Is the Virgin Mary alive and well and living in La Beauce?
The building tucked into a serene corner of Quebec farm country is an impossible white against autumn's technicolour landscape, and the giant, jarring slab of blue sky above. It is so white it practically shines against the huge, blacktop parking lot in front, and two gold statues, angels both, look on approvingly from the manicured lawn. Between the two gold angels stands a statue of the Virgin Mary in a wading pool. Water spits out from under her feet. With hands outstretched, Mary stands guard over it all, from the heavy wooden doors to the tall, proud crucifix atop the steeple. Welcome to Spiri-Maria, the sprawling headquarters of the Army of Mary, a Catholic sect that claims to have 25,000 members around the world. Spiri-Maria is home to some 60 nuns, priests and followers who are as dedicated to their faith as any other practicing Catholic. There are regular services, steeped in rituals of the church. There are confessionals; there is holy water; there is the reverent, subdued dress of the nuns and priests who live and work at the centre.
There is even 24-hour prayer, as every priest, nun and follower takes a daily turn at the altar. The only difference is minor, at least at first sight: the Virgin Mary shares a spot with Jesus in a picture above the cross at Spiri-Maria. It is Mary's place next to Jesus that constitutes one of the biggest threats to the integrity of the Catholic Church, Canadian Catholic authorities claim. Its followers, they say, have been beguiled and misled by the Army of Mary, tricked into following its enigmatic leader.
"The teachings of the Army of Mary are heretical," says Rev Mr William Kokesch of the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops (CCCB). "They are not a Catholic Association."
In 1991, the Vatican's highest court joined the CCCB in condemning the sect, and a recent doctrinal missive issued last month reiterated what the church said before: the Army of Mary leadership is full of heretics. All of this because of an 80-year-old woman from Lac Etchemin says she is the reincarnation of Mary, Mother of God.
"Mother Mary is fully enveloped by God," Army of Mary priest Pierre Mastropietro says offhandedly. "She prays every day, but her life is so attached to that of Mary's that she isn't Mary but she is Mary at the same time. If we try to explain it we'll change its meaning."
He isn't talking about the Virgin Mary, the one of biblical yore. At least, not physically. Rather, it is Mary's reincarnation who lives on the second floor of Spiri-Maria, among her devout followers. Marie-Paule, as she is known, is the reason Spiri-Maria, in all its whitewashed glory, exists. Marie-Paule is also a cheap, delusional huckster in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Marie-Paule Giguère, Mother Mary to the devout, says God has channelled the spirit of the Virgin Mary through her since 1933. At the young age of 12, God presented her with a vision, and a promise: she would be a victim of souls, and would endure a life of pain and suffering for the good of mankind. In the following years, Marie-Paule would prove God right. She married in 1944, and led a miserable existence complete with abject poverty, an abusive husband and five small children to care for.
She also had three of the seven medical operations earlier predicted by God: one hysterectomy and two to remove abscesses from her breasts. (All her operations are described in Life of Love, her autobiographical opus available in the Spiri-Maria gift shop.) In 1958, she separated from her husband, placed her children in an orphanage and - thanks to another edict from God - became the Virgin Mary incarnate. Her mission, as interpreted from the Bible and described in Life of Love, is to prepare the kingdom of Earth for the return of God, and to crush the head of the devil. So Marie-Paule started the Army of Mary in 1971. In 1998 she built Spiri-Maria on the outskirts of her hometown, because God told her to do so. Throughout it all, she has remained an elusive figure.
She rarely gives interviews and is seldom seen by anyone outside of Spiri-Maria. Visitors, journalists and the curious alike must make do with her picture, sold for $1.25 at the downstairs gift shop, or a CD recording of her reading Life of Love. With the word of God came visions - including, her followers say, a rather prophetic image of two sunken, destroyed buildings in a cloud of smoke and dust, something she mentioned in a sermon in 1980. The claims of prophetic insight, and the talk of reincarnation, haven't met well with Catholic authorities. Though the Army of Mary was deemed a "Pious Association" in 1975, the church removed this title in 1987 because the army's teachings were contrary to established Catholic belief. The army continues to ordain priests through the Sons of Mary, however, and two Catholic Bishops have defied the CCCB. As a result, the Army of Mary has been in religious limbo for 15 years, existing somewhere between religious sect and outright cult.
Her followers, meanwhile, couldn't be happier. After all, the persecution of Marie-Paule only goes to show what she really is: a prophet and a saint, who will pave the way for God's arrival on Earth. "Think of all the instruments of God that have suffered," says Mastropietro, a tiny smile curling his lips. "These people have had a role to play for the purification of certain members of the Church." Mastropietro is a nervous man who seems at rest only when he speaks about his faith and Marie-Paule. He is polite to a fault - "We do not judge anyone," he says quietly when reminded that he is a heretic in the eyes of Canada's Catholic authority - and extols the virtues of Marie-Paule at the slightest chance.
Both he and devout follower Sylvie Payeur-Raynauld make the elusive Marie-Paule seem all the more contradictory: at times, they speak as though she is Mary. Other times, they say she only incorporates the spirit of Mary. Neither tries to explain her - they can't, they say, as she is a great, transcendent mass of contradictions whose mythical powers have confounded theologians and even the Catholic Church. "We are very loyal to her, like we are toward any instrument of the good Lord, but at the same time she is so simple, she is so close to us that we forget how grand she is," Father Mastropietro says. "We forget that God is next to us."
Not according to Catholic authorities, I say. "One day, they will open their eyes, and so will you, I hope," Mastropietro says, shrugging. "Otherwise the Army of Mary will threaten you for a long time."
Over Mastropietro's shoulder is a photo of Padre Pio, a Capuchin priest from whom the Army of Mary draws inspiration. Like Mary Paule, they say, Pio was exiled by Church brass when he bore the signs of Godliness. Pio carried the marks of crucifixion, the stigmata, in his hands and feet for 50 years, and was both worshipped by his followers and condemned as a hysterical masochist by the church. Pio's legacy has weathered well, however. Pope John Paul II recently beatified him, something Marie-Paule's followers are convinced will happen with her. "What comforts us is that almost every authentic work of God has been treated badly by the Church," Payeur says. "It is only a matter of time before the Church realizes she is a saint."
As evidence, Payeur notes the continued support of Marie-Paule's faithful. Despite several official condemnations from Canadian authorities and the Vatican court, not a single member has left Marie-Paule's flock. Through their donations, these followers keep Spiri-Maria thriving. "We never have funding drives," Mastropietro says. Everywhere in Spiri-Maria, silence is urged and practiced. Still, prayers and thoughtful walks through the building are often disturbed by very intrusive noises indeed: the drone of diesel engines and bulldozers. Spiri-Maria, which looks less like a church than a theme park for the truly pious, is in the midst of expanding. The 40,000-square-foot building is getting a new sisters' residence. Marie-Paule is said to be front and centre in the planning of the new expansion - with a lot of help from God himself. Despite bad words from the Catholic Church (not to mention the clatter from the construction site) tour buses continue to pull up to the doors of Spiri-Maria. The faithful spill out into the house of worship, and are usually on their knees within seconds. Some gasp at the beauty. Some even cry.