December 6, 2022

Unholy childhood

June 29, 2008
When the Holy Childhood Of Jesus School in Harbor Springs was demolished last fall, so too, perhaps, was some of the evidence of alleged sexual and physical abuse.
That’s the belief of Veronica Pasfield, a University of Michigan doctoral candidate and Bay Mills tribal member. Pasfield is documenting the school’s history, along with the Mount Pleasant Indian Boarding School.
Pasfield learned of the abuse at the school in interviews that she conducted with 36 elders and family members over the last 10 years, including more than 20 interviews for an oral history project for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.
Pasfield said she finds it suspicious that the Roman Catholic church is demolishing boarding schools across the country and in Canada and wonders whether it’s to avert the kind of lawsuits that have swamped four Canadian churches to the point of bankruptcy.
“When these boarding schools are taken down, at the very least, what is lost is the daily visual reminder of their legacy,” she said. “By today’s standards, many of these schools are crime scenes. They are also sacred sites in a sense, in the way that a war camp or a battlefield is a sacred site. But until recently the dominant culture recognized the schools as none of that.”
Candace Neff, a spokesperson for Bishop Patrick Cooney and the Gaylord diocese, disputes that view: “Such a suggestion is completely without merit and outrageous,” she said in an email. “It is simply untrue.”
“As we explained before, great time, effort and investigation were undertaken by the parish in order to try to save and renovate the former school building to meet current and future needs. It was only after much study, including that by professionals in architecture, structural engineering, building trades, and getting estimates of what it would cost to renovate, that the parish decided it was not feasible to utilize the existing school building.”
(See sidebar for a continuation of Neff’s comments.)

A new building will replace Holy Childhood, serving as a parish hall, along with a room that will memorialize the school’s history.
The original school opened its doors in 1829 and was generally held in high esteem by the community of Harbor Springs who believed the nuns were helping impoverished Indian children. Over the years, hundreds of Harbor Springs children attended the school as day students, while Indian children attended as boarders from first through eighth grade. The school closed in 1983 because of low enrollment.
The demolition was controversial. Some former students were glad to see it go down, while others, such as Kateri Walker, a member of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, lobbied the Gaylord diocese to keep it standing.
But the demolition doesn’t wipe away the memories nor the desire to document what happened. Randy Vasquez has begun work on the documentary, “The Thick Dark Fog: Healing from American Indian Boarding Schools,” for which he is seeking funding. He is working with Kateri Walker, who is still haunted by her school memories.
For her dissertation, Pasfield asked the school for records in 2004 of the school’s history and was denied. Yvonne Walker Keshick, who is the records technician for the Little Traverse Band, said even former students have trouble getting their own records. They must physically go to the office of the Gaylord Diocese and sit down and wait. Asking by letter has not been enough.
Holy Childhood was run by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, an international order of nuns formed in 1833 with the original mission to educate girls.
Many former students said the nuns gave them a solid education that served them well in life, and they remain fond of the nuns. Day students, who were white, generally had a more positive experience than Indian boarding students, who say
they are still trying to heal from their time there. Prettier light-skinned Indians typically had a better experience than those who were dark skinned, but not always.
Allegations range from corporal abuse that was fairly standard at the time —- spanking and smacking hands with rulers -— to much worse.
This week includes the stories of the most insidious abuse of all —- sexual abuse in the 1960s and ’70s at the hands of two nuns.
Here are their stories.

On a cool night this spring, fresh out of the hospital from foot surgery, “Jerry” sat in his ex-wife’s cramped duplex and recalled his school years at Holy Childhood School in the 1960s.
Like many Native American children in Northern Michigan, Jerry (not his real name) was sent away from his home in Peshawbestown to Holy Childhood at the age of six. His mother was mentally unstable and hospitalized. His father, a religious man, believed his four kids were better off at the Catholic school.
The school had dormitories for the children. Jerry slept in a large room along with 60 other young boys slept in the young boy’s dormitory. Sister Fran (not her real name) was their housemother, a plain and rather plump nun in her 20s. Each night, she’d kiss each boy on the forehead, but she’d
kiss her favorite boys on the lips and tickle them. A couple of years ticked by and Jerry said her kisses grew longer
as she “taught” him how to give her hickies all over her body.
Jerry pulls out a class photo of seventh and eighth graders with a mix of 46 Indian and white children. Jerry was 12 years old, cute and well-scrubbed. He had a closely-shaved head and infectious grin. Like the other Indian boys in the photo, he wore a white shirt, dark jacket and a tie.
When this picture was taken, a 29-year-old nun had been luring Jerry into pleasuring her underneath her long black robes as she sat on the couch. The affair went into his eighth-grade year,
when she confessed to him that she might be pregnant.

Jerry, 55, was one of nine former Holy Childhood students who described their sexual abuse at the hands of two nuns to the Grand Rapids Press. Like Jerry, most of them were Indian altar boys. Their accounts, along with reports of physical abuse, were published in a series of stories published in 1994.
As they reported the story, Grand Rapids investigative reporters Ed Golder and Ken Kolker met with Sister Laura Jean Spaeth of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Milwaukee.
Sister Spaeth was skeptical about the credibility of the former students’ accounts, many of whom were unemployed and alcoholic. That compelled the two reporters to interview a total of 80 former students to verify the physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
“My answer was if it was just one person, that would be a legitimate argument -- but we interviewed 80 people and we heard a consistently recurring story,” Golder said. “And it was troubling to me that the leaders of the order, in any case, sought at the time to dismiss what we were saying based on the other problems in their lives. I don’t question there were other problems in their lives, but it was clear to me, as people told the same stories over and over, that it established a pattern that was factual.”
Golder added that Sister Spaeth’s response bothered him.
“She said, ‘These are just messed up people.’ Well, she helped mess them up. Some of the cultural stuff going on was just as terrifying as the sex abuse -- and what was viewed as standard corporal punishment, I was just horrified by.”
Golder added that Sister Spaeth sounded compassionate -- it was the first time she had heard of the allegations and asked him for the students’ phone numbers, which he declined to share because he didn’t have the students’ permission.

Sister Spaeth is on sabbatical and was unavailable for comment. The order’s communications officer, Mary Conarchy, tried her best to respond to questions, but she said it was difficult, given that she wasn’t around when the Press articles were published.
Conarchy said that nuns from the order talked to people who came forward at the time and promised them confidentiality. None of the information shared was forwarded to authorities for a criminal investigation, however. The two accused nuns were never punished.
Sister Fran left the order in the early 1970s and worked in manufacturing in the Grand Rapids area. She now lives in Newaygo. The other housemother, Sister Beth, remained a nun for her lifetime, and has since passed away. Their real names were not used for this story because they were never arraigned on charges or brought to trial.
The Grand Rapids Press reported that Spaeth found nothing to substantiate the claims of the nine men, but the School Sisters of Notre Dame offered resources to those who said they were abused. None accepted the offer, Conarchy said.
At the closing ceremony of the school last summer, Bishop Patrick Cooney apologized to those who were hurt by their experience and asked for their forgiveness.
At the groundbreaking ceremony in April of the new building, Bill Denemy from the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians told those assembled, including Bishop Cooney, that it was time to more forward.
But Jerry and dozens of others say they don’t feel their views were represented.
“He never went to Holy Childhood School, and there is no way he can know what happened there. There is no way he represents us,” said Walker Keshick.

The story of the abused men are similar and involve housemothers who cared for the boys when they were not in class. Paul Raphael was two grades behind Jerry and confirmed that he saw Jerry kissing the nun on a couch when they were watching television. He said she also kissed other boys, including a third grader.
Raphael said the nun began her seduction by kissing the boys goodnight. As the boys became older, the two nuns would sneak the boys into their bedrooms — which were right off the large dormitory rooms — at night, and the boys would leave early in the morning.
The boys said they resisted at first, but the nuns showered them with proclamations of love and special privileges, such as buying candy at the Feathers Variety Store in downtown Harbor Springs or letting them watch movies at the Lyric Theatre.
Russell Menefee, now 59, told the Grand Rapids Press that one of the nuns would walk into the dormitory after everyone had been tucked in. She stopped at his bed and fondled him at least a dozen times.
One student from this era told Veronica Pasfield he lost his virginity to the nun at the age of 15.
“I’m always careful not to interview him during the winter because he lives in an isolated place, and I want to be careful about his emotional well-being. There have been so many suicides by survivors of schools around the country after they came forward with their stories,” she said.
David Burks was not sexually abused, but said he saw a lot of long kisses between a fourth grade boy, Timothy Quijas, and a third nun. (Burks went to the school in the late 1970s and early ’80s.)
“Usually she’d kiss him when he was playing at recess and did something cute. You know how you see in the movies, they’ll kiss and close their eyes. It was that kind of a kiss. The nuns always were telling us, ‘Think of us as your mom away from your mom,’ and I thought, that was not a motherly kiss.
“When he turned 13, I was told Timothy committed suicide. At the time, I thought it was because of the nun.”

Unlike the other boys, Jerry said he talked openly about his relationship with the nun.
“I told everybody about it. All my young friends. They all knew. I told my parents, but nobody seemed to think much about it. My male friends, they’d say, ‘Oh that’s cool.’”
He even told a Emmet County deputy when he ran away with a school friend, Danny David, a Vietnam veteran who died years later from the effects of Agent Orange.
“We hid out along a beach until it got dark. The cops picked us up. Danny said, tell them, tell them! So I did. They told us to shut up. They said, ‘They’re trying to do what’s best for you kids. We’re going to take you back. Don’t talk that crazy talk any more.’ We got back. They beat us, they beat us real bad.
“They beat you so bad, you’d zone out and go somewhere else. One time I was beat so bad, I thought I’d fall on the floor from a heart attack. It was so bad, so long. I didn’t cry. I just looked at them,” he said.
Jerry said that at the same time he was being molested, another schoolmate was having sex with Sister Beth.
“They’d have day rooms, TV and games, and one big couch. Just he and me and the two sisters would sit on the couch, blankets on top of us. The other kids would sit in front of us four. They’d have nothing on under their robes and they’d say, ‘Turn around and watch TV.’”
Brian Anthony told the Grand Rapids Press that he also huddled with one of the two nuns under a blanket in the day room, while the other kids sat in front of them watching television. At the age of 12, he had sex “damn near every night,” in the housemother’s bedroom on the third floor.
Anthony would be 50 years old today, were it not for his chronic alcoholism. Three years ago, he was found dead lying outside on a cold February morning on Beaver Island at 2 a.m. He had passed out after a night of heavy drinking and froze to death, according to his death certificate.

Jerry said that he felt his abuser truly loved him.
“She told me she loved me, and I think she meant it. It didn’t seem like it was phony. We spent a lot of time talking. She told me about her life. She felt like it was her calling to be a nun. She grew up in Grand Rapids.
“The sex, it felt good. But then she’d say, don’t talk about it to anybody or confess to it. We cared for each other. She’d say it was okay, but, at first, I felt I’d burn in hell, I’m going to die. But the more time we spent together, the more I felt like I would be okay. No bolt of lightning came and hit me in the head, or nothing like that.
“Once, she told me she was pregnant. I was in eighth grade and we were just sitting there next to each other on the couch. I talked with her. She started crying, telling me, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Although they never had intercourse, it was possible she could have been pregnant, he said.
“She’d get on top of me, we were both naked, and she’d move really fast over me. There was a lot of sex -- oral sex -— just me for her, not her for me. She just masturbated me with her hand.”

Jerry remembers going out for recess once, and the nun beckoned him into her spartan bedroom for a quick session. He complied and they both undressed. Suddenly there was a knock on the door. Jerry dove under the bed and a couple of nuns came in.
“They were talking to her pretty serious and then they left, and it was time to go back to class. (One of the nuns) was waiting down the steps on the second floor, and when I left the room, she told me to get back into class. They didn’t do nothing to her. She fessed up. I was in the room and heard her fess up. But that was the end of that.”
Jerry said that the sex got him out of a lot of beatings, but he was still on the wrong side of the belt at times.
One night when he was in sixth grade, he did something wrong—he couldn’t remember what -- and was forced to kneel all night long next to his bed. “I finally got tired and jumped into bed and went to sleep. I woke up and Sister Beth was beating on me. I think she enjoyed beating people.”
One night, Sister Beth climbed into bed with him. “I told her, ‘I don’t want anything to do with you. You’re David Brooks’ woman, aren’t you?’”
In the summertime between seventh and eighth grade, Sister Fran sent him love letters. Jerry buried her letters in a metal cigar box near his mother’s tiny mobile home in Peshawbestown. (He tried finding them a few weeks ago, but only found what appeared to be a rusted, mangled piece of tin.) He thinks they still might be there.
In a weird twist to the story, both nuns showed up at his mother’s trailer one summer day when he was 16 and asked his mom where he was. She told them that Jerry was unloading cherries at Frigid Foods in Suttons Bay. When Sister Fran found him, she began hysterically crying and told him she wanted to find a way to be with him. By that time, Jerry realized the relationship was impossible and told her, “I don’t know what to do.”
The Sister left the convent in 1970, but not before she abused his two brothers -- another source of heartbreak for him.

After Holy Childhood, Jerry said he had terrible dreams of walking down the school hallway and having someone run up behind him and hit him in the back of the head, “bam, bam, bam.”
“Just when I’d get caught, I’d wake up. I had that damn dream for years after that.”
Jerry had what teachers like to say “great potential,” scoring high on his SAT test. He was charming, handsome, and women liked him. He attended a semester at the University of Michigan, but dropped out and from then on worked as a carpenter and iron worker. But alcohol was always his undoing, despite going to rehab treatment nine times.
Jerry said it wasn’t just the sex that haunted him. The nuns constantly told the Indian kids they were worthless and unloved.
“They told me, ‘Your parents hate you and that’s why you’re here. Even your parents don’t want you.’ I think that hurt worse even than the beatings.”
Jerry has been married twice, both ending in divorce. He has three children from two marriages and three out-of-wedlock children. In the early ‘90s, he served jail time for failing to pay child custody for his two children by his first marriage.
“I used to hate my dad,” Jerry said. “He could have took care of us. I hated him for that, but I was the same damn way. I became him, which I vowed I never would do. But I did.”
Once out of prison, Jerry stayed sober from 1992-’97. That’s the period he talked to the Grand Rapids Press (Dateline subsequently called him for an interview, but dropped the story).
At that time, Jerry wanted some closure with the nun. He tried calling her, but she hung up as soon as he said a few words. He tried to meet with her through Grand Rapids attorney Barbara Ruga, but the ex-nun refused to talk to him. Ruga said she couldn’t comment on the nun, due to client confidentiality.
The ex-nun, now 73, was contacted by the Express and refused to be interviewed: “I’m not referring to anything and I don’t want to make any comments. I’m not wanting to get involved at all,” she said.
After leaving the order, she terminated all communication with the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
As a result of the Grand Rapids Press series, Jerry met in Sault Ste. Marie with two nuns from the order. Despite all he’d gone through, he remembers feeling a little remorseful about going to the newspaper with his story.
“I told them, ‘Will you give her a message? Tell her, maybe it messed up things in her life when I talked to the newspapers.’”
The nun from the Sisters of Notre Dame offered to pay him for a lifetime of therapy. He turned the offer down because he didn’t feel he needed it.
“I know some people who were messed up by Holy Childhood, but I don’t see myself standing alongside them. I’m not screwed up, because I’ve been able to talk about it.”

The interview with Jerry was winding down and it was dark outside. He got on his crutches and stepped outside to have a cigarette. He talked about the fact that you learn right from wrong when you’re a kid. In his case, he was taught the Ten Commandments, but living a completely different reality with a nun who had drawn him into a world of sex, sneaking, and lying.
Jerry threw his cigarette away and went back into the dark duplex again. As he tried to sit down on the armchair, he fell on the floor.
It was an awkward moment. His face was pale and drawn and there were no more half-hearted jokes about being a young boy seduced by a nun. Just his sober acknowledgement of how a nun’s twisted desire had wrecked his life. He thought his openness should have spared him emotional damage, but instead he spent 40 years drinking in a twilight of shame.
Jerry looked down and folded his hands like he was praying.
“I’m screwed up, I guess. She made a big-time slut out of me. I was promiscuous as hell. But I don’t know hardly anybody who came out of there and done something with themselves. Someday these nuns will have to answer to God for what happened there. When they meet their maker, He’ll know what to do. I’ll be pissed if I see them in heaven.”

(Next in the series: The insidious effects of sexual abuse.)

Seeking Closure
Candace Neff, spokes-person for Bishop Patrick Cooney, who is recovering from a heart attack, included these additional comments in her email regarding the demolition of the Holy Childhood of Jesus School:
“There was no discussion of any sort related to trying to ‘erase evidence’-- a theory which appears to be proffered by someone with an agenda contrary to the obvious efforts of the parish and local community to move forward -- recognizing the past and walking together to the future.”
“At the closing ceremony last June [for the Holy Childhood of Jesus School] Tribal Chairman Frank Ettawageshik said it was an ‘opportunity for healing and an opportunity for celebrating. It is a special day, one we mark in time as part of the Circle of Life. Every time there is an ending, there is a beginning”...The joys and pains, ‘all of these things weave together in a tapestry to make us who we are.’
“At the groundbreaking in April Vice Chairman Bill Denemy said, ‘It does my heart good to hear the church recognize the Indian people as part of their history.’
“The point of trying to save the school, including those stated by Kateri Walker and others who wanted to do so after the closing ceremony took place, was to continue to preserve the history, foster healing and further reconciliation.
“That is why the parish and local Native Americans worked together to come up with a plan for the new building that recognizes the past and looks to the future.”


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