Massachusetts Woman Reflects on Being Raised in Excommunicated Catholic Priest's Splinter Community

Patricia Chadwick remembers having numerous aunts and uncles, and being surrounded by other children. By the time she was 4, however, her life at St. Benedict Center as part of “The Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary,” took a turn.

Patricia Chadwick shares how being brought up in the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary affected her life.

Patricia Chadwick and her siblings were raised in a Catholic community in Massachusetts. She said she has fond memories of her early childhood. She recalls having numerous aunts and uncles, and being surrounded by other children. By the time she was 4, however, her life at St. Benedict Center as part of “The Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary,” took a turn for the worse. It became what Chadwick alleged was a “cult.”

“Everything was really wonderful in a certain way, except that I was very well aware that there was an enemy out there. By the time I was 4 years old, all the grownups had changed their names,” Chadwick told Inside Edition Digital. “My mother, whom everybody had called Betsy, was now known as Sister Elizabeth Anne, and my dad, who everybody called Jim, was Brother James Aloysius. I had to refer to them that way.”

The leader of the group was a Jesuit Catholic priest named Leonard Feeney, who held very strong views about one dogma of the Catholic faith, which said that you have to be Catholic to go to heaven. In 1949, however, the late Archbishop Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston censured Feeney “for grave offenses against the general laws of the Catholic church.” He was also expelled from the Society of Jesus, the religious order of the Catholic Church of which he was a part, and he was no longer allowed to celebrate the sacraments.  

But Feeney had another path that would allow him to lead a congregation: the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. In 1945, he was made chaplain of the St. Benedict Center. Feeney and the founder of the St. Benedict Center, Catherine Clarke, then together founded the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

“[The group’s members] promised one thing; they promised that they would obey Father Feeney or whoever he put in charge. It was that vow that they took that I feel, ultimately, had a huge impact on their lives, my parents and on my life,” Chadwick said.

Life Inside the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary

By the time Chadwick was 6 years old, she had three younger sisters and a brother. She still lived with her parents in a cluster of houses in the center of Cambridge. There was a tall red fence around the homes, and she knew “we were the only good people in the world,” but none of that bothered Chadwick as long as she was with her family. Her life shifted abruptly, though, when leaders in the group announced in 1954 that the children older than age 3 couldn’t live with their parents anymore.

“I and my sister Kathy and my brother David were separated,” Chadwick said. “The apartment that we had been living in, all seven of us, because I had two more little sisters, was converted into a dormitory. My parents left and I was there with the other little girls that were 3 years and older, and the boys were on a separate floor. That started an entire change in the entire structure of our life.”

The goal of the leaders was to have the children grow up to become sisters and brothers in the group and they called the children “Little Sisters and Brothers.” Chadwick, who is now 72, said she visited her family regularly and she was allowed to have recreation time with them every night, but the shift in living and the group's structure still deeply affected her.

“My father used to love to sing songs to us, and that was all gone. We now lived a life very much in silence,” Chadwick said. “There were no bedtime stories. It was rules, and they were enforced very strongly.”

The rules included no hugging your siblings, and no laughing, Chadwick said. She said anyone caught breaking would be beaten. In 1958, when Chadwick was 9, she said the group moved to Still River, 30 miles from Boston. The communal property was 150 acres. There was no access to the outside world. Instead, members of the group relied on Feeney for all information and news.

After a while, the children were banned from speaking to their parents all together, Chadwick said. She said her dad made efforts to let her know he loved her.

“He would just sometimes wiggle his little finger at me like that. That was all that he had to do to say I love you. He would sometimes whisper, ‘How's my little princess?’ he called all four of his daughters 'my little princess.' Those little signs, those little rules that he broke, were, for me, the glue that held me together.”

She said she eventually learned to live with the rules and enjoyed life as much as she could, considering the situation. Chadwick often wondered about other people in the world and daydreamed. As she aged, she realized the leaders of the group were prepping her for a life she did not want. By the time she was 14, she developed crushes, which were not allowed.

In 1966, when she was 17, one of the leaders in the group, "Sister Catherine," told Chadwick she was a temptation to others and that after her senior year in high school, she had to leave the group. She was sent to live with her dad’s relatives. It was her first foray into the real world.

“I was like an alien,” she said.

Chadwick got her first apartment afterward at the YWCA and found a job that paid $2 an hour.

After Leaving the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Chadwick's Family Looks to Rebuild Their Lives Together

In 1968, Sister Catherine died and what followed was a lot of infighting in the organization about who would have power, Chadwick said. It was then, Chadwick said, that children started opening up to their parents about the abuse that had taken place, and Chadwick’s mother left with two of her siblings. A year later, Chadwick’s father left. Two years later, two of her sisters left, she said.

“By 1971, all seven of us were back as a family. My parents bought a house and their house was an open house to any other children from the center who needed a place to stay,” Chadwick said. “We would have parties there, we would have a great time.

"I tell you, for the next 40 years, it was as though the past 20 had never happened. I'm not saying that I didn't question my parents about it, I certainly did, but I will tell you, my parents felt that they were so strongly desirous of their five children getting the best Catholic education that they sacrificed a lot, losing their children, being forced to take vows of celibacy," she added.

The theological teachings of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary were declared "unacceptable" by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome in 2018. In January 2019, the vicar for canonical affairs for the Diocese of Manchester advised the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary that they were to stop using the name Catholic “in any way or manner that implies a relationship” to the Roman Catholic Church. The vicar also told the group to amend its IRS 501(c)(3) filing to remove any notion of affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church.

The Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary did not return Inside Edition Digital's request for comment. 

Chadwick, who has since written a book documenting her experience, "Little Sister," said she calls her family “lucky” because there wasn’t anger between them. Her parents have since passed on, but she said she had their blessing to write her book.

“I've been asked, would I change things in the path of my life, and while of course I would've loved to have spent more time with my parents, and I would've done anything not just have the beatings or watch other children get beaten the way they were, I've actually come to the realization that the wonderful life I have, the husband I have, the children I have, the wonderful career I've had, all of that might never have happened if I said, "Oh, if only, if only, if only.’”