North Idaho human rights activist, rabbi surprised
What do the Aryan Nations, the Ku Klux Klan and the home of Spokane’s Singing Nuns have in common?
They’re all on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s map of “hate groups” in the Northwest.
Mount St. Michael, home to a Latin Rite or Tridentine Catholic church, school and convent north of Spokane, has been listed since 2006 by the law center as a radical traditional Catholic group and accused of anti-Semitic activities.
Last week, the law center released the annual update of its “hate map” of groups around the country, which includes an interactive, easy-to-use online graphic. Mount St. Michael is one of 16 organizations mapped for Washington, sharing the state listing with a potpourri of neo-Nazi, Klan, Christian Identity, black separatist, white nationalist and racist skinhead groups.
The Alabama-based watchdog organization defends the St. Michael listing, but it surprised one of its local allies and prompted one longtime critic to say the center was showing its political bias.
The Rev. Casimir Puskorius, pastor of Mount St. Michael, calls the listing “very unfair” and contends it’s a result of a liberal organization taking issue with the teachings of a conservative Christian group.
“We considered suing them, some years ago, but they have more resources than us,” Puskorius said.
The law center has a long history of taking on groups like the Aryan Nations and the KKK in court, and it monitors a wide variety of organizations it deems “hate groups” all over the country.
Mark Potok, a researcher for the law center, insisted the church was not on the map because of its religious doctrines. The center’s intelligence report on the church from 2006 mentions an early leader’s penchant for conspiracies, reports about speakers who have given lectures on Jewish and Masonic plots for world domination or members who share that view.
The listing on the hate map surprised Tony Stewart, a North Idaho human rights activist who praises the law center for its work to defeat the Aryan Nations by winning a lawsuit that caused the neo-Nazis to surrender their compound at Hayden Lake. Stewart said he visited Mount St. Michael a few years ago when he invited the Singing Nuns to appear on a local public television show. They said they wanted to meet him first.
“We had coffee and cookies. I had a wonderful couple of hours with the leaders of the convent and the sisters,” Stewart said.
On hill near Hillyard
Mount St. Michael was originally developed north of Hillyard by Gonzaga’s Jesuits as a villa and as a farm to supply the university. It later became a seminary. In the 1970s, the Jesuits decided it was too expensive to operate and put the land up for sale. In 1977, it was purchased by a small but growing congregation of breakaway Catholics who rejected the reforms that started in the previous decade with the Second Vatican Council.
Sometimes called Tridentine or Latin-Rite Catholics, they believe changes in the liturgy and doctrine from Vatican II are invalid, as are all the popes and any pronouncements they have made since then. They use an older, Latin version of the Mass and adhere strictly to doctrines in place before that council.
In the early 1980s, the congregation’s leader, Bishop Francis Schuckardt, was ousted amid allegations of sexual misconduct, drug abuse and financial impropriety. Schuckardt and some of his followers went to California, where he was later arrested for drug violations. The main congregation continued to expand and now has facilities in Omaha as well as Spokane.
The law center lists some of Schuckardt’s legal and financial problems and abuse allegations in its intelligence briefing, adding that his successor has condemned the Vatican for efforts to reach out to Jews and Muslims and that the church’s website has sold anti-Semitic literature or hosted speakers who talk about Jewish-Masonic conspiracies or praise well-known anti-Semites.
Puskorius said the bookstore might have stocked some books like the law center describes at various times, or had some speakers who talk about those conspiracies at Mount St. Michael at some point. “Those are opinions that people have. People have made the case for them,” he said, but the church doesn’t push conspiracies.
The congregation is not anti-Semitic, Puskorius said. It invited a Jewish photographer to its annual conference to discuss the Shroud of Turin, the cloth that some believe wrapped the body of Jesus after the crucifixion, he said.
“We do pray for the conversion of the Jews,” Puskorius said, because they believe that’s what the Bible teaches. “We pray for the conversion of all non-Catholics.”
Hard to get off list
Mother Kathryn Joseph, who was among more than a dozen nuns who left Mount St. Michael in 2007 to rejoin the Roman Catholic Church and form a new order, doesn’t believe her former congregation is prejudiced against Jews. She had been at Mount St. Michael for decades and hadn’t heard anything about Jewish conspiracies since the 1980s, when Schuckardt ran the congregation. She remembers seeing “Protocols of Zion,” one of the anti-Semitic books mentioned by the law center, on a table in those days, but the former bishop “had a lot of conspiracy theory things out.”
Like most Traditional Catholic groups, they reject Nostra Aetate, a letter from Pope Paul VI which denounces anti-Semitism, Mother Kathryn said. But that’s because they reject everything any pope has done for the last 50 years, she added, not because of the message.
“To suggest that they are anti-Semitic is just not fair,” said Mother Kathryn, now the head of the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church, a Roman Catholic order in the Spokane Diocese.
The Sisters of Mary wear navy blue habits; the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen sisters from Mount St. Michael wear royal blue. Members of the two orders are often mistaken for each other. It’s the Mount St. Michael sisters who perform the Singing Nuns concerts around Christmas and the Fourth of July.
Carol Swain, a professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University and critic of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Mount St. Michael appears to be tarred by a liberal organization for holding conservative religious beliefs. Swain has previously defended conservative groups and individuals, such as Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs, who came under fire by the law center. She contends the law center is so narrow-minded that it is a hate group. Swain, an African-American who once recommended a documentary the center considers racist, has been labeled an apologist for white supremacists by the law center.
“I’ve never heard of anyone getting off their list,” Swain said. She thinks a conservative group should take being listed by the law center as “a badge of honor.”
The law center intelligence briefing lists no instances of anti-Semitic activities in the Spokane area traced to the congregation or any of its members, and Rabbi Michael Goldstein of Temple Beth Shalom said he’s unaware of any problems connected to the north Spokane church.
Christian traditions for centuries taught that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, Goldstein said. That often led to violence against Jews around Easter and was the basis for pogroms in Europe.
Those teachings “are a potential source of problems, but I don’t know of anything affecting my congregation” from Mount St. Michael, Goldstein said. The rabbi, who came to Spokane in 2011, said he didn’t even know where it was located.
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