Court Says Monastery Must Pay $278,000 To Donors

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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In an unusual lawsuit accusing a religious monastery in Ashford of pretending to be affiliated with the Catholic Church when in fact it wasn't, a couple were awarded more than $278,000 in damages after donating $200,000 for a chapel to be built only to later discover the truth about the organization.

After construction of the chapel was nearly completed, the couple received a letter in 2011 from the bishop of the Norwich Catholic Diocese, who informed them that they should not proceed with their plans. The letter said the group was not "and has never been" a Benedictine monastery affiliated with the Catholic Church.

"That was a big surprise to our clients, a big shock," said one of the couple's lawyers, Jeremy Donnelly, of Butler, Norris & Gold in Hartford.

Donnelly explained that Janet Wagner is what they call in religious circles an oblate. She's dedicated herself to God and is heavily involved in the church, but still lives as a layperson.

Wagner became an oblate in Nebraska in the 1990s to a Catholic Benedictine order. By 2008, she and her husband, Jess Wagner, came to Connecticut.

While searching the Internet for a comparable Benedictine Catholic organization, Janet Wagner came upon Our Lady of Mount Caritas in the Windham County town of Ashford. Our Lady of Mount Caritas held itself out as a Benedictine monastery.

The website said the group was "within the Diocese of Norwich." Wagner reached out to the group's president, Dorothy Jordan, more commonly known as the Reverend Mother Mary Peter. Jordan, in her early 80s now, said she was the founder of the group and that it was a Catholic organization.

"I saw these two elderly women living alone on this beautiful property trying to keep their monastery alive, and I thought, 'This is something that I can give myself to,'" Wagner said in a 2012 published report.

The Wagners quickly became involved at Our Lady of Mount Caritas. Soon, the Wagners donated $200,000 to build a new chapel there. In return, the couple could reside for the rest of their lives in the church's guesthouse.

By 2011, Wagner discovered through the bishop's letter that the group was not affiliated with the Catholic Diocese in Norwich. Further, the nuns wearing traditional Catholic habits were not recognized at all by the diocese as nuns, sisters or by any other official title.

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