The sackcloth adversity

September 6 1982

The sackcloth adversity

September 6 1982

The sackcloth adversity


For the past several months three robed nuns have left their ramshackle 12-room house on Lusted

Avenue in Winnipeg’s low-income Point Douglas area each day to knock on neighborhood doors and beg for money. Left in the house is their superior in the Order of the Mother of God, Mother Aimée. She said that the amounts of money collected are not large, but “it’s good for people to see us—and the children love our habits.”

Their habits are less appealing to Most Rev. Adam Exner, the Archbishop of Winnipeg. He called the outfits “uniforms” and warned would-be almsgivers last week that the nuns are begging for money without his authorization. Two thousand kilometres away in St-Jovite, Que., at the headquarters of the nuns’ church, the Apostles of Infinite Love, Sister Michelle du Coeur Eucharistique sniffed: “Why would we need his permission? We have nothing to do with the Roman authorities.”

The Apostles do, however, have a great deal to do with authorities in municipal, provincial and federal governments. For the past 20 years they have been fighting charges by former members of heavy-handed discipline and unlawful detention. Their spiritual leader, Father Jean-Grégoire de la Trinité, aka

Pope Gregory XVII, whose real name is Gaston Tremblay, was sent to prison in 1980 for the unlawful detention of the children of Bill Currier. Currier, who now lives in Elliot Lake, Ont., has not seen Brenda, now 17, or Germain, 12, since 1973, when he left the St-Jovite monastery where he and his family had been living. What makes Currier’s anguish as the parent of Apostle members particularly severe is that the Apostles of Infinite Love have a troubled history. Complaints from relatives about moral and physical dangers to the children have dogged the group since it began in 1962, an offshoot of a breakaway Catholic sect founded in France in 1952. The Apostles promised a return to traditional values, liturgy and religious education for children. Conservative Catholics—particularly after Vatican II reforms—were attracted by the promises.

Maclean’s spoke last week with Currier and two other former members of the Apostles who had joined for the sake of their families. Liliane and Claude Boulanger of Joussard, Alta., said their eldest son, Guy, 20, exhibited signs of emotional distress during his seven-year education with the Apostles. Two weeks ago he quit his job and disappeared. His parents suspect that he

will turn up at the St-Jovite Monastery. Said his father: “He can’t cope with life. He was only eight years old when we joined the Apostles.”

The Boulangers joined the sect in 1970. They say that as devout Catholics they were upset by the changes wrought by Vatican II. “The Apostles promised us a good Christian education for our children,” said Claude Boulanger. He sold his garage business and nearly everything else, turning $50,000 over to the Apostles. For seven years the parents lived separated from their nine children, seeing the older ones about 10 times a year for less than two hours at a time. Said Claude Boulanger: “Life was harsh. It was full of sacrifice, tears and sorrow. But the kids told us they were happy, so we endured it gladly.” When, however, they began to investigate conditions, they were branded as troublemakers. Later their other children told of harsh treatment, which included, for son Paul, then 4, a winter’s night locked in a woodshed for wetting his bed.

Currier and his wife, Carmen, joined the Apostles in 1969 at her insistence. “She was very religious, so to try to make her happy and to keep the family together, I went to St-Jovite,” Currier told Maclean's. With their two little girls, Karen and Brenda, the Curriers lived at the monastery for three years. Their son, Germain, was born there. “I realized that my wife was not getting any better and that the Apostles were no angels,” Currier said. He left abruptly two years later and won custody of his children. After numerous po-

lice raids Karen, now 19, was found in a house owned by the Apostles. But the other two have never been discovered.

Tremblay was found guilty of illegally detaining the children, but he steadfastly maintains that what is at the heart of the matter is a simple marital dispute between Currier and his wife, who, he claims, is no longer a member of the Apostles. Tremblay served four months of his two-year sentence. He is still under mandatory supervision, and his cloaked followers regularly picket Parliament Hill demanding that his case be reopened and his criminal record be destroyed. Meanwhile, the Apostles continue their care and education of children who live separately from their parents on the 100acre site in St-Jovite. Spokeswoman Sister Michelle said last week: “We have about 30 children here now. With a few very rare exceptions, they are all children of our members.”

The breakaway Catholic sect was founded in 1952 in France by unfrocked priest Michel Collin, who found the Pope in Rome too liberal for his tastes and declared himself the true pope — “Clément xv.” In 1962 Collin chose Tremblay, then 32, as his North American envoy. But in 1968, after welfare investigators reported that children in the St-Jovite monastery were living in “a state of dread,” poorly fed and housed, Collin fired his disciple. But Collin died shortly afterward, leaving the way open for Tremblay, who promptly proclaimed himself pope.

As a boy growing up in Rimouski, Que., Tremblay says he came to realize that he had been chosen by God “to suffer and excel.” He considered going into medicine or politics before settling on a religious order. Tremblay joined the Frères de St. Jean de Dieu in Montreal when he was 16 and studied with them for eight years. He claimed that he found the brothers too bourgeois and, on the day he was to take his final vows, he left the order. Then, with two younger male friends, he travelled around Quebec establishing various missions. In 1958 the trio bought $500 worth of land in St-Jovite, 130 km north of Montreal. The Apostles now own property in Quebec alone worth more than $600,000. They also have land and buildings in Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Florida and several countries in Central America. Says Sister Michelle: “We have the support of thousands of Catholics around the world.”

The Apostles of Infinite Love offer hard work, rote thinking, a shelter from the confusions of modern life and a charismatic father figure as their leader. They say the Roman Catholic Church has strayed too far from its original precepts and that they are the only true Catholics. Three hundred

priests, nuns and congregants reportedly live at the St-Jovite site, where their principal occupations are farming and publishing. Their magazine, Magnificat, thrives on pictures of people reputedly displaying stigmata, inspirational messages from Pope Grégoire and tirades against legal authorities who “persecute” them for their religion.

Quebec Youth Protection authorities regularly find that, when they try to interview children and members about conditions, the people they are looking for are temporarily absent. Immigra-

tion authorities have deported some children from St-Jovite. Visits from department of justice officials and police are frequent. Sister Michelle says: “We’re inundated with visits from every government department. Journalists write terrible stories about us.” As for Bill Currier, he holds out little hope that he will ever be reunited with his son and daughter. After 13 years and many visits to St-Jovite, his two children have never surfaced.

-ANNE BEIRNE in Montreal.

With Cathy Carlyle-Gordge in Winnipeg.