Sunday Tribune Article: March 2, 2008 (c)
Heavenly pursuits, earthly paradise
IT'S ALL going wrong for the woman with the direct line to God. The Archbishop of Tuam has tersely announced that she has "no church approval whatsoever". Some of her most loyal advocates have begun defecting from the ranks. Vulnerable elderly people who gave her their life savings are finally starting to wonder where all the cash has gone. And it has come to light that her name appears on the title documents for private houses worth millions of euro. In the mire of spin, obfuscation and denials that have emerged in the last few weeks, only one thing is now clear: self-proclaimed visionary Christina Gallagher has some serious questions to answer about the House of Prayer, her string of properties, and where the money trail leads.
Gallagher, in her own words, was an "ordinary housewife" until the mid-1980s, when she says she had a vision of Our Lord. Since then, she claims to have regularly been receiving messages from heaven, the tone of which have become extremely threatening. She has also allied herself with Fr Gerard McGinnity, a priest who is highly regarded in religious circles. Using donations from her increasingly large following, she built the 'House of Prayer' on Achill Island, followed by an empire of houses in the US and Mexico. The Achill Island property has become the site of regular, devoted pilgrimages.
In recent weeks, it has emerged that Gallagher, who has no formal source of income, is living in a 4m mansion in Malahide, Co Dublin (bought under the name of her elusive associate, John Rooney); has her own name on the land registry for another house worth 1m in Newport in Co Mayo; is the joint owner of yet another house in Knockmore; and, two years ago, bought her daughter a house worth 1m in Ballina.
None of this takes into account the charity she established in the United States, called the 'Confraternity of Our Lady Queen of Peace', which has assets worth over $800,000. The charity, which was set up after the House of Prayer in Ireland lost its charity status here, owns a number of houses across the United States, including 'The Bailey Hotel' in Kansas. The Confraternity is set up under the name of John Rooney, a man who is closely aligned with Gallagher and appears to take care of many of her investments. Many people who have donated money to the House of Prayer have told the Sunday Tribune that they have been asked to make out cheques directly to accounts of private individuals. The Sunday Tribune attempted to contact Rooney last week, but he did not return our calls.
Sickening, shocking surprise The evidence of such wealth has come as a sickening, shocking surprise to Christina Gallagher's followers, some of whom have told the Tribune that they donated their life savings to the House of Prayer because they were convinced the organisation was in dire need of cash.
One person told the Sunday Tribune that after the House of Prayer lost its charity status in Ireland, some followers were invited to a secret meeting outside Mullingar. "We all arrived on the bus, and by the time we got there, we were already very tired, " said the person, who noted that the majority of people present were elderly. "Fr McGinnity started by saying a full rosary.
Then he started reading these messages from Our Lady and from Jesus.
"The messages were very threatening, saying that the House of Prayer needed money and that if we were financially able to help, then we had to do so, and if we didn't, we were facing eternal damnation in the next life.
"A slip of paper was passed around and 1m was pledged. Fr McGinnity said this wasn't enough and he sent around the paper again until 2m had been pledged. At this particular meeting there were people openly talking about their financial affairs. There were two or three people who said they had money put aside for their old age, but Fr McGinnity told them to give the money anyway, that they would be looked after in the future. It was like mass hypnosis at that meeting."
The use of apocalyptic-type messages in pursuit of donations seems to have become a trademark of the House of Prayer. On 18 July 2006, Christina claimed to have received the following message from Jesus: "If the House of Prayer in Texas is not free of debt in the ninth month of this year, it is to be dissolvedf The greater part of that state will be levelled and torn to shreds." The money was raised, the House was safe, and nothing happened to the innocent people of Texas.
But while many people might dismiss such missives as delusional, and might even regard them with amusement, the danger of the House of Prayer lies in its evident credibility to its followers . . . most of whom are elderly and religious.
Hero status With McGinnity standing at her side, Christina Gallagher has the back-up of someone whom many devoted Catholics regard as one of Ireland's holiest priests. McGinnity gained hero status in religious communities three years ago when it emerged that he had been effectively banished by the Church 20 years previously for blowing the whistle on the sexual proclivities of the vicepresident of Maynooth College, Dr Michael Ledwith. Many years later, Ledwith resigned from the college following more allegations of sexual abuse. The beleaguered McGinnity became a martyr overnight.
"He's Christina's full-back, " said one former follower. "He's the reason I believed her. He's the reason I gave money. I would have thought of him as a very holy priest. He gives her all the credibility she needs."
McGinnity is Gallagher's only real link to the official Catholic Church, a fact that was strongly emphasised last week in a statement released by Archbishop Michael Neary on Friday night.
In that statement, Neary says that the House of Prayer has no church approval, and he encourages all church members not to hesitate to enquire at the diocesan office about "the standing of any work describing itself as Catholic, should they be in doubt".
The diocesan office confirmed that it had already received a large number of enquiries about Gallagher's organisation from all over Ireland, the US and Australia.
It's not the first such statement that has been made by the Tuam Diocese, and yet the denouncement of the House of Prayer has yet to be made by any higher ranking Catholic representatives. Many former followers have this week questioned why Fr McGinnity has been permitted by his superior, Cardinal Sean Daly, to publicly advocate an organisation that is not supported by the church . . . an organisation, indeed, that clearly disseminates what can only be interpreted as heretical messages.
"People regard Fr McGinnity as a very saintly priest, so when they see him, they think they're in safe hands, " said one former follower. "But other very important people in the church seem to have been worried about the House of Prayer all along. We used to get the bus to Achill, and there used to be an elderly nun with us who was the first cousin of a [well-known] cardinal.
The nun used to save up her allowance to give to the House of Prayer, and every week the cardinal would call her and tell her not to be giving her money. He was keeping tabs on Christina right from the beginning. But if he had doubts, why didn't he do anything? Why didn't they warn all these poor people?"
McGinnity did not return phone calls from the Sunday Tribune on this matter. A representative at the House of Prayer said that Christina Gallagher had no comment to make.
Life savings As well as dealing with an increasing number of enquiries from the media and from her elderly following, Gallagher must also be worried that some of the most high-profile supporters of the House of Prayer are also defecting. One such person revealed to the Sunday Tribune that he has been deeply distressed by stories of people who have donated their life savings to the organisation. After being approached by one such person in the street, he decided to actively start working on getting legal advice to help these people get their money back.
Another former staunch supporter of Gallagher, Michael McCrory, has told the Sunday Tribune that he believes it is time for her legions of followers to band together to find out where their money has gone. He said that he knows many of these people are scared and elderly and are not sure what to do. He told the Sunday Tribune that he wants to send them the message that they are not alone. "Some of you have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe even millions, " he said. "Our call now is, we want our money back."