 87 for our Sisters,” she explained. “There are 35 who live in the United States. Of the 35, there are only 11 who are under age 80. That means there has to be some kind of downsizing.” 

The order has a long history. It was founded in France after its patron saint, King Louis IV. Its mission is: “one world, healed, unified and transformed continues to inspire all the sisters do today,” according to its literature.

With active membership in Ireland 70 years ago, a California Cardinal sent for recruits to teach in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. In 1949, they began in El Monte. Then the order spread out to other Southern California parishes, finally arriving in Malibu in 1958 and living here by 1963. 

A group of still-active Sisters of St. Louis came to Malibu last Saturday evening for a celebration of their many years of service. Of the group who once served in Malibu, 14 have passed away. 

Many people remember Sr. Mary Campbell, who died in 2010 after an automobile accident in Malibu. 

“It was a strange happening going on at that time,” explained Sr. Judith. “Sr. Bernadette and Sr. Mary Campbell lived here and then Sr. Bernadette died. There was a request to send someone to Malibu to live with Sr. Mary Campbell. Sr. Mary Prendergast came to be Sr. Campbell’s companion. Shortly after her arrival on Aug. 25, Sister Mary Campbell was killed.” 

The beloved Monsignor Sheridan also died as a result of the accident. 

“I have so many memories of Malibu,” Sister Judith continued. “It’s like there were so many highs and lows.” Speaking of the fires and evacuees the nuns have assisted, Sister Judith said, “I love the spirit of the people here in Malibu as well as the beauty of the place—the ocean and the hills. There’s a very special quality about Malibu. There’s something very real about the people here.”

One of Our Lady of Malibu’s original nuns, Sr. Canice Durkan, is now 90. She lives in Ireland and recently phoned Sister Judith, who reported, “She’s doing very well and still driving.”

“The celebration is because the two sisters in Malibu now are leaving because there aren’t enough sisters to staff the church. Sixty-one years of service. We’re getting too small to be spread as thin as we are. Sister Mary will move to St. Mel’s and Sister Carmel is moving to Winnetka.

“I hope we keep up relationships with people because they are so very important and special,” she continued. “It’s something many of us never did think would happen—leading toward conclusion—the conclusion of our order in the United States, but the order is still strong in Ghana and Nigeria.”

The Sisters and their mission is still warmly regarded in Malibu.

“Sr. Mary was my fifth-grade teacher at St. Mel’s. She seemed like a giant of a woman at the time and I was terrified of her. But she’s a lovely, lovely woman and she tells me to call her Mary, but I can’t. I have to call her Sister Mary,” one local, Maureen O’Neill, said Saturday.

John Goalwin commented, “Sr. Mary taught me so much about participating in the Mass.  

“I was called upon to proclaim the word of God and be an altar server and she would help me and guide me how to do those things,” he continued. “She welcomed me into the community. She’s kind and loving.  I’m very grateful Sr. Mary was here.”

 “There are so many wonderful memories that have come from Malibu,” Sr. Judith concluded. “Being around here is just bittersweet. It’s been beautiful.”