Sect Behind the Shroud

Nov 19, 2002

By Susan Kelleher

Seattle Times staff reporter

Two nuns breathed in the midnight air of Southern Oregon and prayed for the souls of sinners, unaware that one was headed straight toward them.

They fingered their rosaries and murmured prayers to the Virgin Mary as a drifter on his way home from a local strip club approached on his bicycle. According to prosecutors, the man attacked them, raping both and strangling one with her rosary beads.

Police quickly caught and charged the suspect in the Sept. 1 crime. But with the man behind bars, attention turned to other questions: Why were two nuns from Bellevue praying the rosary on a bike path in Klamath Falls, Ore., in the middle of the night? And why did local Catholic Church officials know nothing about them?

Those questions lead back to a weathered Grange hall in Renton. The answers illuminate the sect that worships there and its leader, a man who at one time was recognized by thousands of people as the last living bishop of the only true Catholic church on Earth.

Most of those believers have since abandoned Francis Konrad Schuckardt, dismissing him as a cult leader. But the two nuns attacked in Oregon were among the 100 or so followers who have stuck with Schuckardt, convinced that they, the members of his Tridentine Latin Rites Church and the Immaculate Heart of Mary congregation, are living the Catholic faith the way God intended it to be practiced.

Members of the group, who live in Bellevue, Issaquah and Renton, are among thousands of disaffected Catholics worldwide who broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s after the Vatican adopted reforms to broaden the church's impact and appeal.

The defectors thought the so-called Vatican II reforms destroyed the "true faith." They started their own movements to keep the traditions alive.

Some of those movements have carried on without controversy. Others have been plagued by internecine battles. But few have been as tumultuous as the Tridentine church, which has weathered a sex-and-drug scandal, public denouncements by former members and a raid by a California SWAT team.

It's a history jarringly at odds with the ascetic sensibilities of the sect's members, who prostrate themselves during church services and spend at least 90 minutes a day on their knees in prayer.

Caught in the spotlight

In recent years, the Tridentines have largely kept to themselves — attending Mass at night in the rented hall in Renton that is as long and narrow as a two-lane bowling alley.

The church uses a post-office box for correspondence, has no published phone number and has changed names nearly a dozen times in the past decade, mostly because of fights with similarly named groups that want no association with it.

In fact, the church might have remained under the public radar were it not for the Klamath Falls attack, which made headlines around the country.

Rosemarie Offenhauer, a Colorado woman who once belonged to Schuckardt's order, recognized it from the reports: Nuns in blue habits, selling dolls outside a grocery store during the day, out praying the rosary when others were long asleep. Nuns oblivious to the risks in the world or confident that God would protect them.

Offenhauer began contacting reporters, insisting that the women were not true Catholic nuns but members of a cult to which she herself once belonged. Among the other members, Offenhauer said, was her mother, who left her husband of 40 years a decade ago to follow Schuckardt and hadn't been seen nor heard from since.

There are, it turns out, dozens such as Offenhauer — traditional Catholics who look sadly or bitterly on the years they spent with the church under Schuckardt.

The Tridentines' only priest, Father Alphonsus Maria Barnes, dismisses the criticisms, saying they are from people who would rather blame others than face their own inability to live the hard life required to be in communion with God. And current members express their unflagging loyalty to Bishop Schuckardt.

The bishop himself is elusive. He hasn't presided over a Mass in two years, and some critics suspect he is dead.

Asked by a reporter to arrange a personal interview with Schuckardt, Barnes said the bishop was too ill. Instead, Barnes offered to ask Schuckardt to appear in a videotape with a current issue of the newspaper, providing proof he is still alive.

The video never arrived. In its place came an official church biography, a list of highlights from Schuckardt's first 10 years as bishop, and a 36-page pamphlet titled "Friends of the Cross," writings by St. Louis De Montfort that spell out the group's central philosophy.

"If you are led by the spirit of Jesus and are living the same life with Him, then you must look forward to nothing but thorns, nails and lashes; in a word, to nothing but a cross," De Montfort wrote. "Be ready to be persecuted, envied, betrayed, calumniated, discredited and forsaken by everyone. Be ready to undergo hunger, thirst, poverty, nakedness, exile, imprisonment."

That sounds a lot like Schuckardt's life for the past 20 years.

His official church biography says Schuckardt grew up a devout Catholic with a special affinity for the Virgin Mary. As he grew older, that devotion became a central focus of his faith, so much so that when he became a bishop, he adopted the motto: "De Maria Nunquam Satis" — Of Mary, there is never enough.

Schuckardt was educated in Seattle's Catholic schools, graduating from O'Dea High School in 1954, then from Seattle University in 1959 with a bachelor's degree in education and language arts.

After college, he attended a "pre-seminary" but contracted typhoid fever and dropped out before the year ended. He began teaching high school in Seattle and joined the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima, a group devoted to spreading a message that Catholics believe the Virgin Mary conveyed when she appeared as an apparition to three children in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917.

Schuckardt was a spellbinder, and by age 26, was a popular speaker on the group's lecture circuit.

He told audiences that his devotion to Mary was part of a bargain he made when he was deathly ill: If she spared him, he would spend the rest of his life spreading her message. He kept his promise, awakening from a coma to quickly write down a teaching program to spread the "Fatima message" of saving souls through prayer, penance and devotion to God through Mary.

Three years later, the biography says, the Virgin spared his leg from amputation, and he vowed to devote his life to her.

As Schuckardt was finding his path, leaders of the Roman Catholic Church were revising theirs, convening the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) to modernize church practices.

Among the more controversial reforms, Vatican II did away with the Tridentine Mass, a centuries-old service said in Latin, and replaced it with a modern version usually said in the vernacular. The council called for greater unity among Christians, a shock to Catholics who considered adherence to their rules the only way to salvation.

Schuckardt railed against Vatican II to the point that he was kicked out of the Blue Army. He insisted that no true pope would ever allow those sorts of changes because they amounted to the destruction of the Catholic faith as it had been practiced for centuries.

There could be only one explanation, he said: Masons and Protestants had infiltrated the Catholic hierarchy in a plot to destroy it from within.

Schuckardt and his followers decided they would not recognize the pope and would wait until a real one could be found. The last true pope, they said, was Pius XII, who had held the office from 1939 to 1958. In the constellation of Catholic rebel groups, they became known as "sedevacantists," Latin for "the chair is empty."

One woman, who left her husband in Ohio to join Schuckardt's group, said that at the time of Vatican II, it was hard for disaffected Catholics to find each other. For them, Schuckardt was literally a godsend.

And soon, critics say, he began to act as though he had in fact been sent by the Lord.

Crusaders in Idaho

In 1968, Schuckardt announced that he and a handful of like-minded Catholics in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, would proceed as if Vatican II had never happened. They formed the Religious Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen, also known as the Fatima Crusaders, and proceeded to do just that — crusade.

Three years later, Schuckardt transformed from lay leader to bishop in a single afternoon. The ceremonies were held at a Chicago motel, presided over by Daniel Q. Brown, a bishop from another sect known as "Old Catholics."

Within two years, in 1973, Brown said in a letter to Schuckardt that "Your group has become a personal cult of Francis Schuckardt and cannot call itself Catholic."

Brown's criticism did nothing to dampen the growing group's enthusiasm for Schuckardt, whose hypnotic speaking style and flair for drama — he once rode a white horse to the top of a mountain in Montana to say Mass — made followers feel they were part of something special.

Congregants reveled in public confrontations with "the apostates," Catholics who followed the Vatican II reforms.

In 1976, Schuckardt summoned about 70 nuns to a convent in the hills of Idaho, telling them the Great Persecution was coming. When nothing happened, the nuns returned home, bewildered but largely silent about what had happened.

Schuckardt then announced he was going to build a mission for alcoholics in Canada. He dispatched nuns to buy and homestead the land. They cleared trees and built a log cabin on the 165-acre parcel, an 18-hour drive from Spokane.

But the mission work never materialized. Instead, Schuckardt became a survivalist, ordering the cabin stocked with 40 backpacks of provisions and saying the U.S. government was going to be taken over by Masons, a centuries-old fraternal order long in conflict with the Catholic church.

By 1977, Schuckardt's congregation was big and rich enough to pay $1.5 million to buy Mount St. Michael, a former Jesuit mission on a bluff overlooking Spokane. They named themselves the Congregation of St. Michael and opened another convent, seminary and schools.

Strictness in Spokane

The community embraced dress and discipline from another era. Women and girls covered their heads with bonnets and wore long skirts with sleeves. In church, males and females sat on opposite sides while nuns patrolled the aisles, pulling women outside if their hair or a bra strap was visible. If a skirt was too short, they would staple newspaper along the hemline.

Not even the "Dick and Jane" reading primers, a staple of American elementary schools, escaped the dress code. Trudy Boeding, a former nun, remembers cutting long skirts, shirts and kerchiefs out of contact paper to press over the figures in the books before the kids could read them.

Punishments could be harsh and physical. One girl, caught talking to a boy, had her long hair shaved off, while others were whacked with a paddle.

The nuns, who had taken vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, rarely questioned the rules. They flagellated themselves with leather strips. They wore "hair shirts," made of coarse rope, to subdue their flesh. They begged for food and medical care. A few sold their blood and gave the money to Schuckardt.

They were supposed to model themselves after the Virgin Mary and to live with the same self-sacrifice and humility that made her "invisible" during her lifetime.

"We were young and idealistic. We wanted to do something with our lives. We wanted to help people," said former nun Louise Foster.

By the early 1980s, though, some began to question the severity of their lives.

Nuns became ill from their erratic sleeping schedule and poor nutrition. Offenhauer, the former nun from Denver, recalled living for months on nothing but fried Pizza Pockets and lemon-meringue pies that a business had donated.

Punishments became more extreme: Kneeling during meals. Walking on knees in the snow. Being forbidden from talking for days at a time.

Schuckardt called them "rotten, stinking weeds" and "prima donnas" and told them they would go to hell if they didn't conform.

Mass was starting later and later in the evening, forcing members to stay up late into the night waiting for Schuckardt, who, though increasingly sickly, was still firmly in control.

He discouraged his followers from allowing their children to attend college, and forbade any literature that wasn't approved by him. And though he prohibited his flock from watching television, he voraciously consumed TV news, pop culture and politics fed into his home via satellite dish.

In 1984, he was confronted with a program he found particularly disturbing: a Spokane television station's exposé, featuring allegations from four of his former seminarians claiming Schuckardt had sexually abused them. Schuckardt denied the allegations but said the confidentiality of confession prevented him from defending himself.

Two months later, three priests — including Schuckardt's most trusted subordinate, Father Denis Chicoine — went to his home to confront him. Schuckardt wouldn't see them. Convinced there was a movement to oust him and perhaps even kill him, he gathered about two dozen of his most faithful congregants and, with about $250,000 in cash, fled the Spokane compound.

Chicoine later publicly accused Schuckardt of sexual misconduct and of abusing prescription drugs. He also said Schuckardt believed an apparition of the Virgin Mary had crowned him pope.

"It is the determination of myself and the priests that Bishop Schuckardt does not have the mental competency to govern," Chicoine wrote in a letter to the congregation.

The Rev. Barnes said Schuckardt denies the allegations by Chicoine, who has since died. Besides, Barnes said, whether the allegations are true is irrelevant. Congregants speak to God through Schuckardt, he said, and accord him the respect and obedience that goes with the office of bishop. Personal failings are irrelevant as long as they don't interfere with church doctrine.

"We've had popes who have been real scoundrels, and people still recognized them as pope," he said.

Raided in California

Schuckardt and his small band moved "secretly through the Northwest, stopping at cities in five states and Canada, at first never daring to spend more than one night in the same place," according to the Inland Register, the Roman Catholic Church's newspaper in Spokane.

They finally stopped running in Plumas County, Calif., where church supporters Warren and Mary Gorbet had a ranch. Members moved into several homes in the area and picked up where they had left off.

"It was busy because there was always something to do, but also stressful because people also did look askance at them," said Warren Gorbet, 66. "Most people aren't used to seeing ladies in habits. They're not used to seeing prayer in public. They were treated shabbily by some, and warmly by others."

Even for the devout, religious obligations were demanding: a daily Mass, lasting about an hour. An hour's worth of prayers in the morning and in the evening. Scores of religious holidays. Religious studies. Mission work.

Schuckardt "was always the hub of the wheel," deciding when Mass would be held or where the religious would live, Gorbet said.

Gorbet describes Schuckardt as "peaceful, smiling, not loud. He's a very pleasant person. It's not like he comes into the room like the guy who played Rambo. But he's very dogmatic in his beliefs. When he gives a sermon, he's a very good speaker and when he makes a point, he stresses it."

The group was deciding whether to stay in California when on May 9, 1987, a 12-member SWAT team from the Plumas County Sheriff's Department surrounded Schuckardt's house, phoned the residents inside and told them to come out with their hands up.

As the bishop, wearing cotton pajamas, kneeled in pine needles outside the house, deputies searched his house and those of the brothers and the nuns while a Highway Patrol helicopter hovered overhead.

Deputies hauled out a bundle of prescription painkillers and tranquilizers, several guns, $75,000 in cash, plus gold coins, silver ingots, German marks, Swiss francs, Canadian dollars, and records from more than a dozen bank accounts around the world.

The county eventually returned the church property, and in October 1989, Schuckardt agreed to enter drug rehabilitation in exchange for dismissal of the charges.

The group decided to leave the rural county for a more urban environment they believed would provide greater tolerance. Schuckardt chose the destination: Seattle's Eastside suburbs, where his ailing mother lived. He wanted to be closer to her, and assigned two nuns to care for her around the clock.

As the members uprooted their lives so their leader could be closer to his mother, many were separated or estranged from their own families. Mary Gorbet left her husband behind on the ranch and took her children to Washington state, following Schuckardt. Her husband says he respects her decision, even though he misses her and their children terribly.

Worshiping in Renton

On a recent Tuesday evening, about 30 of the Tridentine faithful gathered to worship in the Renton Grange hall.

Two lighted fir trees sat beside a statue of the infant Mary lying in a bassinet swathed in pink chiffon. Pink and white drapes surrounded the altar, giving the church the look of a young girl's bedroom.

Men and boys in black suits and ties sat on the left side of the church; women and girls dressed in long flowered skirts or pink dresses sat on the right. Congregants bowed their heads at the mention of Jesus and Mary's names, and prostrated themselves to ringing bells and to a quiet so deep only breathing could be heard.

During prayers, a boy of about 4 got up from his seat and walked backward down the aisle toward the bathroom, careful not to turn his back on the cross. Like the other six younger children in attendance, he didn't fidget once during 2-1/2 hours of prayers and Mass.

"We're a group of people working to live what we were created for: to love and serve God," said Wendolyn Muratore, 43, a mother of 10 who joined the church a decade ago. "We're not always good at it, but we try."

Her brother-in-law, Michael Muratore, 48, a father of nine, said he and his wife had belonged to a mainstream Christian church but left when it began to feel more like a social club.

"After three or four months, you learned everything," said Muratore, a truck driver who wears a plump wooden rosary around his neck. "It left us with an empty feeling. There had to be more to it."

The Muratores now home-school their children and attend church daily.

Muratore said his faith "gives total purpose to life. When you have a faith — especially a purpose that says this is a means to an end — God provides opportunities."

For the nuns, meanwhile, life proceeds as it always has, with self-denial and the missionary work that is the church's most public face. The two attacked in Oregon were selling dolls and religious literature in front of a grocery for most of the day and into the night.

Former nuns understand why the nuns didn't go straight to bed when they got home after midnight: Years of late-night services have turned the group into night owls. Within their sheltered world, evil can be beaten back by praying the rosary.

The current head of St. Michael's in Spokane, Father Casimir Puskorius, said he wasn't surprised to hear about the attack, and blamed Schuckardt.

"He doesn't look after their welfare," he said. "It's not surprising to me that he'd have nuns passing out fliers at night."

Although Schuckardt seems to be perpetually ill, none of the congregants or religious seems particularly concerned about the fate of the church in the long run. And though they are mourning the beating death of one of their nuns, they don't seem to be particularly invested in the secular justice system, which has charged the accused killer with 14 counts, including rape and aggravated murder.

Asked if there is any lesson to be learned from the attack, Mary Gorbet doesn't hesitate:

"I would love to have people pray the holy rosary. It's so filled with the grace that human beings need. Our Lady gave us the rosary centuries ago, and it's a spiritual weapon. If (the attacks) obtained for people the grace to pray the rosary, it would be well worth it."

Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or [email protected]


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