'Rebel Hearts': The 1960s Trailblazing Nuns Upsetting the Status Quo

Rebel Hearts may prove to be the uplifting tale we needed to see in 2021.

The new documentary, coming to cinemas and streaming services this weekend, centers on a group of revolutionary, patriarchy-defying nuns in 1960s Los Angeles, and the oppression they faced.

The nuns featured are from Immaculate Heart College, a private Catholic college that was famed for educating its students in art and religious studies. The teachers joined the social uprising of the 60s and fought against the exploitation they were suffering at the hands of their male superiors.

The documentary is opening in selected cinemas today, before dropping on discovery+ on Sunday June 27, 2021.

Starting the Long Fight for Equality

While the story of Rebel Hearts starts 50 years ago, unfortunately there are themes and trends that can still be seen today, according to the team behind the documentary.

Immaculate Heart College Mary’s Day celebration 1964
"Rebel Hearts" clip of Immaculate Heart College Mary’s Day celebration, 1964. Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community/discovery+

Discussing why now is the right time to tell this story, co-writer and producer Shawnee Isaac-Smith told Newsweek: "It was convergence of times. A lot of the same issues are emerging right now so I think it was very relevant to today."

The documentary has been 20 years in the making for Isaac-Smith, who held over 50 interviews with nuns discussing their time at Immaculate Heart College, and ultimately their breakaway from the institution.

"There were so many times over the last 20 years when I said this documentary needs to come out, 'this is the year,'" she said, "but as I look back now, this really is the time. We're dealing with Black Lives Matter, social unrest, again women's rights are being challenged. We're kind of coming full circle with all of the issues they were dealing with back then."

Isaac-Smith also credits director Pedro Kos for helping get Rebel Hearts made now, claiming his Catholic background and his understanding of who these women really were made him the right person to help carry the story.

"I was really moved by their faith in action and their ability to create change. I think they were pioneers, for me it was how current the story was," Kos said. "Even though it's set in the 60s, it spoke so much to where we are now as a society of waking up to these unjust structures and how to come together as a group to create change."

The "Uppity Women" of Rebel Hearts

The women of Immaculate Heart College made a huge impact socially and culturally, which of course often upset the status quo within their religious community. In Rebel Hearts, they're "kick-ass, subversive women" to some, but they're "uppity women not to be put up with" by others.

Isaac-Smith understands the long divisive road these women had to travel, and she believes anyone who watches Rebel Hearts will learn the same lesson. She said: "Change takes time. We're so in a society of instant gratification we don't understand that it's a process.

"They planted these seeds way back then, they're still watering today, it's still moving forward, and that's a thing I'm always inspired by. They're such role models because they haven't been discouraged by incremental changes, they're still at it," she said.

Still from Rebel Hearts documentary
The Immaculate Heart Sisters discuss their labor issues. A still from "Rebel Hearts." discovery+

Director Kos agrees with the sentiment, pointing out one specific fight women within the Roman Catholic community are still engaged in today.

"There's so many things to take away from the film but for us it was a meditation on change. A good example that really embodies that is, there are a couple of Immaculate Heart Community members who are part of an order of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests.

"A couple of weeks ago the Vatican said there would be increased punishments and excommunications for anyone who aids, ordains or is ordained as a woman priest.

"But [Elizabeth] Jane Via, said we know this isn't for something in our lifetime, we know the Vatican or the church won't embrace us but if we don't do it, who else will?"

Rebel Hearts nuns protesting in 2018
Immaculate Heart Community members Agnes Caballero and Patrice Underwood at a human trafficking protest in 2018. Still from the documentary "Rebel Hearts" discovery+

Earlier this month, a revision was made by the Vatican to its canon laws codifying automatic excommunication for "both a person who attempts to confer a sacred order on a woman, and the woman who attempts to receive the sacred order."

Kos was quoting Elizabeth Jane Via, a California lawyer who is part of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement — a movement that hasn't been sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church.

On women like Via and the activists featured in Rebel Hearts, Kos said: "They play the long game. They are 50 years ahead, it's about planting that seed and putting in that work, to hopefully inspire and spark the imagination of the next generation coming up.

"Then they pick up the mantle and then we keep going."

Rebel Hearts will open in selected theaters in NY and LA now, before it's available for streaming on discovery+ June 27th.

Sister Lenore Dowling in Rebel Hearts
Sister Lenore Dowling, IHM, PhD, celebrates Mary’s Day. Still from the documentary "Rebel Hearts." discovery+