Sunday 4 December 2016

Religious cult took our sister from us, says family of Bridget Crosbie

She died alone and lonely and lay undiscovered in her Wexford home for two months. But 84-year-old Bridget was once full of the joys of life ... before she joined a secretive religious sect.

Graham Clifford

Published 28/11/2015 | 02:30

Carefree: Bridget Crosbie in her late 20s. During the Swinging Sixties she worked in hotels in London and the Channel Islands but a decade later her life took a different outlook
Carefree: Bridget Crosbie in her late 20s. During the Swinging Sixties she worked in hotels in London and the Channel Islands but a decade later her life took a different outlook
Isolation: A religious image in the window of Bridget Crosbie's home in Wexford town where her body was found after more than two months. Photo: Pat Moore.

It's the Swinging Sixties and a young, carefree, woman from rural Wexford takes the boat to England to start a new life.

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Bridget Crosbie, a beautiful, smart and popular figure, finds work in hotels in London and even in the Channel Island of Guernsey.

"She loved life," said a family member this week, adding "she was great fun, loved her family, she had boyfriends like every other young girl, was very artistic and was really a typical, everyday Irish girl."

She qualified as a midwife and worked in various London hospitals.

But by the end of the Seventies Bridget had changed.

Her family say it was around then that she joined the Palmarian Catholic Church - a secretive Spanish sect that broke away from the Catholic Church and has declared a series of its own 'popes'.

When Bridget returned home to Wexford, she became more indoctrinated she also became more reclusive in keeping with the sects' strict set of rules.

She had to wear a full-length dark dress and a make-shift habit. There was to be no social contact with any persons not dressed to the Palmarian dress code - even over the telephone.

All religious items not in keeping with the Palmarian teachings had to be destroyed, listening to modern music was banned as was attending non-Palmarian religious services such as weddings, funerals and christenings.

Ties with family members are effectively cut and followers live without television sets, radio, computers and telephones.

The group, which featured in a TV3 documentary called Ireland's Secret Cults, is said to have about 300 members in Ireland but when Review attempted to contact the Church this week our attempts were unsuccessful.

Bridget's family and many concerned neighbours tried to help her but she retreated from life though she did travel to Dublin occasionally to attend Palmarian services and hand out pamphlets.

Knocks at the door were ignored.

Outside her home neighbours got on with their lives, children played in the green opposite her house and a few doors up locals called in for a pint at the nearby pub. The world kept on turning.

But at number 29 life moved at a very different pace.

On November 20, Bridget's body was found in the bedroom of her home in the Faythe in Wexford Town, she was 84. She had been dead for at least two months.

"We'd always keep an eye out for her but sure she couldn't interact with us because of the religion," said her neighbour Paddy Mulligan. "If you did happen to catch her eye, she'd smile. It's very sad."

Another neighbour Sean O'Leary told me that even when she fell on the street during the summer and the paramedics came to help her she wouldn't interact with them.

"She refused to go in the ambulance, that was July and the last time I set eyes on her," he said.

Bridget's siblings want to warn other families about the Palmarian Church and say it, and similar alternative groups, are potentially dangerous. One family member told me: "People need to be aware of groups like these which are often handing out leaflets on our streets. We don't know why Bridget got involved with the Palmarians but we do know they took her away from us. She lived in isolation. We wanted to speak to her, she probably wanted to speak to us - but because of the extreme rules she felt she couldn't. It was utterly heart-breaking."

While Bridget Crosbie withdrew from conventional living due to her beliefs, many elderly people across Ireland are doing so to avoid the confusion and increased pressures associated with modern living.

"We see it all the time," said Sean Moynihan, the CEO of the charity Alone, adding: "obviously changes in the way society lives impacts on the elderly and it can be daunting and worrying.

The more we become connected digitally, the less we are connected socially, and that is something which older people find very difficult to get used to. Still so many elderly people have no access to, or no idea how to use, a computer yet all services are moving online."

One in three elderly people in Ireland today live alone and so the temptation to retreat into the 'safety' of the familiar, blocking out everything outside the front door' is understandably strong.

"The world is changing so much and much of what had been a constant in the lives of elderly people is now different all of a sudden," said Sean Moynihan. "Take the banking situation for example. You had customers of the Bank of Ireland for over half a century being told recently that they couldn't get money out at the counter. They weren't even sent a letter telling them this would happen. For these people that is hugely confusing and stressful."

While some isolation is self-imposed, others find themselves alone because of events in their lives. Head of advocacy and communications with Age Action, Justin Moran, believes that keeping an eye on the elderly and providing reassurance will greatly help, he said "we would urge people to check in on their older neighbours, particularly if they're living alone or far from their families. Reaching out like that is a gesture and it can be important to people who might be socially isolated."

There was a time in Ireland when this would be done as a matter of course. "I don't necessarily think that we care less but I think people are busier now - running and racing," said Sean Moynihan of Alone. "We drive everywhere, have mobile phones to our ears, we work hard to pay the never-ending bills and we seem to lose perspective."

With an ageing population, isolation can quickly become the norm. With less and less social interaction confidence levels can dip and attention to one's health and living oft times deteriorates.

And in some cases, as we discovered this week, the cause for isolation is more complex, harder to fathom.

In Wexford on Tuesday Bridget Crosbie's family gathered to say goodbye to their beloved sister… for a second time.

They remembered the bright young woman who was once full of the joys of life... and wondered what might have been.

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