Mother Tekla: The Most Powerful Woman in Rome

By Berry, Jason | National Catholic Reporter, June 7, 2013 | Go to article overview

Mother Tekla: The Most Powerful Woman in Rome


Berry, Jason, National Catholic Reporter


ROME * If the leadership of American nuns is the vanguard of a progressive spirit up against the Vatican, Mother Tekla Famiglietti is a throwback to the past: an orthodox leader who learned the rules of the game and wields power in the all-male world of the Roman Curia.

The 75-year-old head of an international order and a staunch traditionalist, the Italian-born Mother Tekla has, for more than three decades, built a power base with considerable financial prowess.

She established a long relationship with Pope John Paul II and was among the small group in vigil at the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace the night he died. Her relationship with Pope Benedict XVI was not as warm, and she was kept at a distance from the small circle Benedict called La Famiglia that was central to his daily life. It remains to be seen whether her connections in the Curia will yield access to Pope Francis. But few would disagree that she has already left a distinctive imprint at the Vatican and on the Catholic church.

As the abbess general of the Order of the Most Holy Savior of St. Bridget since 1979, she has cultivated global relationships with everyone from Fidel Castro to casino owners to further the goals of her order. She oversees a small empire of hotels, guesthouses and restaurants from Israel to India and from Darien, Conn., to Assisi, Italy, that bring in big revenue for her order. The media has taken Mother Tekla to task for exploiting nuns who clean, make beds and cook, but her order has also been widely praised for a bold, worldwide initiative against the trekking of women. She is a unique and complex player in the global Catholic church, often referred to as "the most powerful woman in Rome."

One morning, Mother Tekla sat in the elegant, if understated, parlor of St. Bridget's House at Piazza Farnese in Rome, a few blocks from the Tiber River and a short walk to St. Peter's Square. She wore a gray habit, her broad face framed in a dark veil with the Brigittines' trademark metal strips, resembling a helmet shaped like a cross. There was a framed image of herself with John Paul II--and another with her and Castro.

In a long and wide-ranging interview, she spoke in a demeanor that shifted from genial to a steel-hard seriousness, and she seemed to sum up the entire journey of her life, saying, "We are a tool for history, but the one who really acts is God."

"We used to euphemistically call her the popessa," said James Nicholson, a U.S. ambassador to the Holy See wider President George W. Bush.

Nicholson credits her help on several initiatives, including organizational assistance on a 2002 sexual trafficking conference the embassy organized, with representatives from 39 countries.

"Mother Tekla has an unusual ability to ennoble others--like cardinals and bishops," added Nicholson, who is now a Washington, D.C., attorney. "You'd see a lineup of red hats and this woman in a habit like a helmet, as they showed respect for her stature. Some people are born with good leadership."

Marco Politi, a veteran Vatican journalist and papal biographer, is blunter: "Mother Tekla is a power machine with high-ranking connections in the Curia."

"By donating to cardinals you help them in their good works--such as supporting a home for young people," Politi said. "Of course you don't know for sure where the money is going. ... Money is a form of prestige and connections in the Curia."

Under Benedict's reign, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith investigated the American leadership of nuns, or the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, for pushing "radical feminist themes." Benedict was respectful of Mother Tekla, but her access to him has been much more limited than was her access to John Paul. Yet her presence in Rome is longstanding.

In an era when Western religious orders are shrinking, the Brigittines have 800 members and a remarkable growth rate of 4 percent, adding 30 women a year. …

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