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The Catholic Church is a global church. And for the 1.2 billion adherents to the faith worldwide, it is a decisive moment. The faithful are looking to a new pope to bring a time of healing — and better governance — to a church tarnished by scandal and deeply divided.

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Pope John Paul II blesses the head Catholic order of nuns, the Brigittines, Sister Tekla Famiglietti, in the Clementine Hall at the Vatican. (Osservatore Romano/AFP/Getty Images)

Mother Tekla: The most powerful woman in Rome

Mother Tekla Famiglietti, head of the Bridgettine Order, runs a small empire of hotels, restaurants, and guesthouses around the world. She has left a distinctive imprint at the Vatican and on the Catholic Church.

ROME, Italy — 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, 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. With the cardinals now gathering in the Vatican to elect a new pope, Mother Tekla is here in Rome, but it remains to be seen whether her connections in the Curia will yield access to the new pope. But few would disagree that she has already left a distinctive imprint at the Vatican and on the Catholic Church.

Mother Tekla Famiglietti
(Jason Berry/GlobalPost)

As the Abbess General of the Order of the Most Holy Saviour of Saint Bridget for the last 32 years, 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, restaurants and high-end guest houses from Israel to India and from Darien, Connecticut to Assisi, Italy that bring in big revenue for her order. Mother Tekla has been taken to task by the media for exploiting nuns who clean, make beds and cook in this tax-free enterprise, but her order has also been widely praised for a bold, worldwide initiative against the trafficking of women. She is a unique and complex player in the global Catholic Church, often referred to as “the most powerful woman in Rome.”

“Mother Tekla has an unusual ability to ennoble others ... Some people are born with good leadership.”
~James Nicholson

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 short walk to St. Peter’s Square. She wore a gray habit, her broad face framed in a dark veil with the Bridgettines’ trademark metal strips, resembling a helmet shaped like a crucifix. There was a framed image of herself with John Paul II — and Castro.

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

James Nicholson, a US ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush and now a Washington, DC attorney, said, “We used to euphemistically call her the Popessa.”

He 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. “You’d see a line-up 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 biographer of the last two popes, is more blunt. “Mother Tekla is a power machine with high-ranking connections in the Curia,” he said.

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

Benedict’s prosecutorial arm in the Vatican, known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, has investigated the American leadership of nuns, or the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for pushing “radical feminist themes.” The pope was respectful of Mother Tekla, but unlike John Paul he kept her at a distance from La Famiglia, the tight circle on which he relied in his daily activities. Her access to Benedict was much more limited than her access to John Paul. Yet her presence in Rome is longstanding.