Fort Worth philanthropist Sheila Johnson backs nuns in showdown with bishop

Reverend Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach

As the continuing battle between Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson and the cloistered Carmelite nuns at the Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington gets noisier and uglier, Catholics and non-Catholics alike have been taking sides and voicing their views in the media and elsewhere.

And from the moment the dispute began, Rev. Mother Teresa Agnes Gerlach and the other nuns at the monastery have had a quiet ally whose support is worth more than all the social media posts in cyberspace: Shelia Johnson, daughter of the late philanthropist and proudly outspoken civic leader Ruth Carter Stevenson, and granddaughter of Amon G. Carter, the legendary Fort Worth newspaper publisher whose voice could move mountains on any issue in the city.

And now Shelia Johnson, once described as “a quiet yet steady philanthropic force,” is quiet no more, blasting the bishop for his treatment of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns and accusing Olson of attacking the nuns as a way to get his hands on their real estate.

“This is nothing but a ploy to get rid of Mother Teresa and close the monastery,” Johnson told the Business Press. “He wants the property.”

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If he wants the secluded 72-acre tract on Mount Carmel Drive in Arlington, Johnson said, Olson will have to go through her.

“My mother bought this land and gave it to the Carmelite nuns. She paid for it with her own money. It didn’t come from the (Amon G. Carter) Foundation,” said Johnson, a 75-year-old grandmother who is secretary/treasurer of the family foundation. “Nobody can take it. We can’t take it back. It belongs to the nuns. I would get out there in front of the gates with a shotgun to protect the monastery. Of course, it wouldn’t be loaded.”

As the oldest of five children born to Ruth Carter Stevenson and her first husband, J. Lee Johnson III of Fort Worth, Sheila Johnson was raised a devout Catholic and received her education at Catholic schools. After the Carmelite Order in Fort Worth was established in 1958, Johnson remembers attending mass at the first monastery in Fort Worth. She recalls attending mass with her grandmother, Nenetta Carter, later joined by her mother, a convert to Catholicism.

Her mother was especially devoted to the nuns and bought the Arlington land for the monastery. The Carter family has been a longtime benefactor of the monastery as well as the diocese and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Fort Worth, the home parish of the diocese.

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Tarrant County Appraisal District records indicate that the Carmelite nuns own the Arlington property and district records show that the monastery, which is home to seven nuns and two nuns-in-training, has a market value of $3.8 million.

But Johnson said the secluded 72-acre property could fetch as much as $20 million from a developer.

In other parts of the country and the world, monasteries have been closed due to diminishing populations and dwindling financial support, according to news reports.

“In those cases, the property belongs to the diocese,” Johnson said. “Bishop Olson doesn’t understand you can’t take someone else’s property.”

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A spokesman for the diocese told the Fort Worth Business Press that the “diocese does not have authority over the property.”

Shelia Johnson is not the only ally of the nuns who believes the bishop covets their property although at this point what path he might have to ownership is unclear. Early in the dispute, which began with Olson accusing Rev. Mother Gerlach of violating her vow of chastity, the diocese announced that the Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, a division of the Vatican, had given Olson governance authority over the monastery – including authority to investigate the allegation against Gerlach.

With that authority in hand, Olson announced that his investigation had determined that Gerlach broke her vow of chastity with an unidentified priest from outside the Fort Worth diocese, and the bishop dismissed her from the order. A spokesman for the diocese declined to provide further information about the priest but said his superiors have been notified.

Gerlach is appealing her dismissal.

Johnson took the bishop’s accusation against Gerlach as a personal affront and she is adamant in her belief that the 43-year-old nun, who joined the cloistered order of women as a teenager nearly 25 years ago, would never violate her vow of chastity.

More importantly, Johnson noted, Gerlach suffers from a health condition that has kept her wheelchair bound, with a central catheter, feeding tube and an intravenous drip – facts that Gerlach herself has sworn to in an affidavit for a lawsuit brought against Olson in response to the bishop’s actions toward Gerlach and the Carmelites.

Johnson said she was appalled by reports that Olson arrived at the monastery on short notice on April 24 and demanded that Gerlach hand over her computer, iPad and cellphone to search for evidence of the alleged sexual affair.

All of the monastery’s financial and donor records, as well as private health information, were contained on those devices.

In response to Olson’s actions, the nuns filed a $1 million civil lawsuit against the bishop and the Fort Worth Catholic Diocese, seeking to recover the devices, all owned by the monastery, as well as copies of information obtained from the devices. The suit claims that Olson invaded the privacy of the nuns, abused his authority and defamed Gerlach with a false accusation of committing adultery.

Matthew Bobo, attorney for the nuns, said the information obtained from those devices was used as surveillance to monitor the nuns’ activities and communications.

The diocese claims that when questioned by Olson on April 24, Gerlach admitted to the liaison with the priest. Bobo said Gerlach was interrogated while recovering from anesthesia administered during a medical procedure and did not knowingly admit to misconduct.

A court hearing in the nuns’ civil suit is scheduled for June 23.

Bobo, meanwhile, asked Arlington police to launch a criminal investigation regarding Olson’s actions at the monastery and the diocese responded by releasing photographs alleged to show drugs and  drug paraphernalia at the monastery. The diocese said the pictures were “provided by a confidential informant within the monastery.”

The Arlington Police Department is investigating the competing accusations.

Through it all, Sheila Johnson remains steadfast in her support of the Carmelites, and the nuns would be hard-pressed to find a more valuable ally.

Johnson has devoted her life to community service in Fort Worth, and particularly, the welfare of children. She has rolled up her sleeves as a volunteer and contributed generously as a donor to support a myriad of causes and nonprofits, including the Cook Children’s Health Care system, Tarrant County Child Protective Services, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, the University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Social Work and Camp John Marc/Camp Sanguinity.

She has received many honors and accolades for her tireless efforts, including being recognized by President George H.W. Bush with a “Points of Light” honor that recognized outstanding community servants across the country. In 2016, VolunteerNow paid tribute to her impact on the Fort Worth community by presenting her its Lifetime Achievement Award.

Johnson is backing the nuns not only with public, vocal support but with food and supplies – and she is generously contributing money to pay legal fees. She has also paid for the nuns to hire a canon lawyer so they can have quality representation without worrying about the cost. The canon lawyer is handling Gerlach’s appeal of her dismissal from the Carmelites.

“I’m doing everything I possibly can to help,” she said.