Monday, February 13, 2017

My Experience with a Pseudo-Catholic Cult

Introduction:
This is the story of my experience in the early 1970's, in going to what I call a "pseudo-Catholic cult". In calling it that, I'm not saying or implying that all the individuals involved were not Catholic, but rather that the charismatic, dogmatic leader claimed to be leading all that was left of the Catholic Church, while the Catholic Church did not recognize the organization as being legitimate. But my story is simply for the purpose of sharing my own experiences, and it is in no way meant as an indictment of any of the generous people who I met along the way. 

In telling my story, I avoid giving names except those of leaders, most of which are readily available in a simple search. My avoidance of names may make for awkward reading on occasion, and a little repetition, but please bear with me.  This is my own account, based on the facts as I saw them, written from my personal memory and understanding. I do not want to misrepresent anyone, should I remember something a little bit wrong, and I don't want to hurt anyone or their families, many of whom have already been hurt in so many ways.

Part 1:
As I said to a friend, decades later, "I came in to the Catholic Church through the back door," to which she replied with a smile, "You came in through the bathroom window."  Allegories aside, I grew up as a Protestant - as we called ourselves in those days - in the 1950's and '60's in Vancouver, Washington (a small town across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon).

Through a childhood friend, I became acquainted with some of the rich culture of the Catholic Church at an early age. I enjoyed hearing the stories of the saints; but I was also very content with my own church, where I had encouragement in my prayer life, and support for my daily life, first from my Sunday school and later from my youth group.

But one weekday afternoon I went with my Catholic friend to St. James Cathedral for a visit.  There, among the statues and candles, I was filled with a deep sense of peace. Although it wasn't an instant conversion, it was the sense of Presence, I think, more than anything, which gradually drew me to the Catholic Church. In my senior year of high school I decided to become a Catholic. Little did I know what a rocky road stretched ahead of me!

My girlfriend's mother was very upset about Vatican II and the changes in the Church, especially the changes in the Mass. So I went with them to a traditional Latin Mass at St. Birgitta's Catholic Church in Portland. Later, we drove ourselves. Of course, it was an adventure for us Vancouver kids to be driving to Portland for church.

I learned that, because it was a Croatian mission church, the priest answered directly to Rome rather than to the local bishop; consequently, he was able to offer the Latin Mass in an era when it was usually not allowed in the churches.

I told the pastor, Fr. Milan Mikulich, that I would like to become a Catholic. He told me he was going on an extended trip to Europe and would begin instructing me after he returned. I was disappointed by the delay, but in the meantime, I read Catholic books, including Chats with Converts (Fr. M.D. Forrest); The Autobiography of St. Therese; Fr. Smith Instructs Jackson by Archbishop John Francis Noll; and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.

I also read a book by a traditionalist, Patrick Henry Omlor, which was called, Questioning the Validity of the Masses using the New All English Canon. The author posited the theory that the "new Mass" was not valid, based on the changes in wording. What was a young prospective Catholic to think? The same as her friend and her friend's mother, and some of the people with whom we had donuts and coffee after Mass, or the young people we met with for "cell meetings" with the Fatima Crusade, an organization founded and directed by a man called Brother Francis, who had formerly held an active role in the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima.

One weekend in the summer of 1971, after I graduated from high school, Brother Francis, with his right hand man Brother Denis, and a lay missionary sister came to our little town. We went to listen to them speak at the lecture hall of the PUD (the Public Utilities Department). They were quite charming, really.

After the talk, my friend and I drove the lay missionary sister to where she was spending the night. On the way, she told us enthusiastically about a 10-day summer seminar which was coming up in August in a camp in Idaho. She was very sweet and charming, and I had always loved going to my church summer camps; so it was easy for her to talk me into going. My only concern was getting time off from work, but I did, and my friend and I both headed to Idaho.

Part 2:
Someone from Portland offered to give us a ride from Vancouver to the camp in Idaho…a gentleman whose daughter was a sister with the group. I have no recollection why we accepted the offer instead of driving ourselves in my car; perhaps it was to save money since I had recently rented an apartment and things were a little tight for me.

When we checked in to the seminar, they took our watches. 'But wait. I've had my watch since I was in third grade. No one told me I was signing up for this.'  I don't know if I said it or only thought it, but they reassured us that they would give them back at the end of the 10-days. (Of course we didn't have cell phones in those days.).

And so began ten days filled with hours and hours of torturous lectures by Francis Schuckardt, all about the many terrible things that were "wrong" in the Church and in the world.  I have no idea how many hours he actually lectured since we were not allowed our watches; but I know we had a little time for Mass, which was offered by an elderly retired priest. We had a little time for sleep and meals. We were expected to practice silence always, except during recreation, when we had a little time to play volleyball or go to the chapel to pray privately. Even though I'm normally a talkative person, one of the first days I chose to go to the chapel to be alone, because I wanted to try to sort out my thoughts. But thinking for myself had become increasingly difficult as the days wore on; and I gave up.

Finally, the long ordeal was over. At this point, you might think we would have run, not walked, to get out of there. But there were two problems with that. First of all, the person from Portland who drove us up there was nowhere to be found. Secondly, how could we go back to "the world"?  There was nothing for us out there. Francis had told us about the "humanoids" and "possessed persons" who wandered the streets, who lived among us in the worlds we came from. He had also told us that, "All of the bishops are apostates! And anyone who follows an apostate bishop is ipso facto excommunicated!"  There was nothing for us in the churches we came from.

Pretty much, if we didn't want to go to hell, we better stay. There is little that is as powerful as threatening people with the loss of their souls.

I would like to share a free verse poem that I wrote a few years ago about going to that seminar, and then I will share the next chapter in the journey.

Ten Day Seminar, by Margaret Mary Myers

Our watches gone,
Time dragging on.
“The wicked world is dangerous!
Be safe with us.”
Endless listening to
Endless ranting.

Free time – one time.
Time alone, with God.
“What should I do?”
“Keep My commandments.”
Moment of connection.
Moment of sanity.

Cling to the connection.
Cling to the sanity.

Our watches gone,
Time dragging on.
“The wicked world is dangerous!
Be safe with us.”
Endless listening to
Endless ranting.

Connection fading.
Sanity sliding.

Endless time ending.
Watches returned, intact,
But broken to our needs;
Our spirits broken, like their usefulness.

Time to go home,
Yet not home, to the world,
Where dangers lurk
And devils dwell. 
  
Part 3:
So there we were…without a car, without a phone, without the desire to go home. We might have gone to "The Center" to phone home to our parents ('the center' was where they sold books and gifts, and had a phone); or we might have written a letter. I can't remember which it was after all this time. I do remember I wrote a letter to my landlady and offered her my furniture in exchange for the rent I couldn't pay. And then, finally, the man who had driven us to Idaho returned from wherever he had gone and offered to drive us back.

We went home, said our good-byes to our puzzled, and probably heart-broken, parents; we gathered a few of our things; and we headed back up in my car.

We were told we could stay as guests in the convent. They generously shared their meager food with us, one or two cubes of bouillon to a huge pot of water, and fruit and bread from dumpster diving at the nearby grocery store, but also good eggs and milk from farmers in the community. I don't remember where my childhood friend slept (if I even knew at the time), but I remember sleeping under the table in the dining room; of course I still had my sleeping bag from the camp. I also remember sleeping upstairs on a bedroom floor, hoping that the missionary sister - the one who had come to Vancouver way back in what seemed like another lifetime –would not step on me in the dark when she came in from the home of some family in the group, whom she had gone to visit.

The sisters I lived with came to call the lay missionary sister my "guardian angel", as she was assigned to prepare me for reception into the Church and we spent a lot of time together, poring over books and talking. As it turned out, my missionary sister taught me the same things I had read in Catholic books in past months. But some of the things we talked about seemed different from some of the things that Brother Francis was teaching. She came to trust me, and she told me confidentially of her concerns about some of the things he had been saying. We had to talk about this in the basement or while taking a walk because the cardinal rule and atmosphere was that no one must ever question Francis or anything he said.

But soon it was time for my Baptism at the big church in the country. A retired missionary priest, Fr. Ernest Speckhart, who had served in South America and was now living in Los Angeles, came up to help out at a weekend conference, and Sister arranged for him to be the one to baptize me. I felt sorry for the people who had to wait through the Confession, conditional Baptism, and First Holy Communion before they could attend the long Mass. But there was a bit of a spirit of festivity after it was all over, and people congratulated me.

At that same weekend conference - part of which was held in the little town - I came out after the evening talks one night and my car wouldn't start. A couple of the young men (teenagers, perhaps) tried to jump- start it for me, but someone said they accidentally jump-started it backwards. So there it sat, parked along the curb, and it got impounded. Someone else drove me and my friend back to the convent, and there sat my car in the impound lot. Of course I didn't have any money for repairs or impound fees; although I don't know where I would have gotten money for more gas, anyway. Now I truly had given up almost everything. Now I was even more completely dependent…I who had been so responsible from an early age.

Part 4:
After a few days or weeks (who knows which it was), I wrote Brother Francis a letter telling him that I had decided I didn't want to become a sister; I would rather be a lay missionary. He had someone take me to the center so I could call him; and he told me that was a Protestant idea. Being a new convert, that hurt. But, he said, since you feel that way, you should leave the convent, and there is a woman who works, and who has two school children boarding with her. You can go live with her and help take care of the children, he said. And so I did.

The woman I lived with seemed like a reasonable person, and the little girls were sweet, but it might have been the first afternoon I was there that a neighbor woman came over to scold us that the girls, for heaven's sake, should not be playing in pants. They must wear only long skirts always, not just for church and school but for play too. I guess my hostess hadn't understood the rules. Also, the girls, just like the women, must cover their heads with a mantilla or a scarf at all times, this neighbor told us.

Then one day someone came to drive me to the center again, because Brother Francis wanted to talk to me once more. He was all sweetness and charm this time. He said, since I wanted to be a lay missionary, he had an opportunity for me. I could go to Phoenix with a couple who were returning to their home there. I could help at their center. And the lay missionary sister would be going too, and we could help with this couple's little girl, also. Francis said he would pay to have my car repaired, so that we could all drive down there in it.

And so, I left my childhood friend behind, just as I had previously left behind my family, my extended family, my other friends, my job, and my apartment. And I set off on another adventure.

In spite of that sorrow, as we drove further and further south, I felt a sense of relief at leaving the place behind.

Within a day or two, the couple left for Chicago where they were going to meet Brother Francis. We would stay behind to care for their small daughter. Before they left, our host said to us, "Feel free to help yourselves to any of the books in the library while we are gone!" We thanked him and said good-bye.

My missionary sister was delighted to see the books, because she was concerned and wanted to check some things out. The day before they left on this trip, the woman had told her she was picking up something for an ordination. I think she hadn't meant to share that and let it slip out.

Well, Francis had recently told Sister about a bishop he had been in touch with in Chicago, a Bishop Daniel Q. Brown, a bishop of the "Old Roman Catholic" Church.  And here we were with a Catholic Dictionary and a whole set of Catholic Encyclopedias at our disposal. And so, in between taking care of the little girl, we went to work on research. We learned that the Old Roman Catholic Church had broken with the Catholic Church at least as early as the 1800's. I have learned more recently that Daniel Q. Brown had been a Catholic layman, and had left the Church in the 1960's due to the changes brought about by Vatican II, joining the Old Roman Catholics, where he was ordained and consecrated. At some point, I read, he rejected the Old Roman Catholic Church; however, he took full advantage of his orders to pass them along.

My missionary sister and I felt we could not stay, knowing what we did about how Brother Francis was getting ordained. We packed my car, filled it with gas, and parked it, facing out and where they could not inadvertently block it when they came home. We were ready to go as soon as the couple returned from Chicago.

We fully expected the couple to return to Phoenix and tell us that Francis had become a priest, but both they and we were in for a shock! Their shock was that we were not delighted…and that we were leaving. Our shock came when they told us that Francis Schuckardt had not only been ordained a priest, but had also been consecrated a bishop the very next day.  Of course, they were not happy that we were leaving! But away we went, driving through the night to Los Angeles, where Sister had friends, including Fr. Speckhart, the priest who had baptized me.

Part 5:
We arrived at a home in Los Angeles in time for Sunday Mass. People warmly welcomed us with open arms. In the coming days, my friend found a chance to talk to Fr. Speckhart privately, and she told him what she knew about the ordination and consecration of Francis. He then did his own research. At the next week's Mass, Fr. Speckhart explained it to the people during his sermon, telling what was wrong with what Francis had done. Fr. Speckhart's talk was not well received, as the loyalty was not to him but to their distant charismatic leader, Francis Schuckardt.

Later that week, a friend showed us a letter that had gone out immediately, to all the followers in the L.A. area, as soon as someone had phoned up to Idaho with news of Father Speckart's talk. The letter came directly from Francis Schuckardt. In it, he named the three of us…my missionary sister friend, Fr. Speckhart, and me. In the letter, Francis said that we had chosen to become enemies of the community. No one was to have anything to do with us! And all the way down in Los Angeles, the people obeyed completely it seemed, all except for the one family, the ones who showed us the letter. But to get to or from their house, we had to park far away on another street and walk in, hoping against hope, for their sake, that no one would drive by and see us walking. This family still had children in the boarding school in Idaho, and we didn't want to endanger them in any way.

Soon, this couple decided to drive to Idaho to bring their children home. They invited us to go along, as we had left some of our belongings behind when we drove to Phoenix. They told no one they were coming. When we got close to the town in Idaho, the two of us crouched on the floor in the back of the car, concerned, for their sake, that someone might see us with them before they reached their children. They drove us to the home of friends who had already left Francis's group previously, who graciously welcomed us to stay in their home for a few days, and even generously lent us the use of their car.

Our Los Angeles friends were going to pick up their children and head home, while the two of us were going to stay behind for a few days, and then take the train back. Our first stop was the center, where my friend stuck her foot in the door and they quickly slammed it, but too late. She was wearing a very solid boot of mine and she took advantage of being stuck there, telling them that Francis was ordained and consecrated by someone who was not Catholic, while they tried to talk over her, so that they would not be listening, telling her repeatedly to go away. Finally, she said, "I will, if you'll let me get my foot out of the door."  And they did.

The next day we went to the convent to pick up our things, but they wouldn't open the door to us. They were not supposed to, anyway, of course, but after the previous day's adventure, they were probably well prepared. We went to the police and asked the police officer to speak to them. The police officer did talk to them and he called to tell us to come to the convent the next day. We did, and there were our things, not on the porch, as we had guessed they would be, but in the middle of the yard in the snow.  At least we were able to get them back.

We must have shipped the belongings we retrieved, since we were taking the train. Some details are hard to remember after 45 years. Some other things are easier to remember because they were so impressive or because we retold them so many times.

We stopped by Vancouver and had a nice visit with my parents. And then we went on to the home of my missionary friend's family in Central California and stayed with her mother.  We made frequent trips to Los Angeles where we spent time with families who had left the group or who had only had a brief encounter with the group. We attended the Latin Mass of retired priests or priests who had special permission to offer it. Sometimes we attended an Eastern rite Catholic Mass, which had remained essentially unchanged.

Eventually, we both got jobs in Central California. I saved up some money and bought a car (mine had seen better days long before), and I took a few classes. Three years after that fateful summer of '71, I packed everything into my old VW Beetle and moved, by myself, to Los Angeles, where I later met my husband – a great guy - and the rest is another history, not entirely pertinent to this story.

Epilogue:
I have told this story from my own viewpoint, as accurately as I can remember. There were many other stories and many details that I have left out because it is painful to re-live that period of time. Also, there were many other happenings and details that I learned about from others, later on, but those involve other people's journeys, and they are neither my explanations to give nor my stories to tell.

Today, forty-five years later, I sometimes attend the Latin Mass in a historic church downtown that is part of our local Catholic archdiocese, especially to hear my husband sing in the choir; and I also attend the mainstream Mass at my vibrant local Catholic church.

I have come full circle back to why, when I was a teenager, I wanted to become a Catholic. Whenever I hear someone complain about the way things are done in the liturgy at this parish or that parish (whether in person or online), I like to say, "Is Jesus there? Then I'm there." 


2 comments:

Vickie McNay said...

We are all a product of our individual experiences. As difficult as some of these experiences were, they have made you the person that you are now.That's a good thing :)

Margaret Mary Myers said...

Thank you, Vickie!