Sex Abuse Alleged at Helena Orphanage in 1940s

By Michael Moore
Helena Independent Record
September 5, 2010

LINDA THOMPSON/Missoulian More than 60 years after she says she endured physical and sexual abuse at the St. Joseph’s Home Catholic orphanage in Helena, Mary Lou Veal, 70, is coming forward with her story. “I want the church to take responsibility, to own up to what they did,” says Veal.

In the dark, spartan room lit only by an oil lamp, the priest gave the little girl a piece of candy and told her to keep her mouth shut.

“He told me it was our secret,” that little girl said recently. “He told me to be quiet or I’d be in serious trouble.”

She was 7 and she’d just been raped.

She essentially kept her mouth shut for more than 60 years. Now, at age 70, Mary Lou Veal has something to say.

“I want the church to take responsibility, to own up to what they did,” the St. Ignatius woman said. “They need to admit what happened. I don’t want an apology because I couldn’t accept it. I want them to admit what they did to me was wrong.”

The little girl was scared to death.

Even now, she doesn’t understand entirely why she was there, standing in the dark hall of a Catholic orphanage with her Teddy bear in the crook of her small arm.

After all, her aunt was the one leaving her and her sisters Barbara and Gloria at the St. Joseph Home, a Catholic orphanage that operated in the Prickly Pear Valley on the edge of Helena for 72 years.

It was Sept. 13, 1947, and Mary Lou Lenz was 7 years old.

Her young life had already been something of a mess, not that she noticed much through her little girl eyes.

During her youngest years, her dad, Alfred Lenz, was overseas in Guam during World World II. She lived with mom Catherine and her two sisters in Chester, but mom eventually ran off with another man, Kenneth “Mac” McCandless.

The couple settled in Fairfield, while the girls stayed with their aunt Naomi and their father, once he returned from the war.

One weekend, during a visit with their mother, the girls were taken to Fairfield and never returned. Today that would be called kidnapping, but back then it was just a civil problem and not much of one at that.

Their father and aunt had no idea where they’d gone.

“My mother wasn’t really a good person,” said Mary Lou, whose last name is now Veal. “And neither was the man she took up with.”

One day, when her mother was drinking in a Fairfield bar, Mac McCandless forced himself on Mary Lou’s oldest sister, Gloria.

He came out of the house and asked us if we knew where Gloria was,” she said. “Then he asked us if we wanted to play hide-and-seek. He put us in the outhouse and locked the door.”

What followed was a breach of adult trust that presaged a coming horror for the Lenz girls.

“After he locked the door, he set fire to the grass around the outhouse and took off,” Mary Lou recalled. “He just left us to burn and took off down the alley to the bar where our mom was hanging out.”

Fortuitously, Gloria reappeared and rescued her sisters from the doomed outhouse.

Although Mary Lou doesn’t recall the specifics — she was 6 — the sexual abuse and the fire proved sufficient to return the Lenz girls to the care of their father and aunt.

The next year, for reasons Mary Lou has never been clear about, the girls were placed in a Helena orphanage for about nine months during 1947-48.

“My dad never really explained what happened and I got the feeling that it wasn’t really something I should be asking about,” she said. “I just know he felt bad about it.”

The girl’s aunt took the three of them to the huge and looming Catholic orphanage in Helena.

Although all three girls entered the orphanage together, Gloria, the oldest, was soon separated from Barbara and Mary Lou.

“I don’t know why it happened, but she was taken away from us and eventually got out of the place went back to Wisconsin, where our family was from,” Mary Lou said.

The younger girls bonded with another girl, and the three leaned on each other to survive their time in the St. Joseph’s home.

“It was a horrible place,” Mary Lou remembered. “The food was awful. It was almost like we were in a prison.”

By Mary Lou’s account, the orphanage was run in a dictatorial fashion by Catholic nuns. Nuns were right and kids were wrong.

Any misstep was punished quickly and viciously.

“They thought nothing of beating and hitting you,” she said.

Both Mary Lou and Barbara had problems with bed-wetting, a situation the nuns addressed with a leather belt.

“They didn’t hit you once,” Mary Lou said. “They beat you for what felt like minutes.”

Doing her best to solve her own problem, Mary Lou would wake in the night and walk to the bathroom. One night, she failed to put her slippers on before walking through the barracks-like room to the bathroom.

“So they beat me for not putting my slippers on,” she said. “She actually stomped my bare feet with her big black shoes.”

Barbara and Mary Lou soon grew to despise St. Joseph’s. They wanted to trust the nuns, to feel nurtured by their adult presence, but their faith was rewarded with beatings.

“One day I poked a nun in the belly and told her she was fat,” Mary Lou remembered. “She hit me so hard in the face that she lifted me off my feet. Tell me, who would treat a kid like that?”

The nuns were so harsh, Mary Lou said, that she and Barbara resolved to run away. The gates to the orphanage were always locked, but on Nov. 23, 1947, a major earthquake struck southwestern Montana. At the time of the quake, a nun was transporting a wagon of sandwiches across the grounds. She’d gone through the gate, so it was still open when the quake struck.

“Windows were just falling out of the building, but we looked down there and saw the gate and the sandwiches and figured if we were ever going to run, we’d better do it then,” Mary Lou said. “So we grabbed that wagon and took off.”

The girls hid out at the local dump, where they were befriended by a homeless man who feed them stew and kept them sheltered for the night.

“Unfortunately, we left that wagon with the sandwiches where it could be seen, so the nuns found us,” Mary Lou said. “So they caught us and back to the orphanage we went.”

The nuns were only the beginning of the Lenz girls’ nightmare.

One night a man Mary Lou believed to be a priest came to her bed, picked her up and carried her away.

He took her to a small room on the orphanage’s first floor, a room with a single bed, a chair and an oil lamp.

“I remember the lamp because he had to blow it out,” she said. “In fact, I thought that’s how all lights went out. I surprised later when someone turned a light off without blowing it.”

The man then raped her.

“He gave me a root beer barrel, a piece of candy, and told me to keep my mouth shut,” she recalled. “He said it would be our secret.”

And it was. She was raped at least once more by the same priest before leaving the home.

In June 1948, the girls were reunited with their family. They lived with their father during their school year and their aunt during the summer, and wound up graduating from high school in Oregon.

“Around the time of my graduation, Barbara asked me what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. “I said, ‘I’d like to burn down that orphanage.’ She said that sounded like a really good idea and that she’d help me.”

For the first time, the girls shared their stories, which were all too similar.

“The same thing happened to her, and she never talked about it, either,” Mary Lou said.

Unlike many victims of sexual abuse, Mary Lou was mostly successful at segregating the memory of her abuse.

“I was pretty mad at the Catholic church, but I guess I didn’t let it ruin my life,” she said. “I guess I’m not one to carry it around with it always getting in the way.”

Mary Lou eventually married, had children and moved back to Montana, where she bartended at a variety of establishments around the Mission Valley. A widow, she now lives outside St. Ignatius.

It was there in 2009 that she saw a newspaper notice regarding a widespread case of sexual abuse by Jesuit priests throughout the Northwest.

“I didn’t know if this guy was a Jesuit or not, but I thought I better call,” she said.

The call put her in touch with a group of attorneys working together as Northwest Attorneys for Justice. They are part of a huge case involving the bankruptcy of the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, a case that involves more than 100 Montanans.

Mary Lou Veal is not part of that case. Her case, if there is a case, will involve the Helena diocese of the Catholic Church, said attorney Andy Chasan, who was in Missoula recently to speak with Veal.

“She has a powerful story, but we need to hear from others who were there during the same time period,” said Chasan, who believes he has identified the now-deceased priest involved in the case. “If we have five people telling essentially the same story, then we’d have a case. We need to hear from those people.”

Veal has not yet filed a formal complaint with the Helena diocese, although she has sought some records from church officials.

“We have not received any complaints about the orphanage,” said Renee St. Martin Wizeman, communication services director for the diocese. “But we are absolutely committed to dealing with any allegations of abuse.”

Mary Lou’s sister Barbara died in 2008. In 2009, when Mary Lou saw the newspaper notice and got in touch with Chasan, she also called her sister Gloria.

“I just wanted to let her know that this was going on,” Mary Lou said. “And then she just surprised the heck out of me. I was telling her what had happened to me and she stopped me and said, ‘The same thing happened to me.’ ”

Gloria is now extremely ill, battling cancer, but Mary Lou said she’s been very supportive.

“I think, like me, she’d just like to see them own up to what happened to us,” Mary Lou said. “We were just kids. Who would do something like that to little girls?”


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