Radical Traditionalist Catholic Groups Sour Life in Peaceful New England Town
N.H. Town Split by Radical Traditionalists
By Susy Buchanan
Tolerance vs. Fear
On a brisk spring evening, more than a dozen residents of Richmond made their way up a muddy, rutted road to a hilltop home. They gathered with their neighbors and a reporter to discuss the biggest issue to hit their town in recent memory, and the mood among the group was tense.
According to these neighbors, Richmond welcomed the SBC initially, especially because it represented itself as a Catholic organization. "When they came we were excited," said John Boccalini, whose property abuts the SBC compound. "They gave a good sales pitch about how it would be good financially for the town. They wouldn't send their kids to public school, [and they] would build nice houses and pay their taxes."
But those attitudes have changed, at least among some residents. More and more of them say that they feel the SBC wants them out.
"This is a sleepy little town run by volunteers," said resident Fred Goldberg, who runs a nonprofit organization nearby and sees a concerted attempt to take over local government by the SBC. "If this [school] expansion gets in, they're going to outnumber us pretty quickly. The [SBC's] goal was to have people get wind of this expansion and then move out."
The group discussed but was unable to substantiate rumors that SBC members have rifles equipped with night vision scopes. Several claimed that they had heard the sound of automatic weapon fire at SBC on a regular basis.
This is New Hampshire, someone reminded them. Guns aren't out of the ordinary.
But such mistrust and suspicion among neighbors of nearly 20 years in the small town of Richmond is. Residents here have traditionally maintained a live-and-let-live philosophy, especially on issues of religious tolerance. "The religious history of the town is very curious, a marked exception to that of the typical New England town. Keene to the north and Winchester to the west built churches and 'called' ministers as part of their first town business; but Richmond, as a town, did neither of them, nor ever spent a cent for the support of any church," Neith Boyce wrote in the book The Town in the Forest: Life Story of Richmond, New Hampshire. "So long as he pays his taxes and doesn't burden the town in any way, [the Richmond resident] may think and, within just limits, act as he likes. But the town dislikes fanaticism in any form."
Boyce's assessment of the do-your-own-thing religious character of Richmond residents was written in the 1930s, but still rings true today.
"My mother and father are Catholic, my sister is Buddhist, my husband is an atheist, I'm an agnostic. My adult son told me recently he prays every night before he falls asleep. My daughter's boyfriend is a Jew," Richmond resident Vickie Provost wrote on the Keene Sentine's online forum.
"What I am trying to get at here is that there really is no room in our lives for intolerance and bigotry — religious or otherwise. One's religious beliefs, however different from another's, are personal."
'Live Free or Die'
While many Richmond residents would prefer not to have a colony of Jew-bashing, anti-gay religious militants in their midst, they are still in a state whose motto is "Live Free or Die" — a place where even requiring motorists to wear seatbelts is viewed as an infringement on personal liberties. Back at her sunny yellow farmhouse, Betty Jose sips her coffee, gazing out the window at a field of crisp spring snow.
New Hampshire can be a fertile ground for extremists, Jose explains. "Our laws are very, very hands off — don't mess with my family or personal property. There are so few rules in small towns like this, you never have the feeling someone is going to come check on you. And we like it that way."
Even so, Jose says being a former Catholic in Richmond has become uncomfortable as the Slaves take deeper root there.
"I feel hate, really strong hate because I'm a Protestant," she says. "They have convinced themselves so strongly that theirs is the one true faith and everyone else is damned."
Jose recalls an encounter with an SBC family when her children were younger. "I had small kids and was looking for babysitters. One of them tried to convert me. They referred to people who used crystals as witches and fags. I started to wean myself from that family after that."
But Betty Jose isn't starting her own crusade. As uncomfortable as she is with the Saint Benedict Center and its members, she's also worried about intolerance directed at the SBC — even if it's justified.
"What I see that group being accused of, I don't want to do to them," she says with a sigh. "We don't have the right to tell them to go away. But we do have the right to exercise our civil liberties."