Father Feeney

By DAVE O'BRIAN  |  October 9, 2009

Brother Gabriel was speaking to me in the front room of St. Theresa’s House, a restored beamed-ceilinged garrison house built in 1683—the headquarters of Feeney’s communal farm, overlooking the Nashoba Valley in the Still River section of Harvard.  The Feeneyites, shunned by their beloved Church, the press, and so many others for these many years, have been living their cloistered holy existence there, finding spiritual fulfillment, no doubt, among their cows, chickens and crops and making an apparent success of the communal lifestyle that more recently has been attempted, with generally less success, by so many young people for so many different reasons.  “It is the doctrinal belief that has held us together,” they all say without hesitation.  That and the personal dynamism of Father Leonard Feeney.

To us on the outside, even those curious enough to approach the place, the commune’s life-style has been a mystery. “Little is known about the communal farm...” said the Globe, “because of barriers raised to newsmen and visitors.”

I am still not sure why, therefore, I was not only allowed inside when I knocked at the heavy oak door of St. Theresa’s House but was graciously given a guided tour of the building, and allowed to wander through the commune almost at will—or why photographer Ken Kobre was allowed to take pictures inside the house, the beautiful chapel, and throughout the farm.

“You know,” observed Brother Paschal, a short, slight, and bespectacled man wearing work jeans under his priestly black robe, “You’re the first newsmen we’ve ever allowed in here.”  Why us? we asked, and the response was vague.  “Well, if we turned you away,” he said, “you’d just write that we refused to talk.  And we do have a message that we want to spread.”

That message has not changed one iota since the days when Father Feeney was feuding with Cardinal Cushing, spreading inflammatory anti-Semitic literature throughout Boston and Cambridge, and delivering his weekly vitriolic speeches on the common:

“There is no salvation outside the Catholic Church.”

Though that message has bound the 50 or so residents together all these years, Feeney’s reconciliation with the church has now resulted in a bitter and seemingly irreconcilable division within the commune. While 29 of Feeney’s followers (mostly men) have, with him, been re-embraced by Rome through a simple profession of faith, some 18 others (mostly women) have refused to accept the overtures, are now living apart from the rest, and are involved in litigation that will eventually see the commune literally and legally divided in two.

“They feel that having the censures removed would entail an implicit compromise,” explained Brother Gabriel.  “We, however, have an agreement (from Rome that) it won’t.  No one ever asked us to change our tenets.  We did not change; nor has the Church.”

Brother Gabriel was hesitant to speak for the dissident group, but his statement will have to stand, because they will not speak at all.  “We have nothing to say,” said a habited sister through the window of the low-slung, barracks-like structure where the dissidents reside apart.  And though the Brothers Gabriel and Paschal allowed us to wander through their end of the commune, with the only caution that we not photograph any people or interiors of the gym, dining hall, dormitories and barn, as soon as we unknowingly crossed the invisible boundary into the others’ territory, a farmer appeared and asked us to leave.

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