A Shrine to Silence

A religious movement in Inch, Co. Wexford is showing all the signs of cult-like behaviour, according to one expert in the field. The movement's reluctance to talk to the media has further increased these doubts.

Magill Magazine, Ireland/February 2002
By Nina Hepojoki

Little is known of the last days, weeks, even months, in Margaret Foley Smith's life and the reasons that led her to commit suicide. What is known is that on the day of her death, 8 May last, she had been arguing intensely with her ex-husband Martin Smith in the premises of Pilgrim House, a radical Catholic community, where they both lived.

They started arguing early in the day. As the day wore on, the rows became more intense and, at some stage, physical. The fighting culminated in multiple bruising on Margaret's body.

Their last row took place at around 7pm, after which Margaret disappeared. She failed to turn up for coffee at 8pm despite Martin's attempts to contact her by phone. At 9pm, there was still no sign of Margaret and Martin decided to look for her He alerted other community members to Margaret's disappearance.

After about 15 minutes' search, two other community members, Claudia Carvajahl and Ena Grey, informed Martin that they had found Margaret in the outhouse. She was hanging from a beam, with her head hanging to one side. There was a blue rope around her neck. Her right hand was holding the other end of the rope. A small wicker table was lying on its side under her.

The community's founding member and resident doctor, Dermot O'Leary, arrived at the outhouse. He took Margaret down from the beam and tried to resuscitate her, but to no avail. She was dead.

At around 10.15 pm, about an hour after Margaret was found and her body was taken down from the beam, gardaí Ian Hayes, Cathy Swan and John McCarthy were on the scene. The body was identified and Martin Smith told the gardaí that he had been separated from Margaret for two years.

In Trim, Co. Meath, Frank Foley, Margaret's brother, was woken at midnight by a phone call from Dr O'Leary and Martin. They told Frank of Margaret's death. He was shocked, of course.

In the following days he became even more shocked when he learned how little he had known about his sister's life in the Pilgrim House Community.

'It was only after Margaret's death that we learnt she and Martin were no longer husband and wife. Although we did not hear from her often, we had been under the illusion that everything was fine. To hear that they'd had had violent rows was a total shock

'When Margaret formed the community with the O'Learys, she became more or less estranged from our family. It was nearly as if the community had become her real family. She was rarely in contact with us and gave the impression that she did not wish to be in touch with us that much anymore.'

Margaret had been a well-known, sociable person in Trim where she grew up.

'Some old friend of Margaret's hoped to get in contact with her when she lived in the Community. But when I passed these messages on, she did not seem keen to get in touch with them and encouraged me not to give out her contact details,' says Frank Foley.

Martin and Margaret met in 1984 in Dublin through work with mentally handicapped people. They got married in 1986. Margaret, a former journalist with the Farmer's Journal, had previously been interested in the work of the Simon Community. Her interest in social justice issues was further intensified when she met Helena O'Leary through Simon.

'Helena and Margaret became close friends. I think Margaret became highly influenced by Helena, she admired her and even started to talk like her. Helena visited our family house on a number of occasions.

'They were constantly talking about social justice issues and were very much enraged about the inequalities of the world. At some stage their interest became specifically focussed on asylum-seekers. I, and our whole family, admired their views and idealism. Yet I also found Helena to be a very commanding person. There was little room for arguing on opinions with them.'

By the time of their marriage, Margaret and Martin had joined Helena and Dermot O'Leary in formed the Pilgrim House Community. In 1991, Margaret and Martin adopted three children from orphanages in Romania. In his statement to the coroner's inquest into Margaret's death, Martin Smith said, 'Initially, things between us were going very well.'

'In 1989 we moved to Hyde Park. In 1997 strains in our marriage became apparent. They were manifested in petty rows which became more robust in nature as time went on. In 1999 we decided to live apart.'

Frank Foley says that his family had no objections to Margaret's marriage to Martin Smith.

We all liked him. He was a very jovial person, a genteel type. He always seemed very relaxed. The violence of their rows came as a total surprise to me. I could not see the Martin I had met do anything like that. To me, that

raises a question whether somewhere down the line he had changed. While we would have found their decision to form a community a peculiar one, we had no real objections as we found their commitment to mentally handicapped people admirable.'

After Margaret's death, her sister Aideen arrived at the funeral from Glasgow. It was then that Frank Foley learnt that Margaret had left the community a month earlier and gone to Glasgow to see her sister.

'Aideen said that Margaret had begun to look for work as she felt she was finished with the Community. According to Aideen, Margaret seemed to have lost all sense of her own value and she had a skin condition which caused her some distress. She also instructed Aideen not to tell the rest of our family that she had left the Pilgrim House Community.'

After two days, Margaret received a phone call which she said was from Martin. She returned to the Community.

About a month later she took her own life.

On 24 October last, the Coroner's Court in Gorey heard the inquest into the death of Margaret Foley Smith. Present at the inquest on the request of the Foley family was Mike Garde, a field worker with Dialogue Ireland, an organisation which came into existence in the 1980s as a result of a cry for help from several families and individuals whose lives have been affected by involvement in 'new religious movements'. Dialogue Ireland represents the response of the four main Christian churches in Ireland - Catholic, Church of Ireland, Methodist and the Presbyterian - to these requests. Its mandate is to create dialogue between the new religious movements and the main churches in Ireland.

Pilgrim House had previously attracted the attention of Dialogue Ireland. In 1997, a former priest approached Mike Garde. 'He had left the Community and came to me in a counselling capacity. The fact that he approached me in the first place already says something of the way he had begun to perceive the community that he had been a member of.'

The former priest had been married to one of the members of Pilgrim House.

'As they entered marriage, his wife stipulated that they would live in the Community. The husband was unable to give his total devotion to the Community and subsequently their marriage deteriorated. He approached me when he had become concerned that the Community had started showing signs of cult-like behaviour.

'He claimed that Helena O'Leary was the essential leader of the Community and that she had developed cult-leader-like characteristics.'

This former member doesn't wish to talk to the media about his time with the Community.

Mike Garde was already personally familiar with Pilgrim House when approached by the former member.

'They first came to my attention through their protests at the Department of Foreign Affairs over asylum seekers' rights issues. I believe many people would have been sympathetic with their views, even admired them. I had no reason to believe that they would be a new religious movement at that stage.'

Two years later, he was contacted by RTÉ News for a comment when Pilgrim House had attempted to enter Israel for the millennium. The Israeli officials blocked their entry, suspecting them to be a millennial suicide cult.

'It was rubbish, of course', says Mike Garde. 'These reports were found to be utterly untrue and it was established that they were not part of any extremist sect.'

Today, with his further research into the Pilgrim House Community, Mike Garde is of the view that the community is showing signs of cult-like behaviour. (Dialogue Ireland prefers the term 'new religious movement' to 'cult'.)

'There are certain definitions of a new religious movement. Different groups in existence have shown varying levels of transparency. For instance, Opus Dei's constitution and structures are known to Catholic Church and therefore accepted. In the case of Pilgrim House, however, very little is known about them as they are not linked to the churches here nor do they come under their authority.

'Cult-like behaviour includes strong leadership of one or several people. Other members adopt their leader's views without questioning them,' says Mike Garde. 'Tied with this is a tendency to lose autonomy when a person enters a cult. This is interesting because usually people enter a community to increase their autonomy rather than lose it. The cult will have its own rigid ideology, there is no freedom of conscience.

'A major point is that the ideology of the group becomes the core. This is accompanied with a repression of emotion and feelings. Emotions tend to be replaced by ideology; there is an 'intellectualising' of feelings.

'I found Martin Smith to be doing this very thing in the inquest into Margaret's death. Before her cause was heard, there were a number of other similar, tragic hearings unrelated to this. All the witnesses were very tearful and visibly upset. Martin Smith on the other hand seemed to show no emotion, he was merely stating the facts,' Mike Garde says.

Another characteristic of cult-like behaviour is a chasm between the outside and inside world.

'The outside world becomes evil and wrong. The inside world is good and right. Included in this is a tendency to reduce contact with the evil outside, to create boundaries between the two worlds. Natural families become sidelined and the group itself begins to resemble a family.'

On the evening of the inquest, Mike Garde wrote a report on his research into the Pilgrim House Community, which he circulated to all the bishops of Ireland. In this report, he raised questions about the spiritual and mental health of the community and urged the Catholic Church to establish some level of pastoral support for the group.

He says he finds it bizarre that a community profoundly committed to non-violence would tolerate violent behaviour within the group.

'If the Community had heard this type of violent behaviour all day but did not move to interfere, does this indicate that it had become routine and no longer raised a question?' he asked in his report. 'It is quite clear that this community needs outside help. Proper authority needs to be exercised but doing nothing could be a recipe for disaster!' the report concludes.

So far, Mike Garde and Dialogue Ireland have heard nothing back from the bishops.

However, Magill has learnt that one senior church figure has also written to the Archdiocese of Dublin about an incident that occurred after the inquest.

Sunday Tribune reporter Richard Oakley arrived at the coroner's inquest to write a feature on Pilgrim House. He was approached by Martin Smith, who asked him not to run with the piece. Later, the Sunday Tribune received several phone calls and letters on the same lines from other members of Pilgrim House.

The Sunday Tribune was also contacted by Archbishop J Carroll of Canberra, Australia, who pleaded with the newspaper not to report on the inquest. This incident was referred to in a senior church figure's letter to the Dublin Archdiocese. 'The involvement of an archbishop from Australia with this community seems very unusual. Normal courtesy and canon law would preclude the involvement of a bishop in the affairs of another diocese,' he commented elsewhere.

Other church sources have indicated to Magill that as the Pilgrim House Community has not sought to establish official links with the Catholic Church, they are outside of the church's jurisdiction. It was also suggested that the church would be hesitant to involve itself with a community where a death has occurred. On the issue of the Archbishop of Canberra's involvement, one church source told Magill: 'It is hard to define where the boundaries between friendship and involvement are.' Other church sources expressed their doubt that the church would be willing to involve itself with a community where a death has occurred.

Magill also understands that local journalists in the Wexford area have found the Pilgrim House Community uncooperative when approached. 'The usual response has been a threat of legal action,' says one journalist. Another former journalist in a local paper said that he had approached the Community when they first arrived at Inch. 'When I approached Pilgrim House to write a simple, soft feature highlighting their work, I found them to be adamantly opposed to giving an interview. I found it strange.'

This reporter has also learnt that at the time of Proinsias de Rossa's election campaign, a call was made from the Labour Party to Pilgrim House for the candidate to visit a coffee shop for asylum-seekers that the Community was running on Dublin's Mary Street. It was assured that a photo there prove a good public relations exercise for the Community. However, Magill understands that co-operation was not forthcoming and Deputy de Rossa lunched in the coffee shop in a private capacity.

Magill tried to contact the Pilgrim House Community on several occasions and even sent a detailed list of questions by post. However, the Community declined to discuss the above matters. A spokeswoman later said Martin Smith was still in mourning for his wife and had requested all the Community members not to talk to the media. Another family with members in the Community hung up immediately when contacted by Magill. A local priest who says mass for the Community asked Magill to 'back off' and respect the Community's wish to heal of the terrible events.

Show Me The Money

The Pilgrim House Community is believed to consist of 26 people. Of this figure, 11 or 12 are said to be leaders who look after the rest of the group, which includes seven mentally handicapped people place in their care by the former EHB, and adopted Romanian orphans.

The group received a grant of £100,000 per year from health boards. The group reportedly lives off this grant and other donations. It is also believed that the group receives some extra income from the sale of wooden furniture and through the leasing of some of their land to neighbouring farmers. None of the members of the Pilgrim House Community reportedly work outside of the Community, but spend their days in prayer.

The group is registered as a charity with the Revenue Commissioners and therefore is not liable to pay income tax.

However, sustaining a 26-strong community and their premises in Hyde Park House in Inch is like to require significantly more funding and donations alongside the health board grants. The property includes 12 acres of land and six houses in total, including a church which was built recently, and a bakery. The property is currently up for sale with an asking price of £1m.

The entire group also travelled to Israel in 1999 and the trip is said to have been made over land over a period of several months. The cost of this trip would have been significant. It is also believed that the Community spent time in Greece and Norway as part of this trip. Recently, at least one of the members spent some time in North Korea. Prior to their pilgrimage to Israel, two of the members reportedly flew there in advance to meet the Greek Catholic Patriarch.

A curate acting as occasional chaplain for the Pilgrim House Community also told the Gorey Echo newspaper in 1999 that the group 'has a lot of contacts and has strong links with the Jesuit leader John Sabrino and Dorothy Day, head of a leading Catholic community in New York.'

The group also used to print newspaper, The Pilgrim, which is believed to have had a circulation of 10,000. One of the members of the Pilgrim House Community is a former editor of the Irish Catholic.

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