极速飞艇助手“Mom,” my daughter said in a take-charge tone of voice that reminded me of myself. “There are two things I have to tell you.” It was our first time seeing each other since I shared the manuscript of my memoir with her a couple of months earlier.
极速飞艇助手“First,” she said, “you need to stop everything until you finish your book. And second, you have to accept the fact that you grew up in a cult.”
I had been working on the book, , for eight years, and my daughter, then a junior in college, knew the story of my upbringing within the Saint Benedict Center. I had been taking her to visit my childhood home her entire life.
Her words struck me full-on, and I could answer only one of her demands. “I’m working day and night on it, darling, and I’m almost there,” I replied. But her description of my childhood caught me completely off guard. A cult? My home was a cult?
My daughter’s description of my childhood caught me completely off guard. A cult? My home was a cult?
I thought about the cults that were in the news during my young adulthood: the murderous Charles Manson and his harem of besotted women; Jim Jones, who led his 900 followers to a “Promised Land” in Guyana only to coerce them to participate in a mass suicide; David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, who barricaded themselves against the rest of the country in a stockaded fortress near Waco, Tex., in the 1990s. When U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno ordered the use of military force against Koresh and the occupants, I felt an instantaneous kinship with the besieged men, women and children behind the wooden fence. It brought me back to a time and a place when, as a child at the Saint Benedict Center, I was told that the whole world was against us.
Still, at that time, I didn’t see some of the common threads between the way I was brought up and the cults that had made headlines in my lifetime.
Shutting Out the World
Saint Benedict Center was founded by Catherine Clarke in 1940 as a meeting place for Catholic college students in the Boston area. Within a few years, its popularity led to the installation of the renowned Jesuit priest, Leonard Feeney, as its full-time chaplain. By 1948, however, the center had dwindled to about 60 followers of Father Feeney, all of whom adhered to a strict interpretation of the Catholic doctrine extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the church there is no salvation”).
极速飞艇助手As a child, my life was centered around the activities of the men and women who chose to follow Father Feeney, including my parents and an array of married couples and single men and women, all of whom became members of the unofficial religious order they established and called the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Within a few years, we had grown to nearly 100 because of the 39 children born to the married couples.
As a child, my life was centered around the activities of the men and women who chose to follow Father Feeney.
极速飞艇助手My earliest memories are filled with the sound of laughter, of being in the constant company of the energetic and intellectual men and women of the community. I did not know that they had come together in this joyous enclave because of a falling out with the local authorities of the Catholic Church and Rome. (Father Feeney was dismissed by the Jesuits and excommunicated in 1953 after refusing to reply to a summons to the Vatican.) Nor did I know that my father, a teacher at the Jesuit-run Boston College, had, along with two other professors, been fired in early 1949, when I was just 7 months old, because of their rigid theological views.
Though I was only about 3 years old, I remember well when the members of the community gave up their “worldly” attire and began donning identical clothing: black suits for the men and long black pleated skirts, topped with a white blouse and a black jacket, for the women.
极速飞艇助手When I was 4 years old, Father Feeney ordained that everyone change their “worldly” names and adopt new “religious” names. It did not matter to me that I was forbidden to call my parents “Mommy” and “Daddy” anymore but had to address them as Sister Elizabeth Ann and Brother James Aloysius. I knew they loved me, and I loved them back.
极速飞艇助手But I was upset when, at 5 years old, Father Feeney changed my name from Mary Patricia to Anastasia. Young as I was, I knew then that Father (as we called him) and Sister Catherine wielded all the power at the center.
At 5 years old, Father Feeney changed my name from Mary Patricia to Anastasia. Young as I was, I knew then that Father (as we called him) wielded all the power at the center.
极速飞艇助手I did not mind when the big brothers (as all the men were called) built a stockade fence around the seven houses that served as our homes and shut out the rest of the world, as long as I still lived with my parents and three younger sisters and younger brother.
极速飞艇助手But I was devastated when, at the age of 6, together with my 4-year-old sister and 3-year-old brother, we were separated from our parents and two youngest siblings. No longer part of a loving family, we were suddenly being raised by one of the big sisters, a stentorian woman who meted out corporal punishment on a regular basis. I watched in agony as my little sister, Mary Catherine, became a frail and frightened child, prone to going for days without eating. My only recourse was to assume, as best I could, the role of protector, which often meant surreptitiously eating her meals so that she would not be punished.
The Geographic Cure
极速飞艇助手There was hope when Sister Catherine announced that we would leave our home in Cambridge and move to the hamlet of Still River in central Massachusetts, where, she promised, we could run through the fields and have dogs and cats for pets and horses to ride.
But what she didn’t say was that once we moved, the children would no longer be allowed even to speak to our parents, who had been coerced into taking vows of celibacy and were no longer allowed to live with each other. We embarked on a monastic way of life; silence and prayer filled much of our day. Members of the community were forced to sever all ties with their families, and we were schooled on the premises.
极速飞艇助手Within this environment, Father Feeney and Sister Catherine told us over and over again that we were “the luckiest children in the world because you have been dedicated to God from the day you were born.” We were lucky to be saved from the evil of the outside world, from the dangers to our souls that came from reading newspapers and watching television and movies and listening to the radio, from the sinful music of the Beatles and from the sinful clothing that people “out in the world” wore.
Members of the community were forced to sever all ties with their families, and we were schooled on the premises.
I failed to see how we were so lucky. Severe corporal punishment was part of our daily lives, and Sister Catherine would frequently remind us that we should embrace martyrdom because it was the surest way to get to heaven.
极速飞艇助手Despite the endless warnings about the evil lurking in the outside world, my curiosity about all things beyond the confines of our closed community was insatiable.
As a young teenager, I began to realize that my life’s path was out of my hands. I was in training to become a big sister, like my mother, and a celibate bride of Christ. Nothing could have been further from my dreams: a prince for a husband and a beautiful house surrounded by a flower garden and lots of children. When at the age of 16 I was forced to become a postulant, I felt trapped.
At the same time, I developed a series of crushes on grown men within the community. We were not taught biology, much less sex education, and I did not know what these feelings meant or what to do about them.
Despite the endless warnings about the evil lurking in the outside world, my curiosity about all things beyond the confines of our closed community was insatiable.
极速飞艇助手During my senior year in high school, Sister Catherine informed me that “not everyone has a call to be a nun.” In a meeting that was both bizarre and frightening, she let me know that I would be leaving my home when I graduated in six months. It was a death sentence of sorts—being banished from the only place in the world that was safe.
In June 1966, not more than an hour after my graduation and two months shy of my 18th birthday, I was expelled from the center without so much as a goodbye to the rest of the community, whom I considered my family. When, over the next few days and weeks, members of the community asked Sister Catherine about my departure, she replied, I would learn later, that I “was destroying the religious vocations of the brothers.”
Coming to Terms With the Past
Sister Catherine died two years after my expulsion from the community. After her death, a number of children at the Center informed their parents of the secret, violent beatings they had received, leading to a mass exodus of families. In the early 1970s, Father Feeney became reconciled with the Catholic Church, though he never recanted his views on extra ecclesiam nulla salus.极速飞艇助手 The community of men became a Benedictine Abbey, while the women came under the auspices of the Diocese of Worcester. While some members formed a new schismatic community in New Hampshire, the Still River community is in full communion with the Catholic Church.
After the publication of my book, I began to share my story at libraries and clubs and on radio shows around the country. I came to realize that my listening audience agreed with my daughter: I had been brought up in a cult. The signs that I had overlooked were now staring me in the face: blind obedience to an absolute authority, centralized financial control, paranoia about the outside world, separation of families, scorn for those who left the cult. Why had I missed what now seemed so evident?
My telling of the story might have been impaired had I approached it from the point of view of describing a cult. That was for the audience to discern and for me, ultimately, to accept.
Truth be told, I believe my telling of the story might have been impaired had I approached it from the point of view of describing a cult. That was for the audience to discern and for me, ultimately, to accept.
极速飞艇助手Pure and simple, the center was my home, and I loved it and the people who were part of it. They were my family, all 100 of them.
I cared, therefore, how those who consider the center their home today would receive the book. I shared it with the head of both the men’s and the women’s communities ahead of publication and offered to engage with the current leadership, but those requests were denied.
My mother, on the other hand, was completely supportive. She and my father left the community with two of my siblings in 1969, three years after I was expelled, and my other two sisters left in 1971. She was in her 80s and read every chapter as I was writing it. She encouraged me to keep on going. As I neared the end, she said, “Parts of it make me sad, but it’s all true, and you need to publish it.” Her words have remained with me and bolstered me when the burden of sharing my story seemed at times daunting. She died six months before the official launch date.
Lights and Shadows
I have been asked how I could forgive my parents for what to many seems like abandonment. I understand that point of view, but I saw and still see it in a different light. Even as a child I was aware of a creeping grasp that Father Feeney and Sister Catherine had on everyone at the center. I felt that my parents and I were suffering together, and when we were once again reunited as a family, several years after I was banished, I never felt anger toward them nor the need to forgive them.
I have been asked how I could forgive my parents for what to many seems like abandonment. I understand that point of view, but I saw and still see it in a different light.
I am also asked how I can remain Catholic. Again the answer is uncomplicated, at least for me. The sins of some people within the church, or, for that matter, other churches or governments or corporations, do not invalidate the good that is offered. There is no religion that does not find itself challenged from time to time on account of the behavior of its leadership. Abandoning Catholicism would do nothing to inspire me to lead my life in a better way. That may be a simplistic response, but it is one I believe sincerely.
Perhaps the most profound question I have been asked as I have toured with my book came from a gentleman: “What in your life would you change if you could do it all over again?” I pondered his question: At age 18, I found myself kicked out of my home, without parental advice, money or a path to higher education. Armed only with faith and a determination not to fail, I faced a world I had been taught to believe was full of sin and danger. The journey was long and arduous but also in many ways exhilarating, and with pluck, luck and an array of mentors, I managed to survive and eventually thrive.
Now I am a 71-year-old woman with a long past and a shorter future—a woman about to celebrate her 35th wedding anniversary with a man I would marry all over again, with 26-year-old twins who are my pride and joy, with an array of friends who range in age from 92 to 20, with experiences good, bad and fantastic—and if any element of my upbringing had been different, how do I know if I could make those claims?
极速飞艇助手I answered, “I wouldn’t change a thing,” and I meant it.
极速飞艇助手I have spent little if any time wondering, “what if?” or “if only” regarding my childhood. Life presents us with an array of lights and shadows, peaks and valleys, good times and bad, and it is up to us to accept that reality and navigate through the ups and downs of life. Yes, I was raised in a cult. Yes, that made for a unique life with unique challenges, but I have been blessed in countless ways, not the least of which is the joy of having a daughter whose honesty and love allowed me to see and accept the truth about my childhood.