The story of Francis Schuckardt is, in many ways, an underground, cautionary tale of the effects of the Second Vatican Council. The “official version” of the Council is that Popes John XXIII and Paul VI “opened the windows of the Church” in order to “let some fresh air in.” The result of this new “spirit of openness” was said to be a Church that was better equipped to meet the needs of the modern world – a Church less archaic, less dogmatic, less superstitious and supernaturally-focused; a church more egalitarian, more ecumenical.
For certain hyper-traditionalists there was bound to be a sense of bitterness, and even betrayal, in the face of the Vatican II reforms. For many of those who felt that they had no option but to remain loyal to the “archaism” of the “old order,” the authorized version of the post-Vatican II church would eventually be dismissed as propaganda and a nefarious smokescreen. Perhaps John XXIII was too naive to have understood that whenever one opens a window to let some fresh air in, there is always a chance that some odious air may enter the dwelling as well. One wonders what the Second Vatican Council Popes and bishops would have thought of rock and roll masses, liturgical dancers, and the like. Nonetheless, the hyper-traditionalists did not wait around to suffer such “stirrings of the spirit.” Many of these would end up in the world of Independent Catholicism in the form of Lefebvre’s SSPX, but many others would wander even further down the vagantesroad. Perhaps none of these traditionalist Vatican II exiles wandered as far down this road as did Francis Schuckardt.
Schuckardt graduated from Seattle University in 1959. He first came to the attention of traditionalist Catholics in the early 1960s as a charismatic speaker for the Blue Army, an organization founded by a New Jersey priest in 1947 to spread the message of the Fatima prophecy. The prophecy was said to be a revelation, received from the Virgin Mary in a series of visions given to three children in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. As it was elaborated and clarified by the primary visionary (Lucia) in 1941, the message was said to be composed of three parts or secrets – the first a vision of hell, and the second a request by Mary for the establishment of a devotion to her Immaculate Heart and a consecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart by the Holy Father in concert with the other bishops of the world. The prophecy claimed that this consecration of Russia would result in an era of world peace. The seriousness with which these visions were taken by the Vatican at the time was evidenced when Pope Pius XII consecrated the whole world to Mary’s Immaculate Heart on October 31, 1942.
By the time the Blue Army was established in America, despite Pius XII’s act of consecration in 1942, the mystery surrounding the Fatima message had only intensified. Lucia had apparently refrained from passing on the third secret as of 1941, but by 1946 she had given the secret to her bishop in a sealed envelope, with the instruction that the secret should be sent to the Vatican, but that it could not be revealed until 1960. Even more ominously, Lucia had also told a reporter that Pius XII’s 1942 consecration had not fulfilled the wishes of Mother Mary, who had specifically requested that Russia be consecrated. As the Cold War intensified during the 1950s, conspiratorial speculation gathered steam as many Catholics around the world formed prayer groups to bring about the fulfillment of the exact specifications of the Fatima prophecy.
In 1958, while still in college, Schuckardt became active in this world of Marian visions and apocalypticism, joining the Blue Army (which tended to shy away from the more grotesque theories regarding the Fatima prophecy). His hagiography states that in 1961 he was in a coma for eight days (after contracting typhoid fever), and that he was healed from his affliction due to the intercession of Mary. Then, it is said that he was afflicted with thrombophlebitis in 1963. He is said to have vowed to the Virgin Mary that he would dedicate his life to spreading her Fatima message, and to have once again received a miraculous healing. After recovering, he quickly established himself as a star attraction on the Blue Army lecture and fundraising circuit, with his account of divine Marian intervention and his own special role in relaying the Fatima message. By the mid-60s he had been appointed as the Blue Army’s International Secretary.
In the meantime, John XXIII had unfortunately fed conspiratorial speculations surrounding Fatima by reading the third secret in 1960, but refusing to reveal its contents or comment upon it. The secret would be read but not revealed by each succeeding Pope until John Paul II. By the time the Second Vatican Council had completed its decisions, and the first reforming effects had trickled out to the local parishes, many hyper-traditionalists began to postulate “Satanic connections” between the third secret of Fatima and Vatican II. It was now clear to these traditionalist dissidents that the highest realms of the Church’s hierarchy had been infiltrated by a cabal of Satanic imposters (sometimes described as Protestants, sometimes as Freemasons, sometimes the two in concert) who had captured the Papacy by placing an anti-Pope on the Chair of Peter. Furthermore, the refusal of the Popes to reveal the third secret of Fatima was the smoking gun proof that the captivity of the Papacy was probably the subject of the final Fatima prophecy.
This theory that the Papal Chair was “vacant” came to be known as sedevacantism (meaning, seat vacant), and Schuckardt quickly became its most prominent, early proponent. Criticizing the Vatican II reforms in 1966, he came into contact with the more mainstream Catholic sentiments of the Blue Army leadership, which eventually expelled him from the organization in 1967. Schuckardt responded by enlisting the help of a close friend, Denis Chicoine, in establishing the Fatima Crusade in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. During the next two years, Schuckardt founded a community of monks, nuns, and priests called the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen (CMRI). Having moved more clearly into the sedevacantist camp, he began to refer to the Church of Vatican II and its reforms as a “new religion” and to Paul VI as a false Pope due to his personal heresies. Having determined that the Novus Ordo Church was no longer Catholic, Schuckardt then proceeded to found what was called the Tridentine Latin Rite Catholic Church (TLRCC), which was considered the “continuation” of the true Catholic Church that had existed prior to Vatican II.
Schuckardt and Chicoine traveled the United States, decrying Vatican II and gathering followers for their “continuing Catholic” movement. As this was taking place, sympathetic diocesan priests provided the new community with the sacraments for a time. Eventually, Schuckardt must have seen the writing on the wall, since diocesan officials began denouncing his community and movement, and he determined in 1969 that it was necessary for the movement to have its own bishop and priests. He had come into contact with Daniel Quilter Brown, an Old Catholic bishop who had only been consecrated earlier that same year, and Brown consecrated Schuckardt to the priesthood and episcopacy from October 28th thru November 1st, in a ballroom in Chicago.
The story of the consecration of Schuckardt by Brown is clouded in contradictions. Schuckardt’s supporters claim that he only allowed Brown to consecrate him on the condition that Brown would repent of and renounce his own Old Catholic theological errors. Other sources claim that Brown never really considered himself an Old Catholic, but rather as a dissenting Roman Catholic traditionalist like Schuckardt, who had obtained Old Catholic orders only out of the severe necessity of the times to obtain holy orders for the traditionalist movement. These sources claim that the two men had agreed to divide the United States into two traditionalist dioceses, and that Schuckardt quickly turned against Brown and forced him out once the consecration to the episcopacy had been obtained. Further complicating matters, some sources state that Schuckardt took great pains to conceal the source of his episcopal consecration (perhaps because Brown was married and had children) until his hand was forced, and that for the first few years afterward, his followers did not know the source of his consecration. When he was pressured to reveal the identity of his consecrator, it was at this point that Schuckardt claimed that he had shepherded Brown into a more orthodox Catholic belief system prior to being consecrated by him. Schuckardt’s followers were said to have been placated by the knowledge that such an irregularity was necessary due to the circumstances of Rome’s great apostasy. What is certain is that the two men had a falling out shortly after the consecration of Schuckardt, that Brown returned to the world of Old Catholicism, and that he then wrote a letter to Schuckardt in 1973 that accused him and his TLRCC of being a personality cult.
By 1977 Bishop Schuckardt had consecrated several priests, and the TLRCC community had grown to the extent that it was able to purchase a former Jesuit seminary (on over 700 acres) on the outskirts of Spokane, Washington. Named Mount Saint Michael, the new headquarters had a parish church, a monastery and convent, elementary and secondary schools, a printing shop and bookstore, and retreat center. The movement generally thrived throughout the 70s and into the early 80s, and even sent “singing nuns,” in distinctive blue habits, as well as numerous missionary priests, to proselytize throughout the United States. At the peak of the Mount Saint Michael community’s success, it is said that there were approximately 200 hundred families, with perhaps a dozen priests, and over one hundred nuns. However, beneath the surface of this traditionalist success story, the community was beginning to fracture.
It was rumored that Bishop Schuckardt was a bit of an egomaniac, which, when coupled with his growing paranoia (said to have been fueled by an addiction to pain killers), resulted in a kind of dictatorial rule over the community. Rumors began to spread of the severity of life at Mount Saint Michael. Many of the nuns, living on sparse diets, and encouraged to partake in regular self-flagellation, were becoming physically ill, and spiritually disenchanted. A few of them left the group. With the first defections, the rumors increased. However, these rumors would pale in comparison to the bombshell that surfaced in early 1984.
Four seminarians who had recently left the community told the media that Schuckardt had sexually abused them. Soon thereafter, after initially supporting Schuckardt and denying the allegations, longtime associate Denis Chicoine revealed to the media that Schuckardt had been sexually abusing seminarians for nearly a decade. With the revelations of Chicoine, Schuckardt gathered about twenty of his staunchest supporters, as well as a quarter million dollars of community funds, and led them into what would become a nomadic existence. Chicoine took over the leadership of the Mount Saint Michaels community, which suffered severe membership losses in the immediate wake of the sexual allegations against Schuckardt.
In 1986, the local diocesan newspaper published an expose that revealed many of the idiosyncrasies of life at Mount Saint Michael. It was claimed that followers were forced to engage in odd disciplines and practices. There were punishments for violating group standards, such as being locked in attics, or forced to walk on one’s knees in the snow, kneeling during meals, and being forbidden to speak for days at a time. It was said that members were forced to wear rosaries around their necks at all times, that they could only exit the church backwards so as to never turn their back on the Altar. It was said that women were forced to keep their heads covered at all times (rather than just in church), and that dating prior to graduating high school, watching television, and smoking, were all prohibited. Most serious were the revelations that the children were regularly beaten and severely disciplined in other ways, such as being forced to eat hot peppers, or girls having their heads shaved for talking to boys.
Schuckardt’s exiles had initially settled in Greenville, California. The Mount Saint Michael community initiated legal proceedings against Schuckardt in an attempt to retrieve the money they alleged he had stolen from them. In May 1987 a twelve member SWAT team, investigating two separate allegations of parental child abduction, raided Schuckardt’s priory. The police found a few illegal weapons, as well as illegal drugs (pain killers and tranquilizers), $75,000 in cash, large amounts of foreign currency, and evidence of over a dozen foreign bank accounts. Schuckardt and eight followers were arrested, but he accepted a plea deal for drug possession, agreed to go to drug rehab, and the rest of the charges were dropped.
After the Greenville debacle, Schuckardt’s group, now calling themselves the Oblates of Mary as well as the TLRCC, returned to Washington state, where they took up a secretive, clandestine existence. Throughout the 90’s the Mount Saint Michael group continued to conduct legal proceedings against Schuckardt. By the early 2000s, few outside of his immediate circle had seen Schuckardt , and rumors circulated that he had possibly died. Other rumors circulated that he was preparing his followers to address him as the new Pope, Adrian VII. Then, in 2005, the TLRCC was enveloped in controversy once again. A women went to the police with allegations that her 13 year old son had been repeatedly raped by members of the community. Soon other reports of sexual abuse surfaced. The police reported to the media that their investigations were being hampered by the community. The community even denied the existence of one of the three suspects that police were looking for. The accused members of the community were eventually arrested and convicted in 2005 and 2006. Media asked the members of the TLRCC with whom they were able to make contact if they could speak to Schuckardt in order to verify that he was still alive, but they were told that Schuckardt was too ill for an interview. The members stated that they could produce a video of their bishop holding up a newspaper to prove he was still living, but the tape never materialized.
In April 2006, Schuckardt was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and he died on November 5, 2006. Before passing away, he consecrated two bishops for the TLRCC. At the time it was thought that he had about 100 followers living in the Pacific Northwest. True to the paranoid, conspiratorial matrix in which the TLRCC had been formed, these followers assert that he was a victim of Satanic persecution – from the Vatican II church as well as the Chicoine group who remained at Mount Saint Michael, and even the state and federal governments.
Described by Prof. Michael Cuneo as the “rock and roll outlaw of Catholic traditionalism,” Schuckardt and his community can perhaps best be understood as a symbolic caricature, a cautionary parable of everything the Vatican II reformers were struggling against, what they viewed as the “dark side” of the old Catholic order – its archaism (covering women’s heads), its exceptionalism (isolating themselves from the outside world and its influences), its supernaturalism (giving authority to visionary experience and Marian apparitions), etc. In this sense, the Vatican II reformers can be said to have effectively excised the offending elements such as Schuckardt. The only question that remains is whether or not healthy elements were removed along with the diseased.
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Cuneo, Michael. The Smoke of Satan: Conservative and Traditionalist Dissent in Contemporary American Catholicism, John Hopkins University Press, 1999.
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