A while ago, I was trying to explain the Bayside movement to a couple of friends. My mother was quite involved with the group for most of the 1980s and even in the first half of the 1990s. I think she still considers herself part of it, though she’s not actively involved to the extent she was.
For those not in the know, The ‘Baysiders’ came about in the late 1960s and early 1970s, based around the ‘visions’ of Veronica Leuken, a housewife based in Bayside, a neighbourhood of New York City. Leuken claimed to start having visions of Mary, Jesus’s mother, in 1968, just before the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. After that, the visions came thick and fast and soon, according to Leuken, she was speaking with Mary and a host of Catholic saints. They gave her messages about the state of the world and future predictions (none of which ever happened within the time predicted). She had her ‘ecstacies’ recorded on tape and transcribed, which were then distributed as flyers or newsletters by her rapidly growing group of followers.
The followers gathered at Leuken’s local parish in Bayside, until the crowds started to disturb the neighbourhood and were moved on by the local government. Eventually, they were granted a site which was part of the 1964 World’s Fair pavilion in Flushing Meadows. Leuken and her followers would gather for ‘Rosary Vigils’, in which they would say the rosary for the duration of the night, while Leuken would “channel” Mary or whichever saint chose to speak to the crowd.
That’s the basic gist of what they’re about. Ideologically, they were (and possibly still are) very conservative and were committed to oppose the ‘modern’ changes to the Catholic Church, specifically the Vatican II Council, held in 1962. According to Leuken, Mary and the others were very disappointed with the changes. In fact, if you read even a smattering of the ‘prophecies‘, Mary and the other celestial, omniscient beings sound a lot like garden-variety John Birch Society members. They’re obsessed with Communism, with ‘Satanic’ infiltration in the Church, the U.N., homosexuality, the wayward youth and the minutae of how to say the Mass (“No communion in the hand”, deacons can’t have priestly powers). It also seems that Mary & Co. aren’t that big on equal rights for women, or allowing women to wear trousers, in another ‘traditionalist’ bent. Add to all that a lot of apocalyptic warnings about comets and wars and natural disasters wiping out large swathes of the planet’s populations and you’re left scratching your head about Leuken’s “God” and his benevolence and loving nature. To me, ‘God’ sounds batshit crazy and conspiracy-theory prone: he warns about the Illuminati and the Freemasons, a conspiracy to replace the ‘Pope’ with an ‘anti-Pope’, about record companies being under control of Wicca (???!!) and a ‘one-world government’.
Bear in mind that the Baysiders never separated themselves from Catholicism, prefering to protest from within. They would wear their blue berets to Mass and, instead of having the communion wafer handed to them, would kneel down in front of the priest and have the wafer placed on their tongues (as allegedly instructed by the ‘Virgin Mary’, via Leuken). They were also notable by their conservative dress, with ankle-length skirts and formal trousers (trousers only for the men, though – women were forbidden to wear trousers).
I don’t remember how my mother became part of this cult – I was still really young and in the haze of childhood. I didn’t really pay much attention to the ‘grown-ups’ and their doings. Suddenly, it seemed, she was spending time with a few Baysiders and adopting their views and mannerisms. She be-friended a strange old woman, who would bring over photo albums full of Polaroid photos with different coloured squiggles on them which contained ‘messages’, according to this woman. You see, they were taken at the World’s Fair site during these rosary vigils and ‘God’ had caused the shapes to appear on the film. It is interesting to note that Polaroid attorneys never really released a statement saying the photos were faked. The ‘zines printed by the group starting appearing in the house and my mother began to stock up on ‘holy water’ (water blessed by a priest).
My mother would tell my older sister and I (our other siblings were deemed too young, at that time, to understand) about prophecies like the “Plague Of Children” and “The Warning” and “The Chastisement”. It sounded scary as shit, but for some reason, it didn’t really bother me that much. My sister was really frightened and, it seems to me, carried around that fright for a long time. When I was 11, my mother asked if I wanted to go to a vigil. I agreed, mainly as an excuse to stay up late. We got on a coach in Hartford and on the two-hour trip to Flushing Meadows, I was sat with my mother and surrounded by Baysiders. At one point, someone shouted “Look at the sun! It’s spinning!”, everyone immediately looked over to the setting sun and agreed that it was indeed spinning. I didn’t see it spinning, but it did seem to change from a orange-ish to green colour for a few seconds. That may have been my eyesight, though. I didn’t count it as a ‘miracle’.
At the pavilion – there were hundreds of people setting up deck chairs and blankets and clutching rosary beads. There was a statue of the Virgin Mary at one end of the pavilion and that end was already crowded with believers. Then, they started saying the rosary…and saying the rosary…and saying the rosary. This went on until midnight or maybe 1 a.m. I can’t quite remember because I grew bored and fell asleep. It definitely wasn’t worth getting to stay up late for. I can’t remember if my mother had brought our Polaroid to take ‘miraculous photos’. I was woken by my mother and wearily got back on the coach to go home.
I think I may have gone one other time about a year later, but after that, I eschewed any involvement with the gatherings. I couldn’t see the point in saying prayers over and over and nothing seemed to happen. The problem was, I still couldn’t escape their influence on my mother. I went to a Catholic middle-school and in my sixth-grade year, my mother kept me out of sex education class (in a Catholic school!!!) – which was pretty humiliating at the time. She used to hector my sister and brother and I about listening to rock music (which she claimed was ‘the devil’s music’). She tried to keep me from hanging out with a friend who lived down the street because his family were a bit too secular and liberal for her liking (at least, that’s what I suspected back then).
Eventually, as I grew into my late teens, I was finally able to shuck off any trappings of Bayside. My mother continued to see her ‘Sider buddies and go to the vigils – but I stopped taking any of it seriously (not that I had taken it that seriously in the first place). While I still considered myself a Catholic, I was a liberal Catholic and getting moreso all the time. In my mid-twenties, I gave up on the Church altogether, having decided that I really didn’t believe in it’s teachings anymore. I chose agnosticism as my path and have strived to keep to it as much as possible – getting rid of any long-held dogma.
Leuken passed away in 1995, which led to a schism in the Bayside movement. Her husband continued the vigils, but ousted one of his wife’s assistants – who promptly formed a rival Baysider sect. Mr Leuken passed away in 2002 and another woman has stepped up to lead the ‘original’ group. The Catholic Church still denies any authenticity to the prophecies…and the beat goes on. The strangest thing about the Baysiders, it seems to me, is that they’re more conservative than the main religious organisation they branch off from. Unlike certain sects of Sufism, which branches from Islam and Zen, which parts ways some from Buddhism – the Baysiders seem to want to turn back the clock with Catholicism and return it to a perceived earlier, ‘better’ period. They’re sincere, but ultimately misguided, as the world is passing them by. I suspect they’re all up in arms about the recent gay marriage vote in Ireland and still predicting that ‘great comet of fire’ is just around the corner. But hey, at least they probably agree with the current ‘Pope’ regarding the matter.