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Biting her lip, 11-year-old Patricia Walsh winced as she was repeatedly struck across the back, shoulders, thighs and bottom with a length of fire hose nicknamed “Big Punisher.”
The beating was meted out by a sadistic nun, Sister Catherine, one of the leaders of the extreme religious cult-like community in Massachusetts to which Patricia’s family belonged. The girl’s crime? Briefly talking to a boy.
“Little Sisters were not allowed to communicate with the Little Brothers,” recalled Patricia, now 70, referring to the gendered groups into which the children of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary were divided. “It was considered a sin.”
The rule was one of many bizarre restrictions placed on the devotees of an excommunicated Catholic priest, Leonard Feeney, whose far-out teachings included married couples taking vows of celibacy and surrendering all their worldly possessions to the cause.
Now Patricia has written a memoir, “Little Sister” (Post Hill Press), out this Tuesday, about her often painful childhood. She reveals how she and her four siblings were forced to live apart from their parents, eventually visiting them for just an hour every three or four months, and call them Sister Elizabeth Ann and Brother James Aloysius, instead of Mom and Dad.
Feeney left the mainstream Catholic Church and founded the splinter group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1949 to further his core beliefs that there would be eternal damnation for anyone outside of Catholicism. Disciples were kept away from cultural influences — forbidden to read newspapers, watch TV, see relatives or discuss anything about their past — and forced into a vow of silence most of the time.
“It was mental manipulation,” Patricia told The Post. “Outsiders were considered the enemy — especially Jews because they had ‘killed’ Jesus.”
Her deeply religious parents, philosophy and mathematics professor Jim Walsh and Betsey Ann McKinley, a student, were married by Feeney in 1947. They soon joined his sect because they agreed with his extreme teachings.
At first, the family, who lived with other group members, was allowed to remain together. But, when Patricia was 6, Feeney and his sidekick, Sister Catherine, introduced harsh new rules. An edict was passed that children over the age of 3 had to live separately from their parents in commune-style accommodations.
In the book, Patricia recalls her first night in the new dormitory: “As I lay alone in my bed without a goodnight kiss from my parents, without the favorite bedtime story of one of my favorite saints, without tucking my baby sister, Veronica, into her crib, without the whispered, ;Good night, my little princess’ from my father, I let the tears flow down my cheeks.”
Still, she added: “We were told we were the luckiest children alive because, from our birth, we were dedicated to God. I used to worry about what that meant, because the dedication to God didn’t seem to come along with any of the things I found particularly fun.” With each passing year, she grew more skeptical of the teachings.
One of the hardest parts was being disciplined by adults — known as the Big Brothers and the Big Sisters — whose job was to raise and educate the group’s youth away from their parents.
Minor infractions such as holding a sibling’s hand or talking while getting dressed in the morning meant a sharp slap across the face or, worse, an appointment with the Big Punisher.
“I was excoriated for being curious,” recalled Patricia. “It was considered a negative thing in that monastic environment.”
She never told her parents about the abuse. They were also unaware that her younger sister, Cathy, was forced to spend hours alone in a dark cellar for refusing to eat.
“Not eating was her way of rebellion against the fact our parents were stolen from us when she was 4,” said Patricia. “Worrying about her was another way in which I grew up fast, because she was my responsibility.”
Patricia was “kicked out” of the sect in 1966 at the age of 17 after she was accused of flirting with the Big Brothers — damning her potential to become a nun. She was sent out into the world to stay with relatives, so naive, she didn’t even know how to make a phone call.
But, by working as a teacher and taking out loans, she managed to graduate from Boston University and go on to a finance career. She now sits on four corporate boards including Amica, a mutual insurance company, and has been married for 34 years to John Chadwick, a retired investment banker with whom she has 25-year-old twins.
As for her other family, after the death of main nun Sister Catherine in 1968, they began to leave the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. By 1971, both parents and all four of her siblings were free.
Feeney died in 1978. The dwindling number of followers still in his sect split into several religious groups — some of which remain in Massachusetts to this day.
Remarkably, Patricia holds no grudges against her parents.
“My story is about a family that may have been separated but couldn’t be broken,” said Patricia. “I know people might not be able to understand, but I never once blamed my parents for what happened.”
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