Patricia Reif, 72; Ex-Nun Founded Studies in Feminist Spirituality


Patricia Reif, an activist, former nun and pioneering educator who founded the master's program in feminist spirituality at Immaculate Heart College Center, died of pancreatic cancer Sunday at her home in Claremont. She was 72.

Reif, who taught philosophy and theology, also played an integral role in the historic discussions in 1970 that led a majority of nuns in the order of Immaculate Heart of Mary to renounce their vows and establish an experimental lay community.

In the tumult over modernization of the Roman Catholic Church in the late 1960s, the sisters of Immaculate Heart of Mary abandoned their habits, gave up scheduled prayers and took up a broad agenda of public service. After the Vatican ordered the nuns to abandon most of their reforms, about 300 left to form a lay community and became the only Catholic order of nuns to renounce their vows.

"Pat Reif was one of the visionaries," said Susan Maloney, a visiting scholar in women's studies at Cal State Northridge. "She was at the forefront of writing the philosophical foundation of the new community."

Known for her invigorating intellect and commitment to social justice, Reif founded the nation's first graduate degree program in feminist spirituality in 1984. It attracted several hundred women, who were leaders in their fields and from a diverse range of faith traditions, to courses that examined the Bible, women's experiences and religious thinking from a feminist perspective. Lecturers included the country's leading women theologians, including Rosemary Radford Reuther and Mary Hunt.

"It made a lasting impact on the field," said Hunt, founder of Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual. "I dare say the professors learned a great deal from Pat, too, about adult education models and respectful co-learning."

Reif had spent much of the 1960s and '70s demonstrating in the antinuclear movement. In the mid-1970s she focused on the problem of hunger and helped found the Interfaith Hunger Coalition.

After she finished her work with the hunger group in the early 1980s, she began to read feminist theology and became so excited about it that she wanted to share the discovery with others.

She believed, and others at Immaculate Heart College Center in Los Angeles agreed, that it fit perfectly into the center's liberal tradition.

"Sexism certainly is a justice issue," Reif said in 1984. "Sexism is a sin."

The program eventually included courses not only in theology and ethics but on female poets and other topics related to women's experiences. One year the classes ranged from "Christology: Can a Male Savior Save Women?" to "The Apocalyptic Vision of Flannery O'Connor."

Community engagement was a requirement, forcing students out of the classroom into projects that benefited others. One student, for example, went on to run a model program that helps women leave prostitution.

"It was very important to Pat to combine [academic study] with acting as a social change agent," said Maloney, who succeeded Reif as head of the program. "She did that in her own life. It was not by any means just theoretical."

The courses were offered for 16 years until financial difficulties led the college center to close the program two years ago.

Reif's work for the hunger coalition included helping to develop campaigns against the promotion of infant formula over breastfeeding in Third World countries. She also helped shape a publication, now in its 25th year, called "The People's Guide to Welfare, Health and Other Services," which is printed in 10 languages and distributed throughout Los Angeles County.

"One thinks of a philosopher as being more esoteric and less involved with mailing lists and rallies and leaflets," said the Rev. Gene Boutilier, who was executive director of the Southern California Ecumenical Council when it launched the hunger project. "Pat was an interesting combination of the very practical and the philosophical. Her deep social-justice orientation had to do with fixing things step, by step, by step."

Reif's down-to-earth practicality showed even as she neared death, Boutilier said. She had written a checklist of tasks to be done before she died. One job was to contact a local airline to arrange for her frequent flier miles to be transferred to a sister who could use them to fly across the country to her funeral. "She called the airline and said 'I'm dying and I would like to do this.' It absolutely freaked out the person on the other end of the phone," Boutilier said. "Pat wasn't looking for sympathy; she was just trying to check off an item of business. She got it done."

The longtime activist also was a founding member of the Southern California Interfaith Task Force on Central America. She served on the board of Uncommon Ground, a project of the Inner-City Law Center, and was as an early head of the Women's Ordination Conference, which sought to bring recognition of the priestly role of women in the Roman Catholic Church.

A Los Angeles native, she earned her bachelor's degree from Immaculate Heart in 1953 and a doctorate in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1961.

She retired in 1993 and moved to Pilgrim Place, a retirement community in Claremont. True to her commitment to ecumenism, she was one of the first Catholics to join Pilgrim Place Residence in Claremont, founded more than 80 years ago as a retirement home for former Christian workers, most of them Protestants.

Reif is survived by sisters Marian Pullara of Colorado Springs, Colo., Jean Robinson of Knoxville, Tenn., and Carol Resco of Portland, Ore.; a brother, David, of Tulsa, Okla., and several nieces and nephews.

Two services will be held on April 6. The first is scheduled for 10 a.m. at Mother of Good Counsel Catholic Church in Los Angeles. The second service will be held at 4 p.m. at Pilgrim Place Residence in Claremont.

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