Ashley Fahey of McGregor was packed for college. The bright, energetic student and athlete had already purchased Loras College sweat shirts for her family. With an $18,000 scholarship in hand, she was eager to start her education and become a high school teacher one day.
Then on Aug. 20, the night before her parents were to take her to college, she radically changed her plans. She was going to become a “sister” in a new religious order called Love Holy Trinity Blessed Mission.
By the next day, she was gone. Fahey’s mother and stepfather, Lora and Roger Knott, say they have been cut off from her since, and they are stunned.
“In one day, our whole life turned upside down,” Lora Knott said.
The Knotts, along with family members of other mission followers in eastern Iowa and Wisconsin, have accused the organization of “cult-like” tactics.
On Thursday, officials of the Diocese of Dubuque joined the growing criticism of the group. The Rev. Jerome Hanus, archbishop of Dubuque, said he can no longer remain silent. He ordered Catholic officials in the 30-county diocese to refuse permission for the group to meet in church facilities and cautioned Catholics against participation.
After its own investigation, the diocese became concerned about the secretive nature of the group, the authoritarian approach of its leader, possible harm to families and evidence of “characteristics of a cult.”
Among the characteristics cited is isolating members from their families. The Knotts have not been able to contact their daughter, who they are told is at the group’s “convent” in Chicago.
The dioceses of Rockford, Ill., and Madison, Wis., have also denounced the group, and diocese officials there say they have ordered church leaders and parish priests to cease involvement with it.
Members of the Chicago-based mission have been meeting in eastern Iowa Catholic churches and other venues for more than a dozen years, claiming Catholic roots. Mission members say there are “several hundred” involved in the group, mainly at its headquarters in Chicago but also in the Iowa communities of Dubuque, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, Monticello and Decorah.
Since October, members have purchased 10 buildings divided into 70 apartment units for more than $2 million in downtown Dubuque, according to city records. They are also establishing a retreat center on a 400-acre farm near Bellevue, donated by mission member Dick Vogt.
Vogt, who lives in Dubuque, said the mission is born of Catholic teachings and is trying to establish itself as a new order, just as “Mother Theresa started a religious order.” He said Ashley Fahey, 19, has entered a “period of discernment” of her own free will and doesn’t want to talk to the media or her family.
He also said the group’s leader, Agnes Kyo McDonald, is unavailable for comment “because of the persecution” of her group.
Monsignor James Barta, vicar general of the Diocese of Dubuque, said the diocese was pushed to quicker action after the growing outcry over Ashley Fahey.
The town of McGregor is dotted with pink ribbons for Ashley, said Lora Knott, who is a registered nurse. The Knotts say their daughter’s personality suddenly changed after attending a mission retreat in Dubuque the week before she was scheduled to attend college.
She had been a high-spirited and active high-schooler, involved in Girls State and 4-H, earning nearly a 4.0 grade-point average, and three times earning a trip to the state track meet, they said.
On the day she told her parents of the new plans, they say her face was emotionless and she spoke in monotone. She said she was giving up her car and her scholarship and following her calling. She said she had to do it or she would be corrupted by Satan.
They knew Ashley had been attending the group’s meetings in Dubuque with her biological father, Ron Fahey, who couldn’t be reached for comment. But they had assumed the meetings were sanctioned by the Catholic Church. Only after Ashley was gone did they begin a deeper investigation.
They contacted others who said their loved ones had cut off all contact after joining the mission.
Donna Backstrom of Davenport has been investigating the group for 19 months, since her 25-year-old niece joined the “convent.”
“They prey on the vulnerable,” she said. “If you look at the people involved, it fills a void in their life. Yet they become detached from their families.”
Like others, including The Des Moines Register, she has called the group’s Chicago telephone number countless times and left messages that were never returned.
“They do a helluva job of brainwashing,” said Jerry Pins of Dubuque, who says 11 family members are in the mission, including his daughter, son-in-law and five grandchildren. “They tell them they will all go to hell if they leave.”
Another daughter, Laura Droeske of Cuba City, Wis., said she attended many meetings and a retreat but smelled a rat.
After her husband lost his job and she lost a baby, she was looking for direction in her life, she said. The group soothed her and made her feel welcome. Then they began to work on her.
“They told me I was self-centered and questioned what god I was praying to,” she said. “They like to nicely insult you. They strip away your self-confidence.”
Mission members say such criticism is persecution.
“We are just people getting together to understand God’s holy will,” said Jan Imhof, 57, of Dubuque.
Members traveled to Rome 2 1/2 years ago, Vogt said, to persuade the Roman Catholic Church to allow them to become an order. He was told that they needed to support themselves financially. That’s when they began to acquire rental property in Dubuque.
Vogt said the accusations of cult-like activities are a lie.
“Ashley is an adult and has the free will to lead her own way of life,” he said. “She can leave at any time.”
In a letter published in Sunday’s Dubuque Telegraph Herald attributed to Ashley Fahey, she wrote that her decision was based on her “holy calling” and that her mother and stepfather “feel they have a better place for me than God.”
The last time Lora Knott saw her daughter was Aug. 24 when she confronted McDonald and her daughter at the mission’s Bellevue farm. She was accompanied by Sister Mary McCauley, pastoral administrator of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in McGregor.
“Ashley just looked exhausted, and her voice was monotone,” Lora Knott said.
McCauley said she had seen the same change in Ashley, whom she taught her in Catholic confirmation classes and knew as a vibrant, energetic person.
“I saw some red flags with this group,” she said. “They emphasize sin and a threatening God. Ashley said she felt this call from God, and if she didn’t respond, something terrible was going to happen to her. That’s not my God.”
About the group
The Love Holy Trinity Blessed Mission is a new religious order based in Chicago that claims roots in the Catholic church. It has communities in Cedar Rapids, Decorah, Dubuque, Monticello, and Waterloo.
Some members of the Catholic church have voiced opposition to the group, citing concerns including the secretive nature of the group, members being isolated from their families, and evidence of “characteristics of a cult.”
Where to learn more
The Web site factnet.org provides information on cults and mind-control tactics and other resources. It also includes a discussion on Love Holy Trinity Blessed Mission. The Web site for Love Holy Trinity Blessed Mission is lhtbm.com.