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ROME – Two members of the Urbanist Poor Clare Sisters of Italy, who became known as the “rebel nuns of Ravello” for their refusal to abandon their 13th century convent slated for closure, have been dismissed by the Vatican from religious life.
Sisters Massimiliana Panza, an Italian, and Sister Angela Maria Punnacka, an Indian, left the Convent of St. Clare in Ravello, overlooking Italy’s prized Amalfi Coast Feb. 3. Temporarily remaining in the convent is Sister Maria Cristina Fiore, who turned 97 on Jan. 13 and who’s lived in the convent since 1955. She’s now under the care of a new community of sisters, asked to look after her until a decision about her residence is made.
The three sisters had been the only ones remaining in the convent, which, a half-century ago, was home to 42 Poor Clare nuns, as well as a primary school.
In 2021, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Consecrated Life ordered the convent closed, with the support of the Urbanist Poor Clare Sisters of Italy, due to the declining numbers. A Franciscan priest from the Sanctuary of St. Anthony of Padua was appointed to oversee the closure, including the disposition of the property.
The convent’s complex includes a church, a residence for the sisters, a guesthouse, a set of ruins and a vast open area overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, in a posh stretch of coastline where Gore Vidal once owned a villa. As a result of donations to the sisters over the years, the convent also owns a hotel and three other local businesses which generate roughly $200,000 a year in profits.
All told, the value of all the property belonging to the convent is estimated at somewhere between $50 and $60 million.
In a last-ditch effort to keep the convent open, Panza and Punnacka had proposed over the summer signing over ownership of the property directly to the Vatican, to be used for papal charities, while the sisters would be allowed to remain.
In effect, the Vatican said “yes” to receiving the property but “no” to the sisters staying on, ordering that each of the three relocate to three different convents in various regions of Italy. Panza and Punnacka refused, leading to the decree of expulsion from religious life.
Local media reports that when the closure of the convent was announced in 2021, rumors circulated of plans to build a luxury hotel complex on the site. The city council of Ravello came out in opposition to the closure, citing the historical and cultural significance of the convent.
During the Second World War, for instance, King Victor Emmanuel III, Queen Helen and their son Prince Humbert were frequent visitors to the convent, where they supported the rebuilding of a kindergarten and also the production of clothing and other basic supplies for the poor of the city.
In the wake of the expulsion of the two sisters from the convent and from religious life, an ex-mayor of Ravello named Paolo Imperato, who’s also the head of a cultural association, has vowed to continue the fight “to restore truth, justice and dignity to the virtuous ‘disobedience’ of the sisters.”
“We’ll act without ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ to vindicate the authenticity of the true church, which cannot tolerate purges behind the false mask of non-alignment with the orders of superiors – especially if those orders are questionable on a canonical level and reprehensible on an ethical level, to the point of sounding like an anti-synodal witness,” Imperato said.
Panza addressed a small crowd of locals who gathered to see her and Punnacka off last Friday.
“Thanks to all of you who welcomed and supported us to the extent possible,” she said. “In reality, we haven’t been transferred but dismissed from the order. As soon as made the donation to the pope, our transfer was decided. We didn’t want to take anything, we were born as poor Franciscans and we want to die that way, but we had every canonical right to see this donation through its conclusion.”
“Our superiors thought differently and we didn’t have the chance to do anything about the act of dismissal. That’s the truth. We’ve done our part, now you must pray for the convent,” Panza said.
According to news reports, Panza and Punnacka are currently staying with Panza’s family near Naples while contemplating their next move.