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Spanish Poor Clares announce break from Catholic Church

A community of 16 Poor Clare religious sisters, based in the Spanish dioceses of Burgos and Vitoria, has declared its intention to leave the Catholic Church and place itself under the jurisdiction of a self-proclaimed bishop who was excommunicated in 2019. 

Monastery of the Poor Clares in the north of Burgos, Spain. Credit: Raul GC / Shutterstock.


The declaration, which includes a denunciation of Pope Francis, is the latest in a bizarre series of events seeming to stem from a real estate deal that was blocked by Church authorities.

The community was well-known in Spain, and famous for its production of truffles and other sweets.

Sister Isabel of the Trinity, the superior of the community, communicated the decision in a five-page open letter, which was sent to friends and benefactors on May 13, and published on the convent’s website. 

In the letter, the nun pointed to a succession of “very important events” that “have been taking place, which have repeatedly struck the soul of the contemplative sisters.”

The letter then makes reference to the Covid pandemic, as well as “genocidal and bloody wars,” claiming that through all this period Catholics had to suffer “the silence of our pastors,” who “left their sheep alone and helpless to face the wolves.”

Sr. Isabel added that “from the Throne of Peter we have been receiving contradiction, confusion and doublespeak, ambiguity, lack of clear doctrine which is all the more necessary in stormy times, to hold the rudder more firmly. During this time the sisters, each in her own style, way and rhythm, have been contemplating a question, a doubt about the one who steers the Barque of Peter, and his closest collaborators. A doubt which, in time, became SCANDAL” [emphasis in the original]. 

The letter also mentions a real estate dispute, complaining that the Vatican had blocked the sale of an empty monastery in Derio, owned by the community.

The sale, Sr. Isabel said, would have permitted the community to pay for a monastery in Orduña, which it is purchasing from another Claretian community in Vitoria. Blocking the purchase amounted to a conspiracy to dismantle “traditionally-minded communities and keep their real estate to sell,” the nun charged. 

After proclaiming the intention to place the community under the jurisdiction of Pablo de Rojas Sánchez-Franco, whom she calls a “legitimate bishop of the Holy Catholic Church,” Sr. Isabel acknowledged the significance of the move.

“They are going to call us heretics and schismatics, crazy, and many more very disagreeable and calumnious things, but don’t believe them; at least this once, don’t let them fool you,” she said. 

The sister instructed friends and benefactors to use only the community’s new email address, and not to try to reach the nuns by phone, as they will not answer or return calls. 

The letter was accompanied by a 70-page “Catholic Manifesto” which lays out the reasons why, according to Sister Isabel, the post-Vatican II Church is illegitimate.

Although Sr. Isabel insisted that the decision to go into schism was unanimous, and that she speaks for all of the community, Spanish media have since reported that one of the Poor Clares left the community of Belorado on Wednesday in protest at the act of schism. 

The community did not respond to questions from The Pillar.

Archbishop Mario Iceta of Burgos said the nuns’ announcement caught him completely by surprise.

“I thought it was fake news,” he told local radio station Onda Cero this week.

The archbishop said he is shocked and perplexed by the sisters’ decision. He said he has repeatedly tried to reach Sr. Isabel, but that she would not take his calls. 

Iceta said he will continue trying to reach the community, to avoid the possible penalty of formal excommunication. 

He added that he is trying to contact the sister who reportedly left the community, to ask about what is going on in the convent. 

Some local Catholics have expressed concern that other members of the community may be either held against their will or misled by Sr. Isabel, who will be completing her third term as superior at the end of May, at which point she will be canonically ineligible for re-election. 

The Spanish bishops conference issued a statement on May 16 echoing concerns about the remaining sisters. 

“We ask that each of the sisters of the Monasteries of Belorado and Orduña, exercising their freedom of conscience, express their position in the face of the decision announced by the superior,” said the conference. “Indeed, recent developments have shown that not all the sisters agree with their superior’s ‘letter’.” 

The bishops also deplored the call to abandon communion with the Catholic Church, saying they are confident the discontents of the sisters could have been resolved in a different manner. 

“We find no proportional relationship between the stated causes and the conclusions reached,” they said.

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Pablo de Rojas Sánchez-Franco, the man whom Sr. Isabel described as a “legitimate bishop,” was in fact never consecrated a bishop or even ordained a priest in the Catholic Church.

The 42-year-old claims to have been ordained a priest and then a bishop between 2005 and 2006 by a former Jesuit, Derek Schell, who had himself been ordained in the Palmarian Catholic Church - a body which claims to be the “one true Catholic Church,” based in Palmar de Troya, near Seville, Spain, and is currently led by “Pope” Peter III, who is frequently carried into the Church’s cathedral in a gestatorial chair by his followers. 

Pablo de Rojas, who claims that all popes since Pius XII are illegitimate, currently says he is not affiliated with the Palmarian Church.

In 2005 he founded the Pious Union of Saint Paul the Apostle. He was formally  excommunicated in 2019. He is mostly active on social media, where his posts are often characterized as full of conspiracy theories and antisemitism. 

He also has a penchant for affecting noble titles and styles himself an “Imperial Duke” and “Five times Grandee of Spain.”

The Archdiocese of Burgos addressed the real estate issue referenced by Sr. Isabel in a lengthy written statement published on its website.

The archdiocese said that the nuns, led by Sr. Isabel, agreed to buy the monastery in Orduña for 1.2 million euros in 2020. One hundred thousand euros were to be paid upfront, followed by installments of 75,000 euros, to begin being paid in November 2022. However, none of the installments were ever paid. 

The community hoped to sell the empty monastery of Derio and pay their debts with the proceeds, but were unable to do so because the Church blocked the sale, the archdiocese said. 

Why the sale was blocked is not explained by either party, though Sr. Isabel attributes the decision to Rome, which canonically has to sign off on the sale of Church property over a certain high-value amount. 

The archdiocesan statement said Sr. Isabel claimed to have a benefactor willing to put up the money to pay for the Orduña monastery. The benefactor would then sell the convent back to the sisters when they managed to raise the money to pay for it themselves. 

The archbishop attempted to contact Sr. Isabel to see who the benefactor was, but she declined to meet with him or give him more information, the archdiocese said.

Faced with an impasse, the Claretian community which was selling the property decided to rescind the sale, at which point Sr. Isabel presented a claim for 1.6 million euros for refurbishment work already done, and a further 30% in compensation for damages. 

As the parties were unable to reach an agreement, the case was referred to the courts. 

The archdiocese’s statement ended with a call to local Catholics not to participate in any liturgical acts in the Poor Clare convents of Belorado or Orduña. 

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