What began as a part-time kitchen job at an Opus Dei retreat in Pembroke, Mass., became a 20-year career for a woman we'll call Lucy. (She recently left the group and asks that her real name not be used.) Just 16 at the time she started working there, Lucy not only liked her co-workers but appreciated their spirituality as well. After graduating from high school in 1985, she attended Lexington College in Chicago, an Opus Dei-affiliated school for women interested in hospitality professions. That fall, without telling her parents, she joined the organization as a numerary assistant.
The assistants are the female domestic crews that serve meals, do laundry and clean at Opus Dei facilities. "It's like working at a hotel," says Lucy, except that the job requires daily prayer, daily penance and lifelong celibacy. The work meant 12-hour days, six or seven days a week at Opus Dei centers from San Francisco to Boston, and Lucy says her minimum-wage salary was turned over to the organization. She found the stringent regulation of her life incredibly grueling. "You had to ask permission to do everything," she recalls. "If you wanted to go out with a friend, watch TV or listen to the radio. I got so fed up."
Her time with her tight-knit family was heavily restricted. When visiting relatives, she had to stay at the local Opus Dei center instead of at home. In 2000 Lucy was told she could not attend her sister's wedding because the ceremony would not be Catholic. "My sister didn't talk to me for two years," Lucy says. It took five more years, however, before she decided to leave Opus Dei last April. (The group's U.S. vicar has said such dissatisfaction and complaints, while unfortunate, are unavoidable in large organizations. "You can't keep [directors] from making mistakes.")
Now 39, Lucy lives with an old friend in Arkansas and has happily renewed relations with her family. She revels in simple things--like watching Star Wars--without having to ask permission. But her new life has been difficult. She has no savings and no real résumé. She works as a receptionist, earning $6.75 an hour. Disillusioned by her Opus Dei experience, she no longer attends Mass at all.