The Story Behind Little Sister

Until the age of eighteen, I had never read a newspaper nor perused the pages of a magazine. I had never eaten in a restaurant nor shopped in a grocery store. I had never bought any clothes or cosmetics or a single item that could be called my own. I had never heard of Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, or Elizabeth Taylor. I had never watched television, nor made a phone call. I did not know how to dance.

I grew up in St. Benedict Center, a sequestered Catholic community headed by Leonard Feeney, an excommunicated priest, and his spiritual cohort, Catherine Clarke, a staunchly Catholic married woman with a strident disposition toward puritanism. “The Center,” first located a short walk from Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and subsequently transported to the bucolic hamlet of Still River, Massachusetts, evolved into a social experiment of sorts, whose purpose was to create a pure-hearted community in which no material thing, no cultural influence, not even the bonds between family members, could impede the path to God.

Dedicated to a rigid adherence to Catholic orthodoxy, this community of nearly one hundred people, including my parents and thirty-nine children who were born into it, lived a life completely shielded from an outside world that was considered to be fraught with evil. I was educated within the confines of my community from nursery school through my senior year of high school.

For much of my childhood, I grew up without the daily love and attention of my parents. I was just six years old when Leonard Feeney and Catherine Clarke made the decision that my siblings and I were to live apart from our parents. Later, Leonard Feeney pressured my parents to forsake their marital vows, no longer living as husband and wife. A celibate existence, they were told, was more conducive to a life dedicated to God. And so my parents complied.

On only one occasion during my life at the Center was I allowed to listen to the radio. That was when the community assembled to hear the inaugural address of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the country’s first Catholic president. I felt transported at that moment into the vast unreachable outside world—a place I longed to experience. I was eleven years old at the time.

I had heard of the Beatles only because Leonard Feeney had once played a fifteen-second snippet of their hit song “I Want to Hold Your Hand” as a demonstration of “music of the devil.” The eruption of rock and roll onto the world stage was lost on me, as was the sexual revolution that came in its wake.

Within my community, any personal attachment, any demonstration of familial affection, any expression of romantic love was prohibited. As for sex, the word itself was verboten. There was no explanation of the facts of life, as though by revealing nothing, the course of nature could be manipulated, and the lack of knowledge would lead to lack of interest.

But the absence of understanding such things did nothing to inhibit my natural desires. As I matured into my teenage years, I fell into a series of crushes on the grown men within the community, with not a glimmer of understanding about why it happened, what it meant, or what to do about it.

Though I’d never had a date, much less kissed a boy, my innocent interest was viewed as subverting God’s will, which was deemed to be that each of the thirty-nine children should embrace religious life and celibacy. And so, just two months before my eighteenth birthday, I faced expulsion from the community, banished from my home, my parents, my siblings, and the only people I knew and loved.

An infant in the ways of modern life, I was being compelled to leave my family behind and make my way alone in a world I’d been taught to believe was full of sin and danger.

My book, Little Sister, which shares my story growing up in the religious community called the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, is available now.