Mothers of invention: the women behind the Community of Jesus

ORLEANS, MASS. — They were two overweight boozing housewives who hid their drinking, their harridan brawling and their lesbian affair from all but a few obeisant servants. They lived like royalty with a private plane at their command, a Jaguar, a Bermuda estate and a flat in England.

In private, they read cheap magazines, consumed vast amounts of food, fought physically and shrieked at each other for hours on end.

Publicly, they consorted with important figures in American politics and society, and met Pope John Paul II for a chummy chat.

And having founded an ultra-authoritarian Christian community that attracted the wealthy, the successful and often the mind-bruised to their compound on Massachusetts’s Cape Cod peninsula, they reached across the border to embrace Grenville Christian College, the private Ontario school now the subject of great controversy, and a naive hierarchy of the Anglican Church of Canada.

These were the Mothers, as the two women styled themselves. The prioresses of the Community of Jesus. Mother Cay Andersen, who ran a bed and breakfast with her building contractor husband Bill at the picturesque Orleans cove of Rock Harbor — until she met up with Mother Judy Sorensen, who, with her wealthy financier husband, also called Bill, had a summer cottage two miles away at Crystal Lake.

Their partnership, amazing in its audacity and charismatic despotism, produced the multimillion-dollar faith-based community that continues today under the mantra, “There’s nothing more beautiful than a life of obedience.”

Mother Cay died 19 years ago and Mother Judy has largely moved offstage, replaced by the equally authoritarian, more intelligent but less charismatic Mother Betty Pugsley.

But the religious dogma they stitched together out of their imaginations and the twists and turns of their own lives is what lies behind the current Anglican Church inquiry and Ontario Provincial Police criminal investigation into allegations of 20 years of psychological, physical and sexual abuse of students at the recently closed Grenville, located near Brockville.

As a close relative of one of the founding Mothers, speaking on condition of anonymity, put it: “Everything at Grenville was right out of the Cay and Judy playbook.”

In fact, the community at Cape Cod and the staff of the private boarding school on the St. Lawrence River were one organic body for several years longer than has been owned up to. Representatives for the community and the school said the two drifted apart in 1997 once headmaster Charles Farnsworth, an Anglican priest and devoted acolyte of the founding Mothers, was nudged into retirement. But a letter from Mother Betty in 2000 reminded school staff that “the vows [to the Community of Jesus] taken by many at Grenville” — among other things, swearing obedience to the group’s leaders — still applied.

For at least two decades, the regimes of autocratic leadership purporting to represent the will of God, absolute submissiveness from members, apocalyptic sin-drenched theology, bizarre abhorrence of sex and reported degradation and maltreatment of adults and children at each venue were identical, hidden behind a veneer of genteel respectability and high-society schmoozing abetted by Anglican priests and prelates as well as, in the U.S., clergy from other supposedly liberal mainline Protestant denominations.

What is surprising, maybe even astonishing, is that Community of Jesus control over Grenville was first reported in the U.S. media more than 25 years ago during a periodic journalistic branding — there have been five since the 1970s — of the organization as a mind-control cult.

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Yet, in Canada, Grenville has been seen as nothing other than an elite private school associated with Ontario’s WASP moneyed class and the Anglican Church — until this past summer when abuse allegations surfaced shortly after the school announced at the end of July that it was closing because of declining enrolment and rising costs.

How the two images of Grenville operated side by side for so long may never be clear.

How the Mothers of Cape Cod got such a grip on so many rich, well-educated and psychologically hurting people opens up a fascinating excursion into North American culture and the human psyche.

How a faith of love — as Christianity generally is thought to be — could be construed as a licence for physical beatings, for removing children from their families to avoid having them “idolatrized” by their parents in violation of the Second Commandment, and for ritualistic psychological humiliation and other “disciplines” to avoid and eradicate sin maybe doesn’t bear thinking about.

On the other hand, how the Anglican Church of Canada became a party to all this is worth looking into.

Instant attraction

Cay Andersen was an abusive, foul-tempered, hard-drinker plagued with childhood illnesses and later afflictions that marked her adult life — hepatitis A, chorea (an abnormal involuntary movement disorder also known as St. Vitus Dance) and petit mal seizures.

Although not nominally a churchgoer, she became attracted to a faith-healing group at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Orleans where, in the summer of 1958, she met the vivacious, articulate, attractive Judy Sorensen, who vacationed with her husband and four children on the Cape, and was acquiring a reputation as a charismatic healer.

Cay was 45; Judy was 31.

According to Peter Andersen, Cay’s adopted son, who is now a lay Roman Catholic counsellor in Vancouver, the physical attraction between the two women was immediate, soon evolving into a sexual relationship initiated by Cay.

The two also connected intellectually, became leaders of a prayer circle of local housewives called the Rock Harbor Fellowship and subsequently launched what a family member described as “the Cay and Judy act,” which they presented to Protestant congregations in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York.

Cay would berate Judy for her sins — a rough forerunner of Community of Jesus “light sessions,” stressing confession of sin in self and confrontation of sin in others (although it was always Judy’s sins, never Cay’s, that were confronted and confessed). After which Judy would single out someone in the congregation and make some amazing observation about the individual’s personality and past — thereby providing, said the family member, “six years’ worth of psychotherapy in 10 minutes. Judy was at the genius level at reading people and those who heard her were just stunned.”

In 1961, with Cay and Judy now engaged full-time in their ministry, the Sorensens moved into the Andersens’ bed-and-breakfast, called Rock Harbor Manor — a practical move, said Peter Andersen, given the women travelled a great deal and Bill Sorensen was away all week at his job in Boston.

“Dad was gone to work by 6:30, and Judy would get up and go into Cay’s bed,” Mr. Andersen said. “I was told always to knock before I went in.”

In the early 1960s, Cay and Judy befriended Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch evangelical minister who had sheltered Jews from the Nazis. She introduced them to Mother Basilea and Mother Martyria, who in 1947 had founded the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary in Darmstadt, Germany, with the objective of making Germans repent for their wartime sins and employing much of the strict “discipline” and psychological sin-scouring later embraced by the Community of Jesus.

Cay and Judy decided to create a satellite community of the sisterhood. First, Mother Martyria paid an advisory visit to Rock Harbor. Then came Mother Basilea, bringing four nuns from her sisterhood in 1968 to form the nucleus of a religious community. Judy started having a sexual affair with one of the nuns and was considering running off with her, which infuriated Cay, by then fighting with her on a regular basis.

Mother Basilea ordered all three to Darmstadt for counselling and harsh spiritual correction. Peter Andersen said Judy stayed for six months, but his mother tired of it and left earlier. It was 1969.

“Cay said, ‘We’re going to do this ‘community thing’ better. We can do it better than these people.’ ” And so the Community of Jesus was born, incorporated under Massachusetts law the following year.

Cay’s hope was that Peter, whom she idolized and who had joined the Darmstadt community as a monk in 1967, would return to Rock Harbor. But he didn’t like his mother and chose to stay in Germany for 10 years, a decision that shattered her. He recalled Mother Basilea telling him to hate his parents and dictating a letter to send home that was “deeply hurtful” to them.

Mr. Andersen said he is certain the community’s rule instituted by his mother and Judy Sorensen — whom Cay dominated — that removed children from their parents so they would not be “idolatrized” stemmed from his decision not to come home from Germany. If Cay Andersen was deprived of her child, so would everyone else: a generation of families fractured in the name of purity of faith.

“In a lot of ways, I reproach myself,” Mr. Andersen said.

Flower-power fallout

University of Toronto theologian David Reed, an expert on cults and new religious movements, points out that the Community of Jesus in its picturesque, idyllic setting — and other such communities — quickly gained favour in the seventies as a counterculture alternative to the rampant individual freedoms and sexual liberation of the prior decade.

“What you sometimes get is a kind of conservative overreaction,” he said. “The whole community movement was a reaction to the hyper-individualism that they inherited.” The fallout from flower power and too many summers of love.

As word of the community’s formation spread through New England and across the United States, a handful of single women became the first to join, followed by young academics and professionals, people from business and government, and the socialite elite, refugees from the drug culture and hippiedom, many carrying the wounds of troubled and unhappy childhoods and looking for certainty in life, for rules, structure and something to belong to.

A 1985 article in Boston magazine characterized the C of J members as a “roll call €¦ from the Social Register and Who’s Who” — executives or children of executives of major corporations, an ex-chairman of the global accounting firm that is now Ernst & Young and former president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an ex-assistant defence secretary, a former senior editor from Doubleday, family scions of Texas oil and agriculture money, the daughter of a former president of the New York Stock Exchange, a Rockefeller heiress (Isabel Lincoln Elmer, self-styled Cinderella Rockefeller), celebrity Christians such as Jeff and Carrie Buddington, former hippie drug dealers featured in Life magazine, and young clergyman Peter Marshall, son of the U.S. Senate chaplain made famous by his mother Catherine’s bestseller, A Man Called Peter.

They bought, or built, picture-postcard clapboard houses — average current value: $1.2-million — around the Andersens’ bed-and-breakfast, which was enlarged and renovated into the community’s retreat house, now called Bethany. Boston magazine described the 35-acre compound as “utopian, like a Norman Rockwell Eden, with neither gull dropping nor stray twig to defile the neat lawns and walkways.” A luxury apartment for Mothers — as they were now called — Cay and Judy was installed above the community’s chapel.

A 1985 Boston Herald article, quoting a community defector who had been close to the Mothers, described the apartment as “equipped with every amenity — sauna, hot tub, luxurious carpets and furnishings and modern electronic equipment that allows them to hear, and in some places see, everything that goes on in the 10-acre compound.” The bedroom contained a single, large bed.

The defector, Heidi Laser, now dead, told the newspaper that when she happened across the Mothers fighting, they would tell her that “we are fighting for the body of Christ” or “we are fighting because someone is in sin.”

Ms. Laser said that, despite community rules discouraging drinking and prohibiting it altogether on community grounds, the women would have sisters smuggle bottles of beer and wine up to their apartment wrapped in blankets so nothing would be heard by people praying in the chapel below. (The Mothers acknowledged that they drank, but denied that it was ever to excess.)

Community rules denounced homosexuality, and forbade dating and courtship without the Mothers’ approval. Married couples were prohibited from engaging in oral sex. Women and teenage girls could not wear pants, only long skirts.

“Light sessions” were the daily fabric of community life. Wives were encouraged to hit their husbands in the relentless pursuit of confronting sin. Families were ordered frequently — and at a moment’s notice — to move to different houses. Children were regularly taken from their parents, placed with other couples and ordered not to speak with their mothers and fathers.

The children of Judy Sorensen’s own daughter, Jill, at one time being groomed for community leadership, were taken away while she was recovering from serious surgery. She later left the community.

At any given time, there were 10 to 12 resident clergy. The Mothers had wanted the community designated as an Episcopal — Anglican — religious order with the church’s stamp of approval, but the Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts refused.

There were, however, two Anglican “episcopal visitors” to the community through the seventies and eighties, reported Boston magazine: “Bishop Anselm Genders of Bermuda, where the Community runs a 50-acre wilderness estate, and former Bishop Henry Hill of Ontario, home of Grenville Christian College, a secondary school run according to Community principles by Community members.”


In 1969, three pastors and their wives came together to run the Berean School in Canada in a handsome, half-century-old stone building just east of Brockville, leased and later purchased from the Roman Catholic Redemptorist Order.

Berean is Christian code for a number of Protestant sects that take a fundamentalist, or literalist, approach to scripture — a reference to the city of Berea mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Acts whose inhabitants “eagerly examined the scriptures every day to see whether €¦ things were so.”

In this case, the school was loosely associated with the evangelical Berean Fellowship of Dallas, which preached the gospel by sending out missionaries, encouraging the creation of faith schools and running a local TV station.

The three pastors and their spouses were:

George Snure and his wife, Jan. He was ordained in a small, conservative Protestant church in Hamilton and didn’t stay long at the school.

Charles Farnsworth and his wife, Betty, were part of the Berean Fellowship. He was ordained as a Pentecostal minister, although raised in a wealthy Episcopal family from Atlanta.

Alistair Haig and his wife, Mary. He was a University of Toronto graduate and a United Church minister. The couple came to Brockville via Belleville’s United Church Albert College — where Mr. Haig’s stint as principal had been less than appreciated because of his evangelist theology and inclination toward speaking in tongues — as well as working with Norman Vincent Peale in New York and running a financially unsuccessful girls school on Long Island.

When the Berean Fellowship broke up at the beginning of the seventies, the pastors changed the school’s name to Grenville Christian College. Many of the teachers who had come to the institution to prepare for being overseas missionaries simply stayed on, their numbers swelled by Berean missionaries abroad who found themselves with nowhere else to go but Grenville.

The school was beset with structural and financial problems and a fractious staff community. Mary Haig urged her husband to consult the Cape Cod Mothers, whom the couple had first met in 1961 when they stayed with Mary’s parents in Toronto. Later, the Mothers visited the Haigs in Belleville and prayed, successfully, for the family dog’s recovery from distemper.

Al and Mary Haig invited the Mothers to Grenville in 1973. They arrived in their motorhome with an entourage of clergy, assembled the staff of about 100 and spoke the words that, according to Mr. Haig, in his 1980 autobiography Headmaster, changed Grenville forever and cemented it to the Community of Jesus.

“Judy spoke first. ‘God has given us a scripture first to describe what He is about to do here. The axe is laid to the root of the trees. This college is like a twisted tree that must be hewn to its very roots, in order that a tall, straight fruit-bearing tree can grow in its place.

” ‘Your methods, your way of doing things, your philosophy of education, your ways of dealing with young people, your opinions, your plans have failed. It’s time to start all over again — this time, God’s way.’ ”

Their visit stretched to two weeks. The community’s theology was preached around the clock: death to self, death to pride, jealousy, disobedience, self-centredness, self-satisfaction, willfulness. “All these are enemies of God,” Cay said, “and stop His life from flowing on this campus.”

The school needed church structure, the Mothers said, which Anglicanism provided. Anglican liturgy should be introduced straight away into the school chapel as had been introduced into the community’s chapel. Plans were laid for the entire staff to visit Cape Cod in the summer for a two-week retreat — an event repeated annually for the next 20 years.

The Mothers, in short, took over with a dazzling coup d’e’cole.

Al Haig and Charles Farnsworth visited Brockville’s Anglican church and arranged for copies of the Anglican liturgical Book of Common Prayer. They asked the priest in the nearby village of Maitland about becoming Anglican clergy themselves. He directed them to the diocesan bishop, Henry Hill, a man fond of monastic religious communities.

Bishop Hill was given a full description of the teachings of Mothers Cay and Judy that were being implemented at Grenville. According to one well-informed observer, he was warned that some of it, to say the least, didn’t square with Anglican doctrine, but indicated he wouldn’t listen to criticism of what was being done at Grenville.

By 1976, the pastors, their wives, the staff and their teenage children had all been confirmed by Bishop Hill as Anglicans. He then arranged for Mr. Haig and Mr. Farnsworth to be fast-track ordained as Anglican priests, a highly unusual arrangement that required approval by the otherwise famously astute Lewis Garnsworthy, then archbishop of Toronto.

The ordination was carried out in Kingston’s Anglican cathedral on Sept. 29, 1977. The Community of Jesus chaplain, Episcopal priest Arthur Lane, preached the sermon.

The Anglican flag was hoisted in front of the school.

Meanwhile, all but a handful of the Grenville staff community swore vows of obedience to the Community’s teaching and submissiveness to the Mothers. Staff children deemed to be “rebellious” or “haughty” suddenly found themselves shipped to Cape Cod for spiritual correction. Cape Cod children similarly were shipped to Grenville.

The Mothers subsequently deemed Al Haig to be unsatisfactory and he was pushed out as headmaster in the early 1980s. His conscience was said to bother him regarding some of the things done at the school. He and his wife divorced and she moved to the Cape Cod Community and remarried. He now lives north of Toronto and refuses to be interviewed.

According to former senior staff and students, Charles Farnsworth became the Mothers’ all-powerful Grenville deputy, running the place with a feared inner circle of staff known as the A-team and ordering light sessions for students and staff at all hours of the day, abrupt relocations of staff families and removal of their children from their care.

He was known to prowl the school grounds until 2 or 3 in the morning, taking notes, and to scan the campus through binoculars during the day — echoes of the Mothers’ reported electronic surveillance equipment.

When Mother Cay died in 1988, he was one of four priests who officiated at her funeral. Nine years later, he himself was edged out of the headmaster’s job, reportedly with the approval of Mother Betty Pugsley.

Now, the school is closed, and complaints about Mr. Farnsworth and others have been made to the police and the church. The Community of Jesus, its representatives say, has moved beyond certain past behaviour and is as vibrant as ever.

However, former members say that little has changed, that the Community is deeply in debt after building a huge new chapel and that virtually all the original families have been fractured as members have left. Numbers have shrunk, they say, to about 270 from 350. Signs at the site warn would-be visitors the facility is closed due to construction. All that is missing is the Kool-Aid, Peter Andersen has written on an anti-cult website, a reference to the Jonestown tragedy years ago.

As for Grenville, there certainly were young men and women who attended the school, had a fine experience, received a good education and were untouched by what went on. But there were many others for whom that was not the case, former students too embarrassed to tell their parents what they experienced (those with parents they could talk to) and too troubled still to talk about the culture of fear.

Stephen Heder, the former director of Grenville County’s Family and Children’s Services agency, said he heard rumours that things weren’t right at the school, but no one laid a complaint. Brockville’s local newspaper investigated, but was warned off publishing a story by its lawyers and lawyers for the school.

The Ontario Ministry of Education has said its responsibility ended with checking who was enrolled and whether the school was following the proper curriculum.

And what did the top clergy, the lieutenant-governors and high government officers and wealthy parents who came to Grenville to be wined and dined by its headmasters, hand out prizes and make graduation speeches see over all those years? Nothing.

Now, 34 years after the Mothers’ celebrated motorhome visit, the diocesan Anglican bishop, George Bruce, is finally asking questions. And so are the police.

Michael Valpy is a Globe and Mail writer. The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday October 9, 2007.
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