Attending the 2012 Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas was an amazing experience (hence the name, presumably). Not only did it allow me to interact with personal idols such as James Randi, Steve Novella, D.J. Grothe, and Ben Radford, but I was also able to bring myself up to date on skeptical matters around the world. In addition to the various festive occasions was one somber event commemorating the various members of the skeptical community who had died in the past year. Along with familiar names such as Christopher Hitchens and Robert Buckman, there were also well-known members of the JREF forum including Jeffrey A. Wenning, Peter Johansson and Brian Isbell. As well, the In Memoriam presentation also provided more unconventional names for us to remember. That included a range of unique, and at times bizarre, characters whose activities brought them to the attention of skeptics everywhere. Along with the various cult leaders, “alternative medicine” mavens and cryptozoologists who died recently, one name stood out for me. Then again, how often do you commemorate the death of an anti-pope? Not to mention a Canadian one?
The man who would later declare himself as Pope Gregory XVII likely didn’t have such grandiose ambitions at first. Born Jean-Gaston Tremblay in 1928, his early childhood in Quebec likely immersed him in the “proper” Catholic tradition. Available records on whether he was ever actually ordained as a Catholic priest seem scarce (aside from his own biography, of course). Inspiring people with his charismatic manner, Father Tremblay founded his own religious community near Mont-Tremblant, Quebec which he named the Congregation of Jesus and Mary. That this community lacked any kind of official blessing from the Catholic Church seemed but a technicality.
The real story likely began earlier in France when a newly-ordained priest named Michel Colin announced in 1936 that Jesus Christ had appeared and ordained him as a bishop. Based on his religious vision, the charismatic Colin managed to found a new religious community that he named the Order of the Mother of God. Since France has a long history of religious visionaries, with numerous claimed visitations by the Virgin Mary, “Bishop” Colin’s mission attracted numerous followers. Inspired by his own success, Michel Colin declared that Jesus Christ had designated him as the new pope and he took the name of Clement XV.
As you probably might expect, the Vatican was not amused by Pope Clement XV’s antics. Pope Pius XII formally defrocked Michel Colin in 1951 and then publicly excommunicated him. In an unusual step, Colin was officially declared a vitandus excommunicate, which basically meant that all Catholics were ordered not to associate with him in any way (except for family members). Very similar to the shunning practiced by many religious groups, the vitandus ruling is rarely imposed by the Catholic Church except in extreme cases (such as with heretics deemed especially dangerous to Church teachings).
Although being shunned by the Church cost Michel many of his supporters, he still managed to keep his community going. In 1961, he and Jean-Gaston Tremblay met for the first time and, despite Colin’s own excommunicated status, they decided to merge their two religious communities. Colin brought many of his remaining followers to Quebec although his movement also continued in France. The new, expanded community changed its name to the Apostles of Infinite Love (a.k.a. Order of the Magnificat) and Father Tremblay was formally consecrated a bishop by Pope Clement XV.
The expanded community managed to flourish, largely due to dissatisfaction with the official Catholic Church over changes linked to the Second Vatican Council. There also appeared to be growing friction between Michel Colin and Jean-Gaston Tremblay over who would have ultimate control of their joint community. By 1968, Tremblay declared himself to be Pope Gregory XVII and Colin grudgingly accepted his authority (although it took him more than a year to do it).
Following Michel Colin’s death in 1974, his followers split up into warring factions and pretty well vanished from public notice. That left Jean Gaston Tremblay in absolute control over his Quebec community. While he still claimed the name of Pope Gregory XVII there were actually two other claimants to the name and the title of pope that went with it. Spanish antipope, Clement Dominguez y Gomez proclaimed himself Pope Gregory XVII in 1968 after seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary in the small Spanish village of El Palmar de Troya. His faction became known as the Palmarian Catholic Church and still has thousands of followers (Gregory XVII died in 2005 although Pope Gregory XVIII is the current head of the Palmarians). The other claimant to the title, Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, was declared Pope Gregory XVII at least one extremist Catholic group that disputed the last four papal elections. Although Cardinal Siri never actually supported the extremists (who called themselves Sirianists), whatever legitimacy the extremists had ended when the Cardinal died in 1989.
As for our own Canadian antipope, Jean Gaston Tremblay, the exact nature of his control over his followers and what was actually happening in his religious community became the focus of considerable controversy for decades. With more than five hundred members in Canada, the United States, and South and Central America, the main source of converts appeared to be conservative Catholics unhappy about Vatican reforms. What little is publicly known about Tremblay’s doctrine appeared to be focused on the coming end of the world. According to one former member who had fled the community after thirty years, “They were saying the end of the world was coming and true days of darkness were coming and we had so many hours and days to join”. The group had more than 900 followers at its peak and practiced total abstinence as well as communal living with all worldly possessions being surrendered to the community before joining. Boys and girls were kept in strict sexual seclusion and complaints of physical and sexual abuse became common during the 1980s.
As a result of the sexual abuse allegations, Tremblay became the focus of numerous police probes including a high-profile police raid on the St. Jerome monastery in 1999. More than twenty children were removed and as least four senior members, including Tremblay, were later charged with sexual abuse alleged to have occurred between 1966 and 1985. Although Tremblay was actually in France when the raid occurred, he turned himself into the police two weeks after a Canada-wide warrant was issued for his arrest. It would take two years of legal wrangling before the Crown finally dropped all charges against Tremblay and his supporters due to problems with the testimony provided by the children. The children at the centre of the case were never returned to the community’s care and at least nine of them were returned to the United States since their parents were in Canada illegally.
Not that Jean Gaston Tremblay’s legal problems ended there. Despite repeated lawsuits and additional criminal charges, including one former member who filed a $2.5 million dollar lawsuit over allegations of abuse, Jean Gaston Tremblay managed to stay out of jail. He also stayed in firm control of his religious community although poor health forced him to turn over day-to-day operations to his supporters. Although former members condemned the Canadian and Quebec governments for allowing Tremblay’s followers to continue operating, the community has managed to avoid any new criminal charges.
With Jean Gaston Tremblay’s death on December 31, 2011, there has been intense speculation over what will happen with his community and whether a new pope will be appointed. Did Tremblay appoint a successor or will the religious community he controlled for more than four decades split into factions in the same way that Michel Colin’s movement did? For now, the saga of the Canadian antipope remains unresolved.