Montreal

Mission L’Esprit-Saint measles outbreak won’t change anti-vaccine stance: former member

The measles outbreak in the Mission L’Esprit-Saint community in the Lanaudière will not likely persuade the religious group's members to vaccinate their children, according to a former member.

Measles count rises to 136, but former religious community member says belief is disease strengthens them

Members of the Esprit-Saint eugenics community developed measles after returning from Disneyland and are believed to be the source of the Lanaudière outbreak. (Thomas Daigle/CBC)

The spread of measles among members of the Mission L'Esprit-Saint religious community in the Lanaudière region will likely not be enough to persuade parents in the group to have their children vaccinated, according to a former member.

Regional public health officials say 136 people have been infected since the outbreak began in early February, including a child who attended a Joliette public school – prompting a vaccination campaign Thursday.

“I don’t believe that they would change their beliefs for almost any reason. They’ll believe that having had the disease will make them stronger,” Shirley Jackson, who left the mission 10 years ago, told Sue Smith on CBC’s Homerun Friday.

The recent measles outbreak in the Lanaudière region has been traced back to the Esprit-Saint eugenics group, a tightly-knit community who are against vaccination. Homerun spoke with a woman who was a member for several years. 8:09

Jackson, a member for a decade, said she had seen cases of other childhood diseases in the community, such as whooping cough.

“They believe that if something happens to them that they were not sincere enough in their following the mission beliefs that week or that month,” said Jackson

Another former member of the religious movement told CBC News the media attention would only serve to strengthen links in the community.

The measles spread to the Mission L’Esprit-Saint religious community, located in the town of St-Paul, Que., just west of Joliette, after at least one family from the community returned from a vacation in Disneyland, California – the epicentre of a major outbreak.

Vaccines considered 'poison'

A current member of the community told CBC News that vaccinations are against the community's beliefs, explaining that the group’s former prophet warned decades ago that getting vaccinated could cause a person to develop other illnesses.

The member said people in the community would not refuse other medical treatment – such as blood transfusions, in an emergency – but referred to vaccines as “poison.”

Jackson says the community’s teachings about medical treatments were one of the reasons she decided to leave.

“I disagree with their tendency to discourage people to consult medically,” said Jackson. “It’s formally discouraged. Some people do, but they feel guilty about it.”

More than one mission

Another former member of the Mission L’Esprit-Saint religious movement, who is not from the community based in St-Paul, said not all the group's branches are as fervent in their opposition to vaccines.

The original Mission L’Esprit-Saint was founded sometime between 1913 and 1915 by Eugène Richer dit La Flèche, a one-time Montreal police officer, whose followers believe he was the reincarnation of the Holy Spirit. Richer founded branches in Quebec, before moving on to Massachusetts and California.

The community claims its mission is “the regeneration of humanity through the principles of eugenics.”

Some branches of the Mission L’Esprit-Saint were started by other leaders, including a Montreal location founded by Gustave Robitaille in 1939.

A former member says some of the branches, including one in Montreal-North, the St-Paul branch, a branch in Lavaltrie, Que. and several in the U.S., are still active, while others have folded. Most of the branches are independent of each other and do not communicate among themselves, according to a former member.

Previous brushes with government

The measles outbreak is only the latest incident to land branches of the Mission L’Esprit-Saint in the headlines.

The St-Paul branch was forced to shut down its school, the Institut Laflèche, in 2004, because it was operating without a permit.

The provincial government agreed to allow 144 students in the community to be homeschooled, but testing results two years later showed only 48 per cent of high-school-aged students passed provincial French exams, and only 27 per cent passed math.

“They discourage education outside. They say the true education is when you go to their meetings,” said Jackson.

Founder’s passing prompted defections

The St-Paul L’Esprit-Saint branch was founded by Gilles Francoeur in 1974.

A former engineer in the pulp-and-paper sector, according to the community’s website, Francoeur fathered 13 children, 75 grandchildren, 103 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.

Francoeur died in September 2013, prompting several members to leave the community, according to Jackson as well as another former member of the L’Esprit-Saint movement.

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