Mission of the Holy Spirit had riveting history in Westport

East Bay Newspapers/October 13, 2004
By Paul Tamburello

Westport -- "You're living on holy ground," a man said to William Wyatt after knocking on the front door of his house on River Road. That was news to Mr. Wyatt, who had purchased the house in 1986. The man, whom Mr. Wyatt describes as "an old testament figure," explained that "the third incarnation of Jesus Christ had lived in this house."

As he left, he said he was taking legal steps to get the property back but that Mr. Wyatt and his wife Sally shouldn't worry. The man never returned but the story made Mr. Wyatt aware that his five-room house had more history than he imagined.

The "holy ground" turned out to include not only Mr. Wyatt's house, but also Great Island and an adjacent parcel of 35 acres on the West Branch of the Westport River once owned by the Mission of the Holy Spirit. The mission was the subject of Mr. Wyatt's talk at the Westport Historical Society at the Bell School House on August 12. (Mr. Wyatt is president of the Westport Historical Society.)

Using information from the archives of Fall River newspapers, the Mission of the Holy Spirit's web site, and local knowledge, Mr. Wyatt described a little-known sect that established itself on Great Island in Westport in 1921. The mission existed rather quietly until a sensational trial in 1925 spelled its demise here.

The Great Island Mission of Holy Spirit main building which was eventually torched. Only the foundation can be seen today amidst the bushes.

Mr. Wyatt said, "The tale I shall tell will speak of religious convictions, belief in a savior figure, utopianism, chicanery, and delusion all tangled together inextricably."

The savior figure of the Mission of the Holy Spirit was Eugene Richer dit La Flèche. Mr. La Flèche was born in St. George de Windsor in Quebec, Canada. He seemed to lead an unremarkable life until 1913 when he created the Mission of the Holy Spirit. In essence, he considered himself the reincarnation of Holy Ghost (Spirit), the third person in the Holy Trinity in the catechism of the Catholic Church. Whether through his charisma or the gullibility of others, Mr. La Flèche attracted followers who believed in him and were willing to turn over their money to him and live communally with other like minded believers.

In the early 20th century, French Canadians had begun immigrating to this region's mills, which were flourishing in riverside areas all over Southeastern Massachusetts. Adelard Giasson, one of Mr. La Flèche entrepreneurial followers, had been drawn from Montreal to Fall River in order to take advantage of the real estate development that was in full swing there. Somehow, Mr.Wyatt theorized, Mr. Giasson found his way to Westport and was instrumental in acquiring land here.

By 1921, Mr. La Flèche's mission had been persecuted in Montreal and Mr. Wyatt speculated that Mr. Giasson persuaded Mr. La Flèche to bring the Mission of the Holy Spirit to Westport.

Great Island and its nearby shores proved to be an ideal remote location for their religious community. They erected a meeting hall on the island and an apartment building for members on the shore. Mr. Wyatt describes the Great Island building as "a large main house with a single room on the first floor and two apartments above. The room on the first floor was a common room, evidently, in which the group held its religious observances and other gatherings. On the walls between the windows there were, instead of pictures, mirrors so the place may have been quite bright in daylight."

The central goal of the mission was to rid the world of sin and to bring world peace. That goal does not put it far out of the mainstream but, Mr. Wyatt observed, other beliefs were not so universally held. He quoted a Nov. 25, 1925, New Bedford paper: "Mr. Giasson introduced Mr. La Flèche as God in person and absolute controller of the world...members were assured by Mr. La Flèche that killing priests and lawyers was not a crime, members were tricked into signing contracts to work for other members for no compensation other than food, lodging, and clothing...La Flèche asserted that the society would eventually own all of Fall River and eventually that it would rule the whole United States."

Mr.Wyatt characterized the assertions as "newspaper talk, designed to sell papers but most of the assertions can be substantiated to some extent." Mr. La Flèche evidently believed that since Adam and Eve, humans had become children of the devil. To reverse this, he intended, through a catechism he named "Eugenics," to create a positive spiritual and cultural environment for pregnant women, who, as a result of this benign environment, would issue "children of God." Mr. La Flèche also had little regard for lawyers and the Catholic clergy, which put him in their crosshairs after the Mission became more widely known.

Although painted differently by the press, the mission's activity in Westport seems to have been benign. The master, as Mr. La Flèche was called by followers, lived on Great Island. Although dancing was forbidden, a piano was brought to the island to accompany hymn singing, which, along with swimming, was a regular routine there.

Many members did indeed turn their savings over to the mission and in return shared food, lodging and the company of like minded followers ("communists" was a term used often used to describe them). In the question period that followed Mr. Wyatt's talk, one audience member thought that Borden Tripp may have employed some mission members as day laborers.

The mission eventually came under attack because of claims of fraud aimed at Adelard Giasson in regard to his real estate dealings in Fall River and the recriminations, sponsored, Mr. Wyatt speculates, by the Catholic Church, of dissatisfied members of the mission who brought a suit against it.

In 1923, with the lawsuit in the works, Mr. La Flèche left Westport with a few followers and drove to California, where he died in January 1925. Adelard Giasson was brought to trial in November 1925. He was convicted of fraud in his real estate practices and sentenced to a year in jail. Mr. Wyatt described the trial as "informal verging on the sloppy." He said that any Perry Mason fan would agree that a massive amount of "hearsay evidence" was allowed in court. Mr. Wyatt said that Mr. La Flèche was never accused of breaking the law and was highly regarded by members of the group even at the end.

The public treated the group in what today's parlance would be the "lunatic fringe." The story, Mr. Wyatt said, was spun as an "exotic group of people who spoke French, lived on an island, had a charismatic leader, unknown beliefs, and cult practices were alleged. Most who followed the trial were probably more interested in learning sensational things about the cult than about the guilt or innocence of Adelard Giasson. A number of deluded souls testified."

There isn't much left to see at Great Island today. The underbrush hides the foundation of the mission's main building, which was "torched" in what was described as a "Halloween prank" many years ago. The man who knocked on Mr. Wyatt's door, never to appear again, turned out to be the son of Adelard Giasson, whose family owned the property until 1986.

"The group still exists in California and Montreal," Mr. Wyatt said, and "is one of the little oddments of Westport history too often forgotten or overlooked." His light-hearted concluding sentence, greeted with laughter, was, "If you have a sect that needs an island, Great Island is now for sale."

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