Little Sister: A Memoir
By Patricia Walsh Chadwick
Post Hill Press, 2019, 326 pp.
Few people today are aware of “The Boston Heresy Case” of the 1940’s and 50s. For centuries, Roman Catholic prelates and theologians taught that only Catholics could possibly merit Heaven, the doctrine of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the Church there is no salvation”). In the early-20th century, modernist/semi-Universalist views were making inroads into Catholic seminaries and episcopates, which posited that non-Catholic religionists could also possibly merit Heaven under a liberal interpretation of the exception principle of Baptismus flaminis (“baptism of desire”), i.e. non-Catholics would certainly welcome baptism into the “one true church” if they understood it’s importance. Popular Jesuit priest and writer, Leonard Feeney, publicly opposed this liberal shift in theology and was thereby censured and finally excommunicated in 1953. The Roman Catholic church would later officially promulgate the doctrine of the possibility of the salvation of all religionists in the document, Nostra aetate, issued by the Second Vatican Council in 1965.
During this controversy, Feeney served as director of the St. Benedict Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a resource for Catholic undergrads and teachers at Harvard University.* In defiance of the RC hierarchy, Feeney and the center’s benefactress, Catherine Goddard Clarke, created a religious community, the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which consisted of about one-hundred dedicated “Feeneyites,” including singles and married couple with their children. Due to rising tensions with Boston-area Catholic clergy and laity, the community moved from Cambridge to the rural environs of Still River/Harvard, MA, thirty miles away (see map far below).
In this memoir, Patricia Walsh Chadwick, describes growing up as a child in the Slaves commune. While Feeney was the symbolic figurehead, Catherine Clarke ruled the day-to-day operations with an iron fist. Members were required to take new names, wear mandatory religious uniform garb, sever all connections with family and friends outside of the commune, refrain from discussions of life prior to the order, and practice celibacy. All thirty-nine children were removed from the direct care of their parents. In addition to having very little personal contact with their parents, the children were sometimes treated cruelly and abusively in other regards. Members were forbidden from leaving the compound except for excursions to Boston to peddle the cult’s “outside the Catholic church there is no salvation” literature. In contrast to the severe restrictions the co-leaders imposed upon the membership, Clarke reserved the privilege of driving to her private home in Waltham three nights per week to be with her husband and daughter while Feeney traveled whenever and wherever he wished.
After a series of minor insubordinations, “Sister” Clarke expelled Patricia Walsh from the community in 1966 immediately following her high school graduation. The 17-year-old left behind her parents and four siblings. The other six members of her family eventually left the Slaves as well. Catherine Clarke died of cancer in 1968. After having been reconciled to the Roman Catholic church in 1972 through the efforts of the Boston bishop, Feeney died in 1978. Following their founder’s death, the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary fragmented into several small factions.
It was painful to read this memoir and the descriptions of the abuse inflicted upon the members of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Patricia Walsh Chadwick’s contempt for Clarke is palpable. This is as CULTISH as it gets, folks. Some of the authoritarianism and mind-control methods match what was practiced at Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple and David Koresh’s Branch Davidians. However, the cultish disciplines at Still River were not all that far removed from the regular practices at every Catholic convent in the 1950s and early-1960s.
It’s interesting to read how Feeney attempted to resist the RCC’s theological drift into semi-Universalism. Some traditional/conservative/militant Catholics still revere Feeney as a defender of the “true” Catholic interpretation of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the Church there is no salvation”).
From start to finish of this memoir, there was absolutely no trace of the genuine Gospel of salvation by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. Chadwick devotes the last 140 pages of the book to her post-Slaves existence, wherein she describes eventually becoming a wife and a mother after thoroughly indulging herself in the sinful pleasures of the world that were denied her in the commune – like the proverbial bird let out of the cage. She remains a nominal Catholic, holding to the bottom-line philosophy popular both inside and outside of the church that spirituality boils down to “being a good person.”
I have another book on order dealing with Feeney and “The Boston Heresy Case.”
*As a Harvard undergraduate, “devout” Roman Catholic, Robert “Bobby” Kennedy, played a key role in Feeney’s censure and eventual excommunication with the help of his powerful father, Joseph Kennedy. See here.