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.
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.
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."
'Rooted in Hatred'
Paul Anthony Melanson, a Catholic writer who lives in nearby Manchester, has been warning of the SBC's extremist rhetoric on his blog for years. In an interview with the Intelligence Report, Melanson said he first became aware of the SBC in 1990. What bothered him most, he said, was the SBC's wholehearted embrace of the thinking of the late Father Leonard Feeney, the founder of the Slaves. Melanson described Feeney as "a tremendously gifted writer and talented man, but also an individual who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and began to say and do strange things."
Feeney founded the Slaves in Cambridge, Mass., in 1949, long before the Vatican sought to begin a reconciliation with Jews in the 1960s, during the liberalizing Vatican II reforms. He became known for the Jew-bashing sermons he delivered regularly on the Boston Common, like this 1953 rant: "Every Protestant hates the Jews. Harvard loathes Jews. That is why they got a new president — to keep the Jews away! I don't hate Jews for the reason he hates them. I hate them because they hate Jesus. They hate Jesus because they are Jews!"
Feeney was excommunicated that same year, and although he reconciled with the church shortly before his 1979 death, the Diocese of Manchester states that it "has no relationship" with the current Saint Benedict Center (neither does the official Roman Catholic Church). "Therefore," a diocesan official said recently, "faithful Roman Catholics are urged to not participate."
Yet the Slaves hotly defend Feeney and his beliefs from any criticism, echoing the anti-Semitism of their founder as they do.
In 2004, SBC prior Louis Villarrubia, who goes by the name of Brother Andre Marie, put it like this: "If anti-Semitism means opposing the Jews on religious matters, opposing the Zionist state in Palestine (as St. Pius X did), or opposing the Jewish tendency to undermine public morals (widely acknowledged by Catholic writers before the present age of PC [political correctness]), then we could rightly be considered such."
That same year, The Boston Globe quoted Brother Anthony Mary, whose real name is Douglas Bersaw, blaming the Jews for the murder of Christ and denying the World War II Holocaust: "There's a lot of controversy among people who study the so-called Holocaust. There's a misperception that Hitler had a position to kill all the Jews. It's all a fraud. Six million people… it didn't occur."
In 2005, at a radical conference hosted by a group called St. Joseph's Forum, Bersaw added that "the perpetual enemy of Christ is the Jewish nation" and said Jews should be dealt with using "blood and terror if it's required."
Today, Douglas Bersaw is Richmond's town moderator.
To Melanson, that is frightening. "The Saint Benedict Center cult is a house built on sand," he said. "Its philosophy is rooted in hatred. And this hate, which is anything but holy, will eventually consume those who embrace it." Melanson says he has visited the SBC compound several times over the years. On one such visit about a year and a half ago, he says he was told that SBC members were training in the use of firearms and Tae Kwon Do. "The fact that a religious community would be training in martial arts and weapons struck me as odd," he said, adding that he worries even more now as the situation heats up.
In a recent blog posting, the writer referred to his ultimate fear. "I just hope that we don't have to experience another Waco," he said, referring to the 1993 Texas standoff that left some 80 people dead, "before most people come to realize that something is radically wrong in Richmond, N.H."
Since last December, Richmond has become a rhetorical battleground, with parties squaring off on an Internet forum set up by the local paper, in letters to the editor, and in heated discussions at town and planning board meetings. At the crux of this most recent debate is the SBC's proposed expansion of its school, which currently has an enrollment of about 40 students. SBC wants to build a 10,320-square-foot, cross-shaped building on its 26-acre compound, which is set upon a wooded hill at the end of a narrow, winding dirt road.
Many residents argue that the building is too large for Richmond, that traffic on the road is already too high and doubling the school's capacity would require serious improvements at the town's expense. Some even fear that the Slaves really intend to draw children away from public schools in favor of their own, possibly crippling secular public schools by de-funding them in the process.
There are also concerns about damage to wetlands, the potability of wells on the SBC property, and local residential zoning laws that appear to prohibit private schools from operating in the area.
For their part, SBC members claim anti-Catholic prejudice is fueling their opponents' objections. In an extended argument on the local newspaper's "religious tolerance" Internet forum, they deny they are anti-Semites.
"The opposition in town to the Center's expansion is precipitated by silent bigotry," Steve Boscarino, an SBC member who is also Richmond's tax collector, wrote there on Jan. 23. "Do you think those who oppose us are going to publicly admit that? The cat would surely be out of the bag along with a big fat lawsuit.
"These folks, sadly, are dishonest and mean-spirited."
Then, as if to prove his opponents' point, Boscarino posted a series of comments attacking "Zionism." In one, on Jan. 31, he wrote that the "Zionist Agenda is a one-sided program aimed solely to advance the one world, one religion, one government, anti-Christian/anti-Catholic work of Godless men." SBC also offered its own official commentary on the Jews in a March newsletter. "Our Lord goes on to warn the Jews that they cannot remain bystanders," the newsletter said in part. "[T]heir lackadaisical attitude, their unwillingness to commit, and their damnable complacency will soon have a price."
At the same time, SBC added an essay to its website entitled "Are You Anti-Semitic?" Examining itself, the essay pronounced the SBC innocent of anti-Semitism. Then it went on to describe the Jewish Talmud: "The Talmud, a two-part collection of rabbinic commentary which defines Orthodox Judaism, is a mixture of authentic Jewish oral tradition and shocking blasphemy. It is filled with attacks against our Lord and our Lady, and is racist in the extreme."
The volatility of the debate has thrust it onto the pages of The Keene (N.H.) Sentinel in several articles, and also onto the airwaves in the form of a New Hampshire Public Radio story. On the radio, Brother Andre Marie, the prior, complained of religious intolerance. "Our religion claims we are the one true church founded by Christ and there's no salvation outside the Catholic Church. That's not something that's exactly politically correct," he said. "Some people seem to be under the delusion that there is a democratic process which allows people like them to prevent people like us from building buildings in the town of Richmond."
It didn't help the situation when SBC was profiled in a Winter 2006 Intelligence Report story on radical traditionalists that described it as a hate group. The article circulated widely among Richmond residents. One anonymous local even slipped it under tax collector Boscarino's door, much to his outrage. The SBC's reaction may not have helped its case. Officials there described the Southern Poverty Law Center, which publishes the Report, as an anti-Catholic "rainbow Gestapo" of "intolerant homosexual thought-crimes thugs who want to enforce their wicked lavender agenda on the world." They also issued a press release that sounded a lot like a call to martyrdom — or a new Crusade.
"Virulently standing up for Catholic doctrine and the Rule of Christ the King are becoming hate crimes now and Catholic men should not stand for that one bit," wrote Brother Andre Marie. "In the not-too-distant future, we may well be openly attacked in a bloody persecution, but until the time comes for such a show of fortitude and endurance, we must make another show of these virtues — and that is a free and open resistance to the irreligious death-spiral afflicting our American society, which can only be saved by Jesus Christ and His Church."
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."