Radical Traditionalist Catholic Groups Sour Life in Peaceful New England Town

N.H. Town Split by Radical Traditionalists

Members of the Saint Benedict Center, which has been in a protracted dispute with many of its neighbors, include (clockwise from upper left) Brothers Maximilian Maria and Andre Marie, their superior Francis, and Sisters Marie Therese and Maria Philomena. Andre Marie, whose real name is Louis Villarrubia, condemns
Members of the Saint Benedict Center, which has been in a protracted dispute with many of its neighbors, include (clockwise from upper left) Brothers Maximilian Maria and Andre Marie, their superior Francis, and Sisters Marie Therese and Maria Philomena. Andre Marie, whose real name is Louis Villarrubia, condemns "the Jewish tendency to undermine public morals" — one of many reflections of the center's anti-Semitism. Photography by Dave White

RICHMOND, N.H. — Nestled among rolling hills and thick, verdant forests, this small and quiet place is to all outward appearances a typically peaceful New England town.

A single flashing light at the intersection by the Four Corners convenience store marks the town's center. Apart from an antiques shop, a quiltmaker's studio and a Christmas tree farm, there's little other visible commerce. Old farmhouses sit behind the stone walls that mark off parcels of land with a three-acre minimum, many constructed more than a century ago. Most are on dirt roads and rely on wood stoves for heat in the winter and artesian wells for water. There's no cell phone reception in these rugged hills, no cable television or high-speed Internet. Neighbors, for the most part, are few and far between.

The rural character of this town is precisely what drew Betty Jose and her husband to Richmond 10 years ago. "We like country living, hate traffic," says the stay-at-home mom, a woman who cares for her autistic son in a canary-yellow house just off the main road. A large cross adorns the family's barn.

But Richmond has changed lately, Jose says, and not for the better.

What has soured Betty Jose on this place that many would consider a paradise is a long-simmering conflict that recently has threatened to engulf her community. A growing number of townspeople are up in arms about the nearby Saint Benedict Center (SBC), home to a group of "radical traditionalist Catholics" who espouse a number of beliefs rejected by the Vatican. Swelling bad feelings on both sides have created an atmosphere that Jose likens to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And Jose, who was raised a conservative Catholic but later became a Protestant, has had enough. She says the climate in Richmond has become so hostile of late that she and her husband are planning to sell their house, leave Richmond and move deeper into the woods. Along with a number of other locals, she feels that the SBC has begun to threaten her formerly idyllic way of life. At issue are both the beliefs and the practices of the SBC, which is home to a little-known order called the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Although the Slaves have been in Richmond since the late 1980s, their religious beliefs — which include anti-Semitism, angry opposition to homosexuality and a desire to convert others to their hard-line views — have only recently become widely known. Adding fuel to that fire has been what critics see as the plans of the SBC to "take over" Richmond and perhaps other, nearby towns.

Attorneys for the Saint Benedict Center confer during one of a series of public meetings in which the center's expansion plans were opposed.
Attorneys for the Saint Benedict Center confer during one of a series of public meetings in which the center's expansion plans were opposed.

Already, three of Richmond's key official posts — town moderator, tax collector, and one seat on the local planning board — are held by SBC members. At town meetings, local critics of the Slaves say, SBC members turn out in large numbers and vote in a hard-to-defeat bloc. Increasingly, folks here are objecting to the SBC's desire to outlaw divorce, abortion, birth control, pornography, sodomy, public education and even, some fear, government in general.

SBC officials declined to speak to the Intelligence Report, which published an earlier, critical article about the group. But in angry statements to the press, they have hotly denied that they or their ideology is anti-Semitic. That doesn't mollify Betty Jose.

"I believe in schools, the police department, all the things that make our society run," Jose says wearily. "Then I see SBC members voting aggressively against everything. They want to destroy our public institutions so they can make their own little town." She pauses to think. "I'm not saying they don't belong here. Just don't impose your beliefs on everyone else and don't do weird or sketchy things — like try and take over our town government."