In an unusual lawsuit accusing a religious monastery in Ashford of pretending to be affiliated with the Catholic Church when in fact it wasn’t, a couple were awarded more than $278,000 in damages after donating $200,000 for a chapel to be built only to later discover the truth about the organization.

After construction of the chapel was nearly completed, the couple received a letter in 2011 from the bishop of the Norwich Catholic Diocese, who informed them that they should not proceed with their plans. The letter said the group was not “and has never been” a Benedictine monastery affiliated with the Catholic Church.

“That was a big surprise to our clients, a big shock,” said one of the couple’s lawyers, Jeremy Donnelly, of Butler, Norris & Gold in Hartford.

Donnelly explained that Janet Wagner is what they call in religious circles an oblate. She’s dedicated herself to God and is heavily involved in the church, but still lives as a layperson.

Wagner became an oblate in Nebraska in the 1990s to a Catholic Benedictine order. By 2008, she and her husband, Jess Wagner, came to Connecticut.

While searching the Internet for a comparable Benedictine Catholic organization, Janet Wagner came upon Our Lady of Mount Caritas in the Windham County town of Ashford. Our Lady of Mount Caritas held itself out as a Benedictine monastery.

The website said the group was “within the Diocese of Norwich.” Wagner reached out to the group’s president, Dorothy Jordan, more commonly known as the Reverend Mother Mary Peter. Jordan, in her early 80s now, said she was the founder of the group and that it was a Catholic organization.

“I saw these two elderly women living alone on this beautiful property trying to keep their monastery alive, and I thought, ‘This is something that I can give myself to,’” Wagner said in a 2012 published report.

The Wagners quickly became involved at Our Lady of Mount Caritas. Soon, the Wagners donated $200,000 to build a new chapel there. In return, the couple could reside for the rest of their lives in the church’s guesthouse.

By 2011, Wagner discovered through the bishop’s letter that the group was not affiliated with the Catholic Diocese in Norwich. Further, the nuns wearing traditional Catholic habits were not recognized at all by the diocese as nuns, sisters or by any other official title.

Wagner confronted Mother Mary Peter, who claimed that the letter was false and that they indeed were a Benedictine monastery. By late 2011, Mother Mary Peter received a letter from the Norwich Diocese saying she must “cease and desist” from misrepresenting her community as Catholic or Benedictine, must stop calling themselves a monastery and must stop calling themselves nuns. The letter said she had been ignoring these demands for a number of years.

Another letter was sent to Wagner providing her with a history of the discrepancies.

Donnelly said the group at one time had attempted to become affiliated with the Catholic Church but never cooperated with the Norwich Diocese’s demands.

Given the news, it came as no surprise that the Wagners had a falling-out with the Ashford monastery. The Wagners no longer live there. They say they were kicked out. The group says the Wagners left.

Regardless, the Wagners next sued Our Lady of Mount Caritas for fraudulent misrepresentation and other claims.

Last year, a jury in New Britain Superior Court awarded $207,301 in damages to the Wagners. Just recently, the trial judge, Cynthia Swienton, added another $71,255 in punitive damages. Now, with the survival of the so-called monastery hanging in the balance as a result of the large verdict, Our Lady of Mount Caritas is asking the state Appellate Court to overturn the verdict.

“There was no fraudulent misrepresentation,” said the lawyer for Our Lady of Mount Caritas, Edward Muska, of Paradiso & Muska in Stafford Springs. “Our position on appeal was that the plaintiff acted in full knowledge of the situation and did not rely on any fraudulent misrepresentations on our part.”

Muska told a much different tale of what happened. He said Wagner, over a three- or four-year period, became heavily involved with the group, and organized everything from bake sales to the brochure used to recruit new members.

However, he said Wagner and Mother Mary Peter had a falling-out.

“[Janet Wagner] really became dissatisfied with it after a while and chose to leave and wanted her money back,” said Muska. “But by the time she had changed her plans, the money was spent.”

The defendants essentially argued that the money given to the monastery by the Wagners was a gift. But the Wagners, especially since they were to live on the premises for the rest of their lives, viewed it as a contract.

Donnelly, who handled the plaintiffs’ case with Martin Gold, said that the misrepresentations by Our Lady of Mount Caritas date back to the 1980s. Unsuspecting Catholics assume the monastery is affiliated with the Catholic Church and donate money. Some later find out the truth, others may never know.

“You can go back to the 1980s and find people that this happened to with this organization,” said Donnelly. He said the response was always the same from the group. “The money was a gift. There was no contract, no consideration.”

The trial lasted six days with several interesting witnesses. Among the witnesses, Donnelly explained, were others burned by Our Lady of Mount Caritas.

One witness, Dina Oddis, was a practicing attorney in Philadelphia who chose to leave the practice of law to become a nun. She came to Our Lady of Mount Caritas to get what she thought was the proper training to become a nun.

Much like the Wagners, it wasn’t until later on that Oddis found out the group was not actually affiliated with the Catholic Church. Donnelly said Oddis received a letter from the bishop telling her that any vows she took or would have taken would not have been accepted by the Catholic Church or the Norwich Diocese.

“They made her believe she was becoming a Roman Catholic nun and [she] believed that the whole time,” said Donnelly, who described her as a “star witness” crucial to proving their case.

Ultimately, Oddis never became a nun. She is currently caring for her sick mother and considering starting her own chocolates business.

“It was a very emotional event for her,” said Donnelly. “She didn’t disavow the Church or anything but was very close to that.”

Another witness, Nancy Harrison, a schoolteacher from Hartford, testified as to all the money she had donated to the group thinking that it was a Catholic-affiliated organization. She began volunteering there and donated $100 a month. She testified as to her anger over the situation. She had donated a couple thousand dollars in total, Donnelly said.

Donnelly said the Catholic Church has written letters to all of its local parishes urging them to warn their parishioners that Our Lady of Mount Caritas is not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church and to not give them money.

Donnelly said the group is now claiming to be affiliated with the “old Catholic Apostolic Church.”

In the end, Donnelly thinks the various witnesses gave more credibility to his clients’ ordeal.

“I think it was an accumulation of a lot of things that the jury hung their hat on because they weren’t out for very long,” said Donnelly. “There were a lot of exhibits that showed a defiance on the part of the defendant—letters from bishops in the ’90s saying you’re not Catholic, stop saying you’re Catholic. They’d say they weren’t Catholic but they’re wearing habits. They appeared in court wearing the very habits that the diocese told them not to wear.”

Muska, the defense lawyer, said the group is a charitable organization that has no assets.

“The only asset it owns is the real estate there,” said Muska. “We’ll have a very difficult time paying [the verdict].”

Donnelly said there is an attachment on the property.

“Eventually, we’d collect from the property,” said Donnelly. “It’s a very valuable property. There’s a lot of land. The land is completely unencumbered except for our judgment lien.” •