Government, leader deaths reshape apocalyptic sect in Mexico
NEW JERUSALEM, Mexico – The bell towers and domes rise like a vision out of the sugarcane fields, a medieval city sprouting from the hills of western Mexico.
A 30-foot-high gate, complete with Disney-esque turrets, blocks the end of a winding road. Behind it, a massive cross and an 11-story tower loom over a statue of a knight in armor. Women in Renaissance garb parade through the streets, chanting prayers.
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This is New Jerusalem, a theocracy where soccer balls are illegal, John F. Kennedy is a saint, freedom of religion doesn’t exist and the end of the world is just around the corner. It is the largest and longest surviving of a string of traditionalist Catholic colonies that have sprung up around the world.
But now, 35 years after its founding, things have gone terribly wrong in New Jerusalem, many residents say. Palace intrigues, purges and the deaths of the sect‘s spiritual leaders this year have left followers divided and confused.
The dogma has become increasingly bizarre, with apocalyptic deadlines that come and go and mysterious “seers” who order one monolithic construction project after another. At the same time, the Mexican government is trying to establish its control over the town, setting up a public school and sending in riot police to protect dissidents.
The divisions and outside pressures have weakened what was once a Catholic utopia, residents say. Its population has dropped from 8,000 to 3,000, and is rapidly aging.
“I came here when there were 10 houses,” said Miguel Chavez Barrera, a former church leader who lost his position in a 2006 purge. “Now, to see it come to this. . . . It’s enough to drive you crazy.”
New Jerusalem appears on no maps.
Signs, some faded or peeling, warn visitors they are on sacred ground. “A penitent people for an unrepentant world,” says one. Another warns sinners to honor the Virgin Mary: “Abhor my mother and I will abhor you forever.”
Townspeople look like extras from a Robin Hood movie. Women wear headscarves and brightly colored dresses. Monks garbed in brown or black mix with priests in white robes.
The rules are strict: no televisions, radios, alcohol, makeup or nail polish. Pants for women are an “abomination,” according to a sign outside a shrine that lays out the dress code. Residents go to church three times a day.
“This place is unique in all the world,” said Gerardo Ruiz, a spokesman for the church, who goes by the name Father Luis Maria de Monfort. “It is an ark for those who truly believe.”
One house bears a papal seal. It is a mansion intended for Pope Paul VI, whom townspeople believe is being held captive in a Vatican dungeon by liberal Catholics. The current pope is the anti-Christ, according to the sect.
The town was founded in 1973 as a reaction to the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, when the Roman Catholic Church decided to allow Masses to be celebrated in languages other than Latin, a greater role for laypeople and more tolerance toward non-Catholics.
Nabor Cardenas, a parish priest in the town of Puruaran, opposed those changes. He began urging his followers to settle on the site after a local woman, Gabina Sanchez Romero, claimed she saw a vision of Mary, the mother of Jesus, warning that the Catholic Church had gone astray and the world would be destroyed before 2000.
New Jerusalem’s residents celebrated Mass in the traditional Latin, avoided mixing with outsiders and eschewed government services like schools and clinics.
The Catholic Church rejected the sect and stripped Cardenas of his ordination as a priest. But the story of the Virgin Mary found an eager audience in Mexico.
By the 1980s, about 8,000 people lived in the town. Residents took religious names, usually those of saints, adding to the town’s mystery.
Cardenas appointed himself archbishop, adopted the nickname “Papa Nabor” and presided over Masses in a papal hat and robe. Seminaries, monasteries and convents sprouted, none of them recognized by the Vatican.
New Jerusalem preached chastity and discouraged new marriages. It also refused to register with Mexico’s Interior Ministry, which oversees religious groups in the country.
New Jerusalem isn’t the only community born out of the backlash against Vatican II, said Miguel Leatham, an anthropologist at Texas Christian University who is writing a book about the group. The Seibo No Mikuni movement in Japan; the Little Pebble colony in Australia; the Society of St. Pius X in St. Marys, Kan.; and others have tried to found “holy communities” for their followers.
More mainstream traditionalists include people like actor Mel Gibson, who is building his own church in Malibu, Calif., that is not recognized by the Catholic archdiocese.
What’s unusual about New Jerusalem is its size, Leatham said. The town is probably the biggest “apocalyptic colony” in the world, he said, bigger than the Branch Davidian settlement at Waco, Texas, or Jonestown in Guyana.
New Jerusalem’s first great schism came in 1981, when Sanchez died and a new seer, 16-year-old Maria Parteaga, gained Papa Nabor’s ear, Ruiz said.
Many refused to recognize her and began holding meetings in their own chapel. In October 1982, gangs of church faithful set fire to the chapel, then chased the dissidents from their houses, Leatham said. The two factions battled with rocks, machetes and pots of boiling water.
No one was killed, but in the end, more than 680 people were expelled en masse, Leatham said.
In 1991, a new seer, Agapito Gomez, rose to power, and the town’s doctrine took a turn toward the bizarre.
“Don Agapito” would mimic different voices into a tape recorder, and nuns would then transcribe these supposed messages from the afterlife. Gomez claimed to channel Lazaro Cardenas, Mexico’s president from 1934 to 1940; Kennedy; and other figures.
The church expelled hundreds more people in 1997 for not believing in these “Blessed Ones.”
The church also discouraged townspeople from having children to spare them from the horrors of the apocalypse.
“The Virgin doesn’t want there to be children because the way the world is now, she doesn’t want them to suffer,” said Richard Garcia, a priest who goes by the name Bertholo Abad.
When each deadline for the apocalypse passed, church leaders claimed that the world had been spared because the Virgin Mary had taken pity on it.
Then came the orders to build new public works, such as the hilltop-chapel complex and the 11-story cylindrical tower near the main gate. Meanwhile, most of the town’s streets are still unpaved.
“The tower took two years to build, and we haven’t been able to finish it because there have been so many projects that Papa Nabor wanted done,” said Geronimo Diaz, the town’s assistant administrator. “We still don’t know what it’s for.”
Whoever questioned such orders was labeled a “turbado,” or disturbed person, and expelled from the town.
Beginning in 2004, the purges came faster. The seminary was closed, with students expelled. A group of priests who weighed possible “errors” in Gomez’s visions was thrown out.
But this time, unlike in the past, the Michoacan state government sent in riot police to keep the faithful from driving the dissidents out of town.
In another blow to the church, most of New Jerusalem’s satellite churches across Mexico have sided with the dissidents, Ruiz said. The flow of pilgrims, who sustained the church with their offerings, has slowed to a trickle.
On Feb. 19, Papa Nabor died at age 98. A video taken during his last days shows church leaders trying to get him to sign an affidavit naming Antonio Lara Barajas as his successor.
Finally, a priest takes the hand of the semiconscious leader and marks the document with his fingerprint. Lara, who goes by the name Martin de Tours, declined to be interviewed.
Agapito Gomez, the seer, died in September. No new seer has yet emerged, but the Michoacan government says it is bracing for another round of conflicts when one does.