The novice nun, the holy retreat and the barefoot apostle of love

The Globe and Mail (Canada)/June 25, 2002
By Krista Foss

Winnipeg -- When Jane McDonald first met Superior Jeanne Wilfort, she was a charismatic innovator from the Canadian wild West who never wore a habit, gave presentations in her bare feet and represented the antithesis of a dour and conservative servant of God.

As an impressionable novice from New Hampshire, Sister McDonald was so taken by the funky nun's blending of psychology and spirituality that she eventually got herself assigned to the experimental retreat called Maisons de Croissance (Homes for Growth) that Sister Wilfort founded in Manitoba in 1977.

For the next 20 years, Sister McDonald struggled with what she says she experienced there.

In a recent sworn affidavit filed in Winnipeg courts, she alleges that Sister Wilfort's unorthodox therapy included hugging and affection between female community members and even lying down with each other in order "to be surrounded by love."

On several occasions, according to Sister McDonald's affidavit, the senior nun climbed into Sister McDonald's bed where she took her own clothes off, ordered the younger woman to undress and performed an escalating variety of sexual acts which she said were "sacred" and "God's healing" and part of a "special and secret" relationship they shared.

It was these actions which led Sister McDonald to believe the elder nun was leading "a sort of cult, operating within the Congregation," her affidavit states. Sister McDonald left Homes for Growth in 1980.

Rocky Pollack, the lawyer representing Homes for Growth, warns that none of these allegations have been tested in court.

"My client treats it very seriously, and we will deal with the matter in court," he said. "These allegations are at a very preliminary stage."

The Superior-General of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, to which Sister Wilfort belongs, did not respond to phone calls; neither did the order's Montreal-based lawyer.

Sister McDonald's application to remove the six-year time limit on lawsuits alleging breaches of fiduciary duty was filed in early April and her affidavit in late May, and neither has had any legal response from the named parties.

Today, three years after disclosing her allegations to Holy Cross superiors, Sister McDonald says she finds herself isolated in her own congregation and is considering leaving the order altogether.

Her lawyer, Anthony Dalmyn, says Sister McDonald may have been the victim of a psychotherapy cult and what is known in some legal circles as cult abuse.

Homes for Growth was a product of the seventies and the Roman Catholic Church's shift from education to other less institutional forms of ministry. Sister Wilfort was trained in Personality and Human Relations (PRH), a brand of humanist psychology founded by French educator André Rochais in 1970.

Sister Wilfort founded Homes for Growth along with a member of the Winnipeg-based Oblate Fathers, Raymond Beauregard, who is now dead. The centre was supported financially by Oblate Fathers and the Sisters of the Holy Cross.

A spokesman for the Oblate Fathers said yesterday he did not know much about Homes for Growth other than it was a "place where people went to journey with their personal lives" and that some Oblate members were involved.

When Homes for Growth was established, Sister Wilfort was the provincial superior in Western Canada for the Sisters of the Holy Cross, whose headquarters are in St. Laurent, Que. Later she was regional superior in Manitoba.

Homes for Growth would expand to include seven houses in and around Winnipeg during the 1980s.

The Homes for Growth house in Lorette, Man., about 20 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg, was Sister's Wilfort personal domain. It was there that she took sole responsibility for the religious formation of Sister McDonald, who was then 28.

Private counselling sessions were held in her bedroom, Sister McDonald alleges.

"She said that I had an evil mother and that I had to suck her spiritual goodness," according to Sister McDonald's affidavit. "For the first few episodes, I would not remove my underpants. After the first few episodes, I agreed. She pulled me on top of her and said that now we could be really close and this was much better."

Sister McDonald said she did not realize then that what she alleges happened to her was sexual violation because it was presented "within the context of religious formation and personal counselling."

She alleges that when she finally stopped complying, Sister Wilfort flew into a rage and physically struck her. After that, she says, she was systematically cut off from opportunities and advancements in Western Canada within the order.

Sister McDonald says in the affidavit that, three years ago, she disclosed the allegations to her Holy Cross superiors. She says she was told that Sister Wilfort's conduct was intended to be therapeutic and had beneficial effects.

In the spring of 2001, there was a Vatican-ordered investigation by a member of the Grey Nuns. But Sister McDonald has never been told what was discovered or whether anything would be done.

"The whole thing in religious life is about forgiving and forgetting," the soft-spoken Sister McDonald said in a recent interview. "And I don't know how to communicate to people that forgiving and forgetting happens only when you really remember and speak about it."

Sister McDonald, now 50, is recovering from a recent battle with breast cancer. The isolation she felt left her fighting depression and unable to trust others, especially those in authority.

But her faith has never been shaken, she said.

She wants to see Homes for Growth disbanded and the nearly 70-year old Sister Wilfort, who left Manitoba this past fall, removed from the order.

"I felt like I've been betrayed by the congregation . . . she is a very powerful leader, and she has been for 30 years. It is easier to dispose of me than to deal with her," she said

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