‘A Place at the Table’ cookbook celebrates spirit of Immaculate Heart Center

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People visit retreats for many reasons, seeking guidance, rest or refuge from a hectic life. Whatever it is they are hungering for, all of the guests at the Immaculate Heart Center for Spiritual Renewal in Montecito come away well-fed, thanks to the highly lauded meals of Teresa Fanucchi.

Her recipes, and the dramatic history of the group that employs her, the Los Angeles-based Immaculate Heart Community, inspired “A Place at the Table,” a cookbook published last year by Elevated Lab Press. This spiral-bound gem offers seasonal meal plans and some 90 recipes, many based on vegetables, fruit and herbs from the gardens and orchards on the property.

The book’s introduction, by Glen Vecchione, tells the gripping story of the turmoil the Immaculate Heart sisters in Los Angeles experienced in the 1960s, which received world-wide media attention. When the Second Vatican Council called on the Catholic Church to renew and modernize, the nuns welcomed this directive, and its promise of more freedom in education, work, prayer and attire.

But the nuns’ attempts to modernize infuriated the traditionalist Los Angeles cardinal at the time, the late James Francis McIntyre. He ordered the sisters to abandon their plans for renewal and resume a traditional form of religious life. The sisters responded that they intended to follow the statutes of the Second Vatican Council, which McIntyre publicly opposed. According to contemporary accounts, McIntyre told the sisters during a meeting: “You will suffer for this!”

Eventually, the sisters were given an ultimatum: Return to traditional ways — or leave the order. In 1970, some 400 made the traumatic decision to stop being nuns.

Many went on to form a still-thriving nonprofit service community of men and women with no official ties to the church.

“We really want to be there for people of all ages, and at all stages, to build the bridges to help them be the best that they can be,” says Rosemary Hart, co-director of the Immaculate Heart Community, who was one of the nuns who left the order.

Hart described some of their projects, which include providing housing for women in crisis, giving “crib to college” aid to at-risk youth and offering many services for residents of impoverished neighborhoods. In addition, they own Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles and are on the board of Alverno High School of Sierra Madre.

The group also runs the Center for Spiritual Renewal on the grounds of the 26-acre La Casa de Maria retreat center in Montecito. Housed in a stone estate, which was designed by architect Mary Osborne Craig in the 1920s for an oilman, it later served as a novitiate residence until the split with the church.

The building has a quiet elegance, with hand-chiseled walls, carved teak ceilings, a beautiful library and a beckoning dining room. On the walls (and in the cookbook) are works by late artist Corita Kent. An Immaculate Heart nun and later a community member, Kent created iconic images, including the famous 1985 love stamp.

Fanucchi cooks and bakes in the large, homey kitchen, which looks like one your grandmother might have commanded. The super-size refrigerator is a vintage icebox that was wired to meet modern demands.

Adjacent to the kitchen is a butler’s pantry, where dinner is served buffet-style. Before filling their plates, guests introduce themselves, then give thanks for the meal. One evening the prayer might be a reading from the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. Or it could be one written by the center’s associate director, Michelle de Beixedon, which includes this thought: “Accept the gratitude in our hearts for the good gift of this food, for the nourishment that brings strength to our bodies and joy to our spirits.”

De Beixedon says that she loves entering the kitchen midafternoon, when Fanucchi is preparing dinner: “It’s like coming upon an artist at work. It’s just a really wonderful energy, and I know that something very special and creative and exceptional is happening with the food. You can feel it.”

One guest who definitely appreciated Fanucchi’s food was Los Angeles businessman Rich Hockens, who first visited the center in 2007. Although he initially craved solitude, Hockens decided to join other guests for dinner, which began with a blessing and ended with stories shared and friendships formed.

Grateful for his retreat experience, Hockens wanted to give something back. That’s when the notion of a cookbook struck. He pitched the idea to his friend, author and illustrator Vecchione, who, in turn, contacted Los Angeles publisher Lewis Hall.

“Here we have this wonderful setting,” Vecchione says. “We have this delightful, delicious food, and we have these women who have carved out a little piece of the world and have shown incredible courage and fortitude in their quest. This is when the book began to fall together.”

Hall’s hands-on involvement included coming to the center for photo shoots, where a big perk was taste-testing. After one session taking pictures, a cup of Fanucchi’s chilled yellow squash soup had not been claimed.

“I sat down and ate it, and it was the best soup I’ve ever eaten,” Hall recalls.

Since her days as a holistic culinary student at Bauman College in Northern California, Fanucchi has been interested in what she calls the spirituality of cooking. She is mindful of the labor and energy involved in growing ingredients before they reach her hands.

The daughter of a pistachio farmer, Fanucchi, 41, grew up in Bakersfield, and meals often came from the family gardens. You could say she has returned to her roots, with produce growing just steps away from her current work kitchen.

“It’s really lovely. When it’s that close and that fresh, there’s such a beauty in the simplicity of the food,” she says.

A case in point is her watermelon salad, where three ingredients — olive oil, lime juice and fresh mint — enliven the fruit in a surprising way.

Fanucchi, one of four siblings, laughs when asked if she does the cooking at family gatherings.

“I’m really low on the totem pole,” she jokes, adding that among the talented cooks in her clan are her father (an expert fisherman and barbecuer) and an older brother, who makes homemade olives.

At first, Fanucchi, who is not a community member, but who has worked at the center since 2007, worried she was not up to the task of contributing to a cookbook. She is quick to credit others with inspiring her, saying she does not consider herself a recipe developer.

“Then they said, ‘Teresa, just put down on paper what you cook.’ Well, I can do that. When you say it that way, it’s not as intimidating,” Fanucchi says.

Some recipes echo her childhood meals, such as ratatouille over soft polenta. The eggplant and zucchini are roasted before being added to sautéed onions, bell peppers and fresh tomatoes. And here’s a treat Fanucchi learned at her mother’s side — chill leftover polenta, then slice it and fry it in olive oil for breakfast.

In addition to her recipes, the book features cookie recipes by longtime baker Ann Chamberlin, who retired from the center this year. Fanucchi is continuing the tradition of welcoming guests with homemade cookies.

Fanucchi and the others who worked on the cookbook say they were motivated by wanting to help the center and to honor the Immaculate Heart Community. “It really did become a labor of love for us,” Vecchione says. “The more we became involved in the history of the center and how brave these women were, the more it became something that drove the project forward, as well as just our love for the food.”

“A Place at the Table” is available for $35 plus shipping at