35-year-old apocalyptic sect faces uncertainties

Hattiesburg American/January 10, 2009

New Jerusalem, Mexico - This religious community in western Mexico is separated from the modern world by a 30-foot-high padlocked gate with turrets that could be straight out of a Disney movie.

Within its confines, a massive cross and an 11-story tower loom over a statue of a knight in armor. Bell towers and domes rise from fields of sugar cane. Women in Renaissance garb parade through the streets, chanting prayers.

This is New Jerusalem, the largest and longest surviving of a string of traditionalist Catholic colonies that have sprung up around the world. Here, soccer balls and alcohol are forbidden, women are required to wear headscarves, and many people believe the end of the world is just around the corner.

Now, 35 years after its founding, some residents are worried that New Jersualem's future is in danger.

The Mexican government has broken a long tradition of leaving the town alone, having recently set up a public school and sent in riot police to protect dissidents. The deaths of the sect's two spiritual leaders this year have left followers divided and confused. And, perhaps most worrisome, the population has dropped from 8,000 to 3,000, and is rapidly aging.

"I came here when there were 10 houses," says Miguel Chavez Barrera, a former church leader who lost his position in a 2006 purge. "Now, to see it come to this. ... It's enough to drive you crazy."

New Jerusalem is the biggest of the Catholic "holy communities" that were created in the backlash against the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s, says Miguel Leatham, an anthropologist at Texas Christian University who is writing a book about the group. He says other similar communities exist in Japan, Australia and in the United States in St. Marys, Kan.

Visions of Virgin Mary

The reforms - which allowed Mass in languages other than Latin and urged more tolerance toward non-Catholics, among other changes - were opposed by many priests including Nabor Cardenas, New Jerusalem's founder. He urged his followers to create the town after a local woman, Gabina Sanchez Romero, said she saw the Virgin Mary warning that the Catholic Church had gone astray and the world would be destroyed before 2000.

Cardenas appointed himself archbishop, adopted the nickname "Papa Nabor" and presided over Masses in Latin wearing a papal hat and robe. New Jerusalem preached chastity, discouraged new marriages and advised against having children.

The Catholic Church rejected the sect and stripped Cardenas of his priesthood. But the story about the Virgin Mary found an eager audience. On weekends, thousands of pilgrims arrived by the busload to visit the town's shrine, drop money in donation boxes and shop.

Many visitors decided to stay - among them Americans from Fort Collins, Colo., and others from a traditionalist sect in New York City.

"We came because this was the only place in the world where you could actually live in the presence of the Virgin," says Franklin Gitchier, a former truck driver from Haverhill, Mass., who settled here with his mother in 1985.

To this day, New Jerusalem's residents go to church three times a day and celebrate Mass in traditional Latin, avoid outsiders and eschew government services like schools and clinics. No TVs, radios, makeup or nail polish are allowed.

Signs, some faded or peeling, warn visitors they are on sacred ground.

"A penitent people for an unrepentant world," says one.

"This place is unique in all the world," says church spokesman Gerardo Ruiz. "It is an ark for those who truly believe."

Clashes among rivals

However, a series of schisms and purges have slowly been tearing the community apart. As early as 1982, one band of faithful set fire to a rival chapel and chased their members from their houses. Many residents left in the 1990s after the rise of a new "seer," Agapito Gomez, who mimicked different voices into a tape recorder - including that of John F. Kennedy - and claimed they were messages from the afterlife.

Then, the 2000 deadline for the apocalypse passed. The church claimed the world was spared because the Virgin Mary took pity on it.

The state finally built an elementary school here last year. Some church members tried to block the road to prevent construction but eventually relented, principal Armando Mouguia says.

Clashes among rival factions have become even more frequent. On Sept. 16, Mexico's Independence Day, scuffles broke out when church followers blocked a parade organized by the dissidents.

On Feb. 19, Cardenas died at age 98. Gomez, the seer, died on Sept. 26. No new visionary has emerged, but the Michoacan government is bracing for another round of conflicts when one does.

"There is a latent risk of violence there," says Victor Manuel Serrato, president of the state branch of the National Commission on Human Rights.

Meanwhile, the flow of pilgrims, who sustained the church with donations, has slowed to a trickle. The church's biggest problem, however, is the town's aging population, says author Leatham. Many young men have left to find work.

The entire town still gathers every Wednesday at the shrine for a group meal. While sharing a pot of chicken with a visitor, Elinda Goll of Clifton, N.J., recounts the upheavals since she moved here in 1985.

"The Virgin weeps for this place," she says.

Additional Facts: New Jerusalem is the largest and longest surviving of a string of traditionalist Catholic colonies that have sprung up around the world.

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