In Belvidere, controversial sect stirs worry

Council rejected facility plan, but group may appeal

The Chicago Tribune/July 13, 2007
By Jeff Long

The vacant hospital has been an eyesore in Vivian Penny's Belvidere neighborhood for seven years, but when Love Holy Trinity Blessed Mission announced plans to buy it, she and some other residents grew suspicious.

"It sounded like a cult to me," Penny said.

The proposal prompted four months of boisterous debate within the Boone County community, which ended this month when the Belvidere City Council rejected the group's plan to convert the property into a monastery and convent. The discussion reopened questions about the secretive organization, which some say has torn families apart.

For Penny and her neighbors, the rejection was a relief, but she worries the fight isn't over.

"We're just going to be ready for the next step," Penny said as she thumbed through thick files of information she has collected about the group.

The group raised the possibility at the City Council meeting that a lawsuit may be filed over the rejection, she said.

"I don't think they have a leg to stand on," she said. "They said they were going to go home and pray about [appealing the decision]."

Love Holy Trinity officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.

For years the Chicago-based religious group -- which calls itself Roman Catholic but is not recognized by the church -- has been mired in controversy over allegations that it uses coercive tactics to recruit members and misrepresents church teachings. Founded in 1993, it is active in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago barred the group from using church facilities. In September 2005, Dubuque Archbishop Jerome Hanus issued a statement about the group's secretiveness and authoritarian leadership.

The statement came in the wake of an Iowa mother's attempts to contact her daughter, who had joined the mission in August 2005 after attending prayer meetings for several years with her father, a member.

Lora Knott of McGregor, Iowa, made Chicago headlines in 2005 when she visited the mission's Diversey Avenue headquarters to try to contact her daughter, Ashley Fahey, then 19. The teen had abandoned plans to attend college to become a "sister" in the mission.

Knott said in an interview this week that she has not seen or heard from her daughter since Aug. 24, 2005 -- despite repeated letters and phone messages. The daughter did not attend the recent funeral of Knott's father, a grandfather with whom she once was close.

"If something like this can happen to Ashley, it can happen to anybody," Knott said of her daughter, who will turn 21 next month. "It has just left a lot of heartache. I think a lot of us could have peace if we could just hear from her."

Isolation of members is one factor that makes Rick Ross, who studies controversial groups, describe the mission as having the characteristics of a cult. Another aspect is the members' devotion to their leader, Agnes Kyo McDonald, said Ross, founder and executive director of a New Jersey non-profit organization that studies such groups.

"Agnes Kyo claims that she is the vessel, the channel, for the Virgin Mary to communicate with the world," said Ross, who has been studying cults since 1982. "The leader isolates his or her followers in order to eliminate any possible criticism or feedback from the outside."

Stories like Knott's raised concerns for Penny in March, when she heard about the mission's plans in Belvidere.

Penny organized a neighborhood meeting to discuss the proposal, inviting Donna Backstrom of Davenport, Iowa, to speak about the mission. Backstrom, whose sister and niece are members of the group, drove 130 miles from her home to attend four meetings in Belvidere about the proposal. She also attended the July 2 vote by the City Council.

"I've lost a sister, I've lost a niece," said Backstrom, who has been investigating the group for years. "It's pretty much destroyed our family."

Belvidere officials rejected the group's request for a zoning change that would have allowed it to set up a monastery and convent for 120 members, a retreat center to accommodate up to 150 people, office space and a boarding school at the former St. Joseph Hospital on Andrews Drive.

Belvidere Mayor Frederick Brereton said several planning meetings were held, allowing the group to present its case for the zoning change.

"The Planning Commission certainly spent an exorbitant amount of time listening to all of the testimony," Brereton said.

The council rejected the plan, however, because it would create too much activity in the residential neighborhood. The hospital had been there before the current zoning, but the proposed new use meant the group needed to get permission to operate in a residential neighborhood, he said.

Jan Imhof, a member of the group, told the Rockford Register Star after the council meeting, "We feel we have been treated unfairly and unjustly, and that this entire process has been corrupted right from the beginning."

During a telephone interview, Knott described a well-rounded, loving daughter who was involved in track and Girl Scouts and who planned a career in education.

"I truly believe in having your faith," Knott said through tears. "But it does not involve separation of families like this. When you're not allowed to ask questions, when questions go unanswered -- secrets are not healthy, when it comes to religion."

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