St. Benedict Center

Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff

The entrance to the St. Benedict Center in Richmond, as shown in February 2007.

RICHMOND — The Diocese of Manchester has admonished a local traditionalist religious group for its embrace of an “unacceptable” theological principle, and says Catholics should not take part in religious ceremonies at the group’s facilities.

“Under no circumstances may Catholics receive the sacraments of the Church at the Saint Benedict Center or any of its locations, nor should they participate in any activity provided by this group or school,” the diocese announced in a news release Wednesday.

The diocese also says the St. Benedict Center cannot refer to itself as a Catholic organization or in any way imply an association with the Roman Catholic Church. And the diocese will no longer allow Catholic priests to celebrate mass at the group’s Richmond location.

Members of the St. Benedict Center, on Fay Martin Road in Richmond, call themselves a congregation devoted to “the propagation and defense of Catholic dogma” and converting others to the faith.

The Southern Poverty Law Center describes them as “radical traditionalist Catholics” and has labeled them a hate group, citing anti-Semitic statements made by members. The center rejects that characterization.

The Diocese of Manchester says the group is not affiliated with the Catholic Church.

St. Benedict Center members — who call themselves the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary — take the hardline position that salvation is only available through the Catholic Church, a view rejected by the Vatican, said the Very Rev. Georges de Laire, the Manchester diocese official responsible for applying church law.

De Laire said church officials have warned the St. Benedict Center that that teaching is unacceptable. The diocese has also been concerned that the way the center describes itself may lead some people to believe it is a recognized Catholic organization or church, which is not the case, he said.

In a written statement, Brother Andre Marie Villarrubia, the prior of the St. Benedict Center, called the diocese’s announcement “unfortunate” and said he hopes to resolve “what we respectfully believe are misunderstandings on (de Laire’s) part.”

“The Saint Benedict Center strives to work in good faith with our Diocesan Bishop so we can be brought to a common understanding of the Church’s dogmata and doctrine and the acceptable limits of their interpretation,” Villarrubia wrote in the statement.

The diocese has given the center until June 30 to observe a list of 15 “prohibitions and obligations.” Though the center is not an official branch of the church, de Laire said individual Catholics have an obligation to abide by the church’s rules.

To comply with the decree, the St. Benedict Center must not present itself as connected to the Catholic Church or publish material addressing Catholic teachings. It must accept the Vatican’s teaching on salvation and amend documents on file with state and federal government agencies to remove the implication that it is a Catholic organization.

The decree also prohibits priests from performing religious ceremonies on St. Benedict Center property in most cases. De Laire said the church in 2008 began allowing Catholic priests to celebrate Latin mass and hear confessions there, out of a “belief that it was more important to make sure that the faithful would have access to the valid and licit celebration of the sacrament.”

But, he said, the center has used the presence of priests to falsely claim legitimacy.

A priest will now celebrate Latin mass at St. Stanislaus Church in Winchester on Sundays at 7:45 a.m., according to the diocese.

The notice from the diocese was first reported by the N.H. Union Leader.

The St. Benedict Center’s property at 95 Fay Martin Road includes living quarters, worship space and a school. The group’s presence in town, which dates to the 1980s, has been controversial. A dispute over an expansion plan in the 2000s led people who worship at the center and opponents of the expansion to accuse one another of intolerance. Ultimately, the town of Richmond paid the center $1.15 million to settle allegations of religious discrimination related to planning and zoning board decisions.

In 2016, responding to a letter from Villarrubia, a Vatican official informed him that his group’s view on salvation did not follow that of the church, according to correspondence provided by the Diocese of Manchester.

De Laire said he then engaged Villarrubia in a dialogue, “to see if we could arrive at a situation that would lead Andre to get his community on board,” he said. “Accept what Rome has taught, and we’ll work with him. But he has acted otherwise.”

Eventually, diocese officials “decided to say, you know, ‘enough is enough,’ ” de Laire said.

Paul Cuno-Booth can be reached at 352-1234,

extension 1409, or pbooth

@keenesentinel.com.