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December 27, 2021 35 mins

Twenty years before the murder at Holy Cross Academy, two struggling priests find one another in South Florida. As they build out their utopia, some are awed by their vision, while others start to question their methods.

Hosted by Paula Barros and Melanie Bartley 


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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:05):
Last time on stag with Scandal, police were searching the
grounds of Miami's Holy Cross Academy for the murderer of
Sister Michelle Lewis. But before going forward, we want to
take you back and paint a picture of the school
as it was. The story is about more than just
a murder. An understanding Holy Cross from the inside sets

the stage for everything that's to come. Let's get started.
Let's let's that check a little bit. I want to
know how you you first heard of Holy Cross Academy,
Like how you came across this school. My husband and
I of course were school shopping. I was very geared

to a Catholic school education because I went to Catholic school.
So then I found a mom that told me there's
a school on Sunset Drive, and I started, you know where,
And so we drove by there one day and I said,
this is like a trailer. There's this big trailer in

the front, which was the entrance in the office, and
then towards the back there were almost i want to say,
like um like linear trailers and each trailer had a classroom.
So it was the first grade, second grade, third grade,
and then fourth, fifth and six and then a small

trailer where they did lunches for the kids. And um,
there was also an additional trailer, I believe, with a
very small library. What year was this seven? So then
I talked to my husband about it goes It sounds great,
it sounds like it's starting. It's a small school, a

classical education. This sounds great. I mean they teach Greek,
they teach Latin, they teach French. This is amazing. Let's
cool for let's figure out and now introduce yourself and
tell me your relationship to holy Cross. Um, my name
is Mighty Ata Fernandez, and my relationship to holy Cross
Academy is that both of my children went to holy Cross.

My son graduated from there and it was the first
graduating class that went all the way from kindergarten to
twelfth grade. And then my daughter, she also went to
holy Cross. You know, like most of the families that
went all the way through holy Cross was part of
our family. I'm Paula Barrows and I'm Melanie Bartley. And

this sacred scandal, it took them forever to build the buildings.
We were in trailers for god knows how long. It
was a bit mysterious. Because you know, the school was
half monastery, half school, so there was always a bit
of a mystery as to what was going on beyond
the fence, beyond the wall. I honestly think that all
they cared about was appearance. Is all they wanted it

to look like, was that we were all perfect students.
We had perfectly pressed uniforms, and we behaved, you know, perfectly,
and we had this beautiful, perfect school. It affected me
so much to the poor that something so terrible could
happen in a place where everyone felt so safe. I

still don't think anybody in Miami knows that this place
is here, you know what I mean. It's just so
out of never seen a castle on Sunset Drive, Like
does it disappear at night? The campus at Holy Cross
Academy came a long way from those early days in
the mid nineteen eighties when it was just a bunch
of trailers in an open field. By the time I

started school there, almost ten years after Marietta Fernandez first
drove by, it expanded into what stands today. A building
that looked like an old European university was picked up
and dropped onto a palm tree line strip of suburban
South Florida. We are around here too. Oh my god,

Oh my god, it's painted. It's great. This is the monastery.
This is it. I know I might not totally sound
like it's here, but I was so nervous driving back
to look at Holy Cross that day. I had not
been back there in about fifteen years, and the thought

had just seen my old high school broad on a
wave of emotion. But part of me just wanted to
be able to walk through that courtyard once again and
remember what it felt like to be seventeen years old again.
That's where the monks lived, that was the chapel, and
that's where father Alp and Father Damien lived. Shure, I'm
going to let's try to go into the lot. Absolutely him.

I used to go here along million years and millions
of years ago, and I'm just like wow, like this
isn't still here, the castle? Wow? Oh it might like
can I like maybe get out and like look at
the school. I don't think so that today's it was
a different world than when you were here. The security
across Only Cross Academy and had a different name. It's uh,

schools are scary place nowadays. Yeah, I graduated like two
thousand one, so that's a long time ago. I know,
I graduated in Jersey. When I go home, I always
have to go around the neighborhood, right, so thank you
for being friendly. Though we couldn't walk around this cool,
we were able to take a peek inside the monastery's chapel.
It's now a different church and no longer part of

the current school there. As students, we went there every
day from morning prayers and daily announcements from Father Rabbit went.
But it's the walls that I remember the most. They
were painted in these beautiful and ornately colorful Byzantine icons
showing all kinds of scenes from the Bible. It was

really hard to pay attention in the chapel because I
was so focused on these murals. There's beautiful angels floating,
but also creepy skulls and blood and gore. I mean,
we could just go see if we can, like see
the iconography, I guess of the church. Fun come on,

be brave, I don't want to. Oh. Something's different day
and they got rid of the iconomic But I still
can't believe that this is the pictures from the yearbook

of you guys. This is the place. Yeah, but it
looks so tiny. Yeah, this was the place. It looks
so like grandiose in the in the Yeah, let's go.
No wait wait wait wait wait, Yeah, I'm not I'm
not feeling the vibe. Let's go. Okay. Something about being

back at holy Cross just didn't feel right. It made
me anxious and darkly nostalgic, because it feel like you're
gonna get in trouble. Yeah, almost like like like they're watching.
I feel like Father when and Father Damien's are still watching,
you know, like they're they're somehow still tied to this place,

and they're like watching from somewhere and that they knew
that we were there. Why do I get that by it?
It's completely irrational, It's completely irrationally gath. I don't know
why I feel that way. I don't think most people
have this kind of feeling about their high school. But

having talked so many former students and teachers while making
this show, I've realized that I'm not alone in thinking
that Holy Cross Academy and the men who founded it
left a lasting impression on us. I guess you had
to be there. So on this episode, we're going to
sift through how a pair of monks went from forming

a simple monastery to a multimillion dollar operation and get
a sense of what life was like at Holy Cross
after a break of you from the inside, stay with us.

Welcome back to Sacred Scandal. I'm Paula Burrows and I'm
Melanie Bartley. Father Abbot Gregory Went was drawn to the
sound of the Eastern Catholic Liturgy as a teenager. In
the nineteen fifties, he studied music in the US and
the Netherlands, and visited universities across Europe. Reverend Went, as

he was known back then, went on to run music
programs and teach at colleges in Oklahoma. By their early
nineteen seventies, he returned to Miami, the city where he
grew up. He helped found a choir at St. Basil
the Greats, the city's only Byzantine Catholic parish. Father Went
was a type of person who made things happen when

he wanted to. In two years, he worked to double
the size of the choir and even recorded an album
with them. These are the laicses you're hearing right now.
But by the end of the decade, Father wentz goals

and vision changed and he felt the call towards a
monastic life. The Holy Cross Monastery wasn't the first attempt
that Father Went made to establish a monastery. This is
Peter Davidson, who wrote a book about the murder at
Holy Cross and dug deep into the priest's past. He

tried one um I think in the late seventies or
early eighties up in Lantana in Palm Beach County, but
he had difficulty attracting people to join him in this venture,
and eventually the monastery was closed. He did get one follower,

and that was James cobo alt Far who became known
as Father Damien. Father Damian was studying for the priesthood
at the seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida, and he was
just six months away from graduating. This was in December
of night when he was asked to leave and apparently

he had a serious drinking problem according to the documents
that I found, and he was asked to leave because
his problem created doubts about his ability to serve as
a priest. So he was booted out of the seminaries,
asked to leave the seminary, and he did after being

kicked out of the Roman Catholic seminary, Damien would switch rights,
become a Greek Catholic and make his way to win
small monastery in Lantana, and also gave him an opportunity
to become part of the Byzantine Church because he'd been
studying in the Roman Catholic right, so this gave him
kind of a new life to go into another aspect

of the church and he would wash the dishes and
do ards and ends there. And after the monastery was
closed in Lantana, they moved to Miami Deade County and
started working on setting up a monastery. Here in Miami,

the pair would contact the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic,
New Jersey. They asked permission for the two of them
to form a new monastery. The eparchy is like a diocese,
so around Miami, all the Roman Catholic churches are under
the Archdiocese of Miami, which is run by an archbishop.
But in the Byzantine Right, the eparchies cover a lot

more territory because there are fewer churches, So all of
Florida's Byzantine Catholic organizations fall under this eparchy that's based
in New Jersey, which has a bishop. In the early eighties,
Bishop Michael Duddick was running things in Passaic, and he
signed off on the pair establishing what would become the

Monastery of the Exultation of the Most Holy Cross. At
the time, the monastery was just a small house they
were living in. According to reporting in the Sun Sentinel
from back in two thousand one, Went then became the
monastery's abbot, and he or Dan Cabald as a Byzantine priest.

But a monastery is supposed to be a sort of
self sustaining operation where the organization takes care of the
monks who lived there in a life of prayer and
service to the order. Without enough money, Went in Damien
couldn't grow their monastery or sustain more members, so they
needed to find a way to keep it going long term.

Their idea was Holy Cross Academy. Father Went and Father Damien,
we're working as teachers and saving to start their own
small religious academy. According to Peter Davidson, they went back
to Bishop Dudeck and were given his permission to open
a school. At the time, he approved them to teach

kindergarten through the eighth grade, tuition was below the most
elite private and Catholic schools in Miami, and they promised
a classical education in Greek Latin, the classics and philosophy.
With that, Holy Cross Academy was able to attract middle
class families who were searching for a different educational experience.

And I do have to thank my parents for having
sent me there because the education I got at Holy
Cross has helped me so much throughout my life. A
friend of father went from the Netherlands helped them finance
the school, and the bank loan of one point four
million dollars guaranteed by the Eperchy got them even closer

to their vision for the academy, vision that this all
community of holy Cross, and parents like Marietta Fernandez felt
very much a part of. When you were talking about um,
this dream that father that wanted to create, do you
do you remember how he would describe it or how
would you describe this this holy Cross dream? The building itself.

Have you you've seen the building like a minie Oxford University.
He would talk about how important it was to have
the open space school. You were part of the earth,
you were part of the environment. The school was welcoming.
The building in itself had a life, and that life

was the children that walked through it on a daily basis,
the students, the parents. He wanted that, he wanted that vibration.
He had an idea of what he wanted to create,
and he felt that the way through was going to
be through this type of classical education, and the idea

to move forward and create and build the school was
very important to him. And we knew that there was
a plan and we knew that it was going to happen.
And we had a big, big meeting and all the
parents went to the meeting, and I remember standing up
and saying, why are we talking so much about how

we're gonna get to how we're gonna do it, how
we're gonna get the money. And I just said, if
you build it, they will come. We will make the money.
He started laughing. He goes, this is great. He said,
this is the attitude that we need. And she was right.

The building got built and the people did come, not
just from Miami, but all the way from Ukraine. More
on that After the break Welcome Back. As Holy Cross

Academy student body and staff grew over its first decade,
things began to shift. Father Abbott went no longer needed
to teach and moved into a role strictly as headmaster,
and Father Damien became limited to running the religious services
for the school, so new employees came in. They took
over daily operations and managed the priest's vision for their academy. Okay, well,

my name is Nan Gardner and my full title at
Holy Cross was assistant Headmaster and diner students, what do
you what do you remember about about Paula? I'm just
curious how what was Paula like in school? I could
just picture her uniform. You know, some people are not

meant for that level of having to obey. Um, you
were always pleasant. You just didn't want to follow along
with the uniform. That's all right, dang it? Yeah, and
I gave you Helen. I'm so sorry. Your sister's uniform
always looked good. Speaking about the discipline, Um, how would

you describe her? Or? I guess how do you compare
the discipline not Holy Cross to other schools who worked that?
Was it more strict? Oh it's much more strict? Yeah
in what way? Uh? Well, for one thing, I couldn't
believe the number of detentions on that list every week.
But you know, it was just part of the program
to to get those up there. And frankly, the parents

at the school for the most part, seemed to be
very supportive of the UM disciplinary measures. I mean, kids
knew that if they got into any kind of physical altercation,
they were going to be suspended. UM. They knew there
were cameras in all the rooms that we could see

if there was mischief done somewhere by checking the cameras,
and most schools don't have that. What did you think
about the cameras, um, I they served a good purpose
for things like finding mischief or seeing UM classroom management

so far as teachers go, and stuff like that. But
we didn't really sit on those cameras very much. I
was the main person that operated the cameras, looking at
him and stuff, and usually it was more a matter
of looking back at something like if somebody put graffiti
on the bathroom wall, you know, we could look back
and see who was in the bathroom at that time
and possibly um see what somebody he had done. So

I think it it kept kids from doing a lot
of things that might have done otherwise. You know, Shenanigans.
I would hate it as a teacher. I think it's
unfair on them to have a camera on them and
uh and I would like to clear up. In the bathrooms,
you could not see any private areas. And there was
one teacher, it was a preschool teacher who used to

tell the kids that father Abbott or Mrs Gardner was
always watching them on the camera, and I thought, what
a horrible thing to tell a little four year old.
You know, but not all staff saw the cameras as
a tool for keeping students in line. It reminded me
a big brother, right big brother watching you and controlling you.
And but since I didn't have anything to hide for me,

it was like, whatever you want to watch, sit there
and watch me go right ahead. I didn't have an
issue with that, but but I but I did find
it weird. So my name is Nazi Ramala Sierra and
I only taught it whole across for one year. Miss
Sierra was my Spanish teacher for that one year that
she was at Holy Cross. I liked her so much

and she had such a big impact on me that
I honestly thought she was there the entire time that
I was. But for some reason she didn't make it,
and I wanted to know why. Part of it, she said,
was because those rules about the dress code weren't just
for students. We weren't allowed to wear pants the year
I was there, we had to wear panti hoose, which

were horrible and in Miami. Yeah, and the master's coat
that you had to wear, like in Harry Potter what
the teachers where. It's the big long coat. It's like
a graduation gown kind of thing. But these were thick
and they were they were heavy, and they were hot.
I'm not gonna lie if you took it off, would

you be reprimanded? Oh? No, you could not take that off.
You're not allowed to take that off. It was on
all the time, not even when you were in your
classroom by yourself, because you know, they had cameras in
the rooms and they would let you know that they
were watching you. Was there anything different about the students
at Holy Cross from other schools you had taught at before?

What was different? I think that a lot of them
demonstrated more like they were more needy, which is interesting
because you figure they come from affluent families, but they
were like missing. I don't even know the word to
say in English, but in Spanish karno. You know. They
just they just wanted someone to feel close to or warm,
and it was like like I was like mother figures

almost what I feel like, or a big sister figure
to some of them, and they just needed to talk
and needed to be heard. And that that was very
impactful for me because um, it goes along very much
with my personality. That it wasn't my teaching style before
coming here. Even though she thought the kids needed that
type of connection, it wasn't something she felt was supported

by the school's leadership. There was a senior student whose
father had pasked, and the student was walking with his head,
you know, kind of down, and I knew what was
going on with him, and the kind of cross paths
in the hallway and in the upstairs, and I said
good morning, and I said the student's name, Mr. Whatever
his name was, and he looked up, Oh, good morning

the Sierra. And little did I know, I had one
of the administrators walking behind me. So as the student
walked by me, I got called into the administration and
said that I should never ever say hello to a
student without the students saying hello. To me first, it
was like just respectful and and that that kind of

like it made me sad because this poor kid all
he wanted, you know, I don't know. It was just
a really weird From that thing on, I knew I
was not returning. And what broke my heart was leaving
the students that I was going to leave behind. You know,
I caredn't there, I could not work there away. Though

Holy Cross Academy was growing, the monastery that it was
founded upon was at a standstill. More than almost seven
years after they started, Father Abbott Gregory went and Father
Damien Gibald hadn't recruited any new monks, and they were
still the only official members of the monastery. But in

that all changed. Only the newest member was not a monk.
Marietta Fernandez was one of the first to welcome the
new recruit. My first vision of Sister Michelle walking down
the hallway dressed in her monastic habit with her big

giant leather belt, was like, what is this? And hello,
I Mrs Fernandez? Who are you? Michelle Lewis, I'm sister man.
It is great to me. You are you part of
the family? Who are you? Where did you come from
and was like, oh, yes, you know, I'm just recently started,

you know, joining the monastic family here at Holy Cross Academy.
And where do you live? I was like, you know,
I was like a little kid asking her so many
questions because to me, it was like what does she do?
Sister Michelle Lewis and Marietta Fernandez became fast friends, or
as close as a parent and a monastic could. Sister

Michelle was twenty nine years old when she joined the
monastery at Holy Cross as a nun in training. Before
taking on the habit, she spent years working as an
accountant and actuary. She came to Miami with her ex husband,
who she divorced several years before choosing to live at
a convent. Did she tell you about what her relationship

with her husband was like and like why she left? No? No,
I think that he was verbally abusive to her, because
I there were maybe a couple of comments during the
but and physically I think so, even though it's so
hard to believe, because she was just you know, I
think she was a strong person and he made her

very weak, you know, and maybe not self assured. You know,
maybe that self esteem was killed a little. How sometimes
it happens in a relationship, you know, But it seems
like she opened up to you as a woman, right
like she telling knew about that she did. She was

when when we were talking about that and those things.
She was a woman. Um, even even though she was
a monastic, she was a woman. I mean, I've I've
grown around other you know, uh sisters I've had you know,
Like I told you, I went to Catholic school and
I used to spend a lot of time talking to

other other sisters. I used to spend a lot of
time in the kitchen with them because my aunt was
a teacher, so I would have to wait till my
aunt got out of school and graded all her papers.
So they would send me off to the combat, go
to the comment, go have you know, a nice little
snack until we can go home. And I used to
and they were so different, you know, they were they
were not like her. After her marriage ended, Michelle Lewis

felt called to do something different with her life. Raised
as a Roman Catholic, she initially wanted to become a
carmelite nun, but because she was a divorced woman, she
had trouble being accepted by other Catholic orders, but then
she found the monastery on Sunset Drive and was wowed

by the singing of the Byzantine Liturgy. She asked if
there was a way for her to become a permanent member.
Father went believed in second chances, and you could imagine
it was hard for someone like him, trying to grow
an academy, to turn down Michelle and her skills and accounting,
So he accepted her and made her a novice, a

nun in training. She gave up all of her possessions
and donated her savings to the monastery. This gave her
a free home with the promise of being taken care
of for life. In exchange, she prayed and served the monastery,
but also worked tirelessly for the school. She was the accountant,

so she did all the accounting for the school. Um,
she taught calculus, she tutored a lot of the kids
in calculus as well when they needed it, and um,
she you know, basically ran the whole office. I think
that also she had a lot to do with the

monastic side of the accounting. Remember Holy Cross was separate.
Sister Michelle's rule expanded A few years later, when the
membership of the monastery started to grow again. Okay, so
let's talk about the candidates for a bit. What what
were you told about them that they just kind of
show up one day, or were you told that they

were going to start recruiting kids from Ukraine and all
of that. Well, they pretty much showed up and um
but I was told that they were there because they
were interested in going into the monastic life, and that
they were given this opportunity to come to the United

States and and leave a more difficult situation in in
the Ukraine and get a an excellent education in the
in the United States at the school, and then possibly
go into the priesthood. How did do you feel about it?
Did it did it strike you as odd that there

were teenage kids living at the school or did you
just kind of accept it? Um? No, I didn't think
it was too odd. I thought, you know, they were young,
but they seemed to be happy and eager to do
well in school. Uh. They stood out from the regular
students because they had to wear a different type of outfit.

They wore, Uh, just a very simple black suit, white shirt.
I don't remember if they wore a tie or not,
but they weren't allowed to go to any of the
dances and you know, social activities. So what was the
process for the monasty cadidates. Well, okay, so they were

recruited from the Ukraine. They would come here and they
didn't speak English, and oh they put them in the
in the kindergart in classes with like the elementary school kids,
just to learn English. Yeah, the little kids. And well
they told us like do not Well, you're not allowed
to speak to the monastic candidates because you can't influence

them in worldly ways. That was the thing, like, don't
influence them into the secular life. So you never talked
to them. How man, you would do it anyway? Yeah,
we weren't supposed to. But but they were always around,
you know, like the monastic candidates. There were a few.
Sometimes there were four or five, sometimes there were seven.

And so in two thousand one, who who was still
there from the monastic candidates In two thousand and one,
my senior year, there were five of them, Petro Mihilo.
They had graduated, but you know they were still very
much sleeping in Holy Cross. And then came Bussel, Sasha

and Yosip and that's who was there. The year of
the murder. Now this is uh. I want to know
where you were the day that you heard what had happened.
I was picking up Valentin as friends and we were

all going to go to the beach and got a
call from my sister in law, Um, and she said,
something's happening at the school. There are police, there's fire trucks.
Something's going on. I think it's really bad. Can you
call and find out? And since I was packing the

girls up, I said, you know, we're gonna go. We
gotta go. Something's going on at school. And one of
the parents called me and she lived across the street
from the school and one of the big beautiful homes
that were there, and she says, Um, something has happened
at this school and it's it's very bad, she said,

And father Abbott and father Damien are on their way
here to my house. We need you here. I went
immediately across the street and I parked. The kids got
out and the parents were like, they were crying and
they were just so upset. And I said, what's happening
and father father Abbott said, UM, Mrs Fernandez, Um, sister

sister Michelle has been stabbed, and UM, and she's dead,
She's been murdered. And I was like, I was in shock.
I did not I couldn't breathe. You know, it was horrid.
I said, no, this is this cannot be happening. This
is a dream. This is I go. Who did it

and who stabbed her? Was? Was it a break in?
Were they trying to steal something? Um? No? Um? It
was one of the monastic candidates. Sacred Scandal is a

production of Exile Content Studio in partnership with I Heart
Radio's michaela Podcast Network. Sacred Scandal was created and produced
by Melanie Bartley and me Paula Burrows. Our senior producer
is Dennis funk of Written in Air. The executive producers

are Rose Red and Nando Villa. Our production assistant is
Imani Leonard. Story editing by Rachel Ward. The show is
fact checked by Kimberly Winston and original music was composed
by Patrick Hart, Audio editing by Past Ques, with final

audio mixing from Dick Soo and special thanks on this
episode to Korey Tchaikovsky, Travis Royg and reporting from Ellis
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