As a nurses’ strike stretched into its 107th day on Tuesday, people gathered in a Worcester, Massachusetts, hospital to perform an unusual operation. Waving a banner and sprinkling holy water from a balcony, the assembled activists conducted an exorcism.
“God, Creator, and defender of the human race, who made us in your own image, look down in pity on these your servants, the executives of Tenet Corporation, now in the coils of the unclean spirit of corporate greed and disdain for safe conditions for the nurses and patients of this hospital,” members of the group intoned.
The rite, first reported by Worcester’s Telegram & Gazette, was noteworthy even within the world of exorcisms. Unlike common renditions, which seek to free a person from demonic possession, this one sought to purge the strike-battling St. Vincent Hospital from allegedly greedy management.
“We looked at the prayer for exorcism, which is a very specific Catholic prayer for the expulsion of evil,” Scott Schaeffer-Duffy, the founder of Worcester’s chapter of the Catholic Worker Movement, which helped organize the ceremony, told The Daily Beast.
This was no one-off politicization of the religious rite. Exorcisms are in vogue, experts say—and in a newly confrontational way. From Massachusetts to Oregon in the past year, the rituals have been invoked in political settings.
“We’ve seen this recent uptick in the U.S. of very public and political exorcisms,” Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter F. Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, told The Daily Beast.
In January, a priest in Wisconsin was actually reassigned after conducting—and streaming—election fraud-related exorcisms, offering a veer of religious legitimacy to Donald Trump’s election lies. (The priest also complained about “catholic antifa.”)
But along with the Massachusetts episode, at least one other political exorcism has taken place just this past week.
A Dickson City, Pennsylvania, police blotter went viral last week when it listed an illicit exorcism alongside more mundane complaints like littering and erratic driving. “3:26pm Commerce Blvd. @ Home Depot for disorderly people having an exorcism in the lumber isle for the dead trees. They were escorted out of the building,” the brief blotter item read.
A Dickson City Police spokesperson told The Daily Beast that responding officers did not fill out an incident report because the exorcists left the lumber aisle without a commotion or criminal charges. A Home Depot spokesperson referred The Daily Beast to law enforcement.
Despite the Home Depot exorcism’s apparent environmental nature, most of the rites are typically performed for people, not trees, Chesnut explained.
“Sometimes they’re simple: recited prayers, holy water, the rosary. Other times they do get pretty wild,” he said, pointing to Pentecostal leaders who have even incorporated wrestling-like actions in their efforts to purge demons.
Several recent exorcisms have taken a more abstract approach. Some, unlike the hospital protest, were sanctioned by the Catholic Church. Following protests in Portland, Oregon, last year, the city’s archbishop conducted an exorcism over downtown streets.
The archbishop, Alexander Sample, later clarified that the rite was not a dig at Portland.
“I wasn’t trying to suggest that I think the city of Portland is possessed,” Sample told KOIN. “It’s not that at all. It’s just a prayer of blessing prayed by the clergy, especially a bishop over a community, just asking that all the influences of the Evil One be driven away.”
Chesnut said exorcisms were becoming more popular globally, many of them spurred by the Pentecostal movement, which has fewer restrictions on who can perform the rituals. A corresponding increase in Catholic exorcisms, he said, “is really a response to the Pentecostal competition.”
Even amid an exorcism boom, however, pro-labor ceremonies like the exorcism at St. Vincent Hospital stand out.
“It’s a real novelty seeing the left availing itself of exorcisms,” Chesnut said.
The St. Vincent exorcism was organized by a local chapter of a leftist organization with a long history of labor and anti-war activism. But for Schaeffer-Duffy, the protest was personal.
“My wife and I and all four of our children were born at St. Vincent Hospital,” he told The Daily Beast.
Founded as a Catholic institution in the late 1800s, the hospital is now run by Tenet Healthcare, a national corporation. Since early March, more than 700 of the hospital’s 800 nurses have been on strike, citing what they say are overwhelming patient caseloads. The nurses and their union are currently demanding a four-to-one patient-to-nurse ratio in most areas, instead of the current five-to-one, which they say has been unmanageable, especially in the COVID era.
Tenet, which has posted significant profits during the COVID-19 pandemic, did not return a request for comment.
More than 100 days into the strike, management is still holding firm, prompting activists like Schaeffer-Duffy to take more drastic measures—ones that appealed to the hospital’s Catholic roots.
“We studied the circumstances regarding these nurses, and we became convinced that the hospital’s refusal to give a fair contract to these nurses had to do with corporate greed,” he said. “And so we felt that casting out the sin of corporate greed through the power of the exorcism would be perfectly appropriate.”
The group’s demonstration, complete with holy water and a banner demanding a fair contract, was not well received by hospital administration.
“We are a hospital providing vital care, not a theater for staged publicity stunts,” a St. Vincent’s spokesperson told The Daily Beast “We are disappointed and surprised the nurses’ union would support this attempt to demean the Catholic Church and its followers. According to the religious leaders we rely on for spiritual guidance, the activist group was not representing the Catholic Church, and its members were not performing a Church-sanctioned prayer or religious practice. We will not allow these antics to distract from our mission to deliver safe, quality care to the people of our community.”
The spokesperson refuted claims of mistreatment, noting that the hospital and the union had held dozens of bargaining meetings, but that the union had not accepted the hospital’s offers so far.
Catholic Worker Movement members are now banned from St. Vincent Hospital for a year. But outside, at the picket line, many nurses had a different perspective, according to David Schildmeier, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Nurses Association.
Many of the nurses worked at St. Vincent before its acquisition by Tenet, he told The Daily Beast.
“When they saw this, it just brought joy to their hearts,” he said, adding, “These activists risked getting arrested to make a stand on behalf of the nurses and their cause.”