Susan D. Harris
A dead nun, Katy Perry, and a humanist social experiment gone awry
By Susan D. Harris
March 19, 2018

A nun involved in a years-long legal dispute with pop star Katy Perry over a sprawling 8-acre former convent died in court Friday[.]

According to a 2002 BBC documentary, the convent at the heart of the heart of the "nuns vs. Katy Perry" scandal was once ground zero for a creepy psychological experiment conducted by New Age humanistic psychologists Drs. Carl Rogers and William Coulson.

Despite the fact that she was 89 years old, the death of Sister Catherine Rose Holzman in the courtroom – as she fought singer-celebrity Katy Perry's purchase of the spectacular Los Feliz convent – was still a shock. Sister Catherine fought Perry's quest for the property literally right down to her last breath – a sacrifice that should be treated with the reverence of a deathbed confession. After all, there aren't too many of us who will die in a courtroom fighting for what we believe in. Maybe the world would be a better place if we did.

The convent, the former home of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, has become famous for being at the center of scandal since 2015, but this isn't the first scandal it was embroiled in. I found countless articles, like this one from, that don't even give an accurate history of the property, and certainly don't mention what happened there in the late 1960s. (The current sisters claim to have purchased the property in 1972. The details of occupancy and ownership do remain confusing.)

Dr. Carl Rogers, associated with the Esalen Institute and a follower of Abraham Maslow's humanism, set out to "create new autonomous beings, free of social condition." In the 2002 BBC Adam Curtis documentary Century of Self, the narrator says, "[T]o the [ideological] left, defeated in the wake of Chicago, it was an enormously attractive idea[.] ... [T]echniques could be used to unleash a new powerful 'self' strong enough to overthrow the old order."

The end of the 1960s saw thousands of people flocking to the Esalen Institute to "transform themselves" in what was known as the "human potential movement." Within a few years, there were about 200 centers across America filled with people looking to "find themselves," looking for liberation from whatever they – or others – interpreted as impediments to their freedom.

The documentary explains:

It took on a big political agenda. You could not separate personal transformation from social transformation; the two go together.

The leaders of Esalen tried to use their techniques to solve social problems like racism, but it was a massive failure – according to a leader, "the blacks all got together and attacked the whites, and they just let us have it." When this failed, the human potential movement went to the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the hills of Los Feliz – to the building that Katy Perry is eager to own.

The group of radical psychotherapists approached the convent intent on using their techniques for "personal liberation" on "individuals whose identities were defined by a series of external rules which they deeply internalized. The convent, anxious to appear modern, agreed to the experiment."

The therapists held "encounter workshops" for several hundred Immaculate Heart nuns. Nuns who were "reserved" were told not to be so reserved, to "let it all out. You're a good person. You can afford to be who you really are. You don't need to play the role of a nun. You don't need to keep downcast eyes. Prudence is an oversold virtue." (One can't help but be befuddled why the therapists acted as though the nuns were being kept there against their will and had not made voluntary decisions according to their faith.)

Soon the nuns voted to discard their habits in exchange for normal clothes. Not surprisingly, the leaders of the experiment claimed they had also "awoken other forces."

One of the things we released was sexual energy; the kind of thing that the church had been very good at restraining was no longer to be restrained. One sister who was a member...she got the idea that she could be freer than she had been before and then she seduced one of her classmates and then seduced the Mistress of Novices, and an older very reserved nun. And her program of freeing this older woman was sexual...she leaned over and gave her a big kiss on the lips, and thereafter sister, who had probably never been kissed before, was ready for more.

The documentary describes the effect on the convent overall as "cataclysmic." Within a year, over 300 disillusioned nuns, more than half, had petitioned the Vatican to be released from their vows. It's reported that six months later, the convent closed its doors, and all that was a left was "a small group of nuns" who had become "radical lesbians." The rest gave up the religious life. The interviewer in the documentary asks Dr. William Coulson, leader of the experiment, "They gave up being nuns?" He responds with a smile, "They did. They became persons."

Coulson even admits that he and Rogers were "probably anti-Catholic" at the time and had a "bias against hierarchy." He then boasts of the experiment, "We overcame their traditions, we overcame their faith."

I don't care if you're Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or Hindu; even a layperson can see that ripping someone's faith out from under her and leaving her with nothing is not only gut-wrenchingly sad, but an obvious threat to one's mental health.

Katy Perry, of course, has become famous for her controversy as much as her singing. Ten years ago, she kissed a girl, she liked it, and the whole world knew it. It propelled her to stardom:

You're my experimental game

Just human nature
It's not what good girls do
Not how they should behave
My head gets so confused
Hard to obey

Never being one to believe in coincidences, I can't help but believe that Katy Perry knows exactly why she wants that particular piece of property, that it holds some kind of sick symbolism for her.

Over three hundred women in one convent left the Church not because they suddenly realized they'd made the wrong decision; that's almost statistically impossible. It's downright scary to realize that these women were used as pawns in a social experiment – and lost their faith because of it.

Though Perry is said to have sung "Oh Happy Day" for the nuns, and "showed them a 'Jesus' tattoo on her wrist area," it wasn't enough to win them over to sell her the convent. Holzman, the nun who collapsed dead, summed up her feelings in an interview with Billboard magazine: "Katy Perry represents everything we don't believe in[.] ... It would be a sin to sell to her."

Katy Perry claims she needs the property to "find herself" – strangely reflecting the language of the "human potential" movement. At this point, if Perry successfully purchases the property, she should perhaps turn it into a clinic for those affected by the opioid epidemic in L.A and surrounding areas – something the sisters couldn't even afford to do. Something good should come from so much suffering and chaos. Somehow, I don't think that's the plan.

Susan D. Harris can be reached at

© Susan D. Harris


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)


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