The dark money lobbyist Leonard Leo played a major role in the right-wing campaign to overturn Roe v. Wade. When he purchased a Catholic church in Northeast Harbor, Maine, the community fought back.
Protesters against Leonard Leo outside his house in Mount Desert Island, Maine. (Andrew Perez)
As fog rolled in on a mild Saturday evening, and Mass convened at Saint Ignatius of Loyola Catholic Church in the serene seaside town of Northeast Harbor, Maine, there was one recognizable face present along with his family and his bodyguard: the head of the charity that recently took control of the church, Leonard Leo.
Leo, a devout Roman Catholic, is the architect of the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority and oversees a billion-dollar political influence machine. In March, he quietly purchased the local church through a charitable nonprofit he formed last year, according to financial records we reviewed. The nonprofit says its purpose includes “educating the public on the importance of religious expression and human rights of conscience.”
That freedom-of-conscience theme has been at the center of the conservative movement’s push to allow businesses to cite religious objections as rationales for denying services and products to women and LGBTQ customers.
Leo’s church purchase appears to be the launch of a broader religious advocacy mission — starting with the exclusive Maine community that’s already enraged by how he’s worked to imprint his conservative religious views on American society.
“Sacred Spaces Foundation is caring for Saint Ignatius Catholic Church on Mount Desert Island in Maine because it is a significant historical, spiritual, and artistic landmark,” Leo said in an emailed statement Sunday, adding: “This was the first of several efforts that are being undertaken by the foundation in its first year to highlight the beauty and value of sacred spaces and art, as well as literary works, in our local communities, centers of faith, and civil society.”
Leo declined to speak with us as he was walking to his church on Saturday.
In 2018, Leo purchased a $3.3 million mansion on Mount Desert Island, home to Acadia National Park and a longtime summer refuge for the “old money” elite, including the Rockefellers, Fords, Vanderbilts, du Ponts, and Pulitzers. Leo’s house has been the site of regular protest ever since the Supreme Court overturned its landmark Roe v. Wade decision, allowing states to ban abortion.
Last week, the public learned how Leo actively persuaded the local police to arrest one of these protesters last summer. That man is now suing two officers for wrongfully arresting him and violating his right to free speech.
A longtime executive at the Federalist Society, the conservative Washington lawyers’ network, Leo operated under the radar for years. As former president Donald Trump’s judicial adviser, Leo helped select three of the court’s six conservative justices, while his dark money network spent tens of millions to boost their confirmations.
That work has culminated in the high court rolling back federal protections for abortion rights, gutting environmental protections and gun control policies, eliminating affirmative action at colleges, and throwing out President Joe Biden’s student debt–relief plan.
In 2021, Leo was the beneficiary of the largest-known dark money donation in US history, putting him in control of an unprecedented $1.6 billion political advocacy fund to influence the courts, politics, and policy, as wereported with ProPublica. Leo has appeared in some of the Supreme Court’s recent ethics scandals: He reportedly organized Justice Samuel Alito’s undisclosed trip on a hedge fund billionaire’s private jet and allegedly steered consulting payments to Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife.
Some of Leo’s neighbors are distraught about his influence on the American political and judicial systems — and they want the rest of the town to know exactly who he is.
“We’re out here because this is the architect of our conservative court who has taken away our rights,” said Tina Stein, a protester outside Leo’s house on Saturday, noting that she frequently wears a lapel pin telling people: “Ask me about Leonard Leo.”
“He is the most responsible person for the overturning of Roe,” she said. “There are women dying, there are women being forced to carry dead fetuses to term. These are horrifying things.”
“We Love the Church Here”
Mass at Saint Ignatius — a quaint, historic church in Northeast Harbor — might have seemed strikingly normal if there wasn’t a notorious conservative moneyman, Leo, pacing through the pews, apparently helping facilitate.
A pamphlet at the entrance listed Leo’s wife, Sally, as the head of the parish’s music ministry.
The pastor told the forty or so worshippers in attendance that he’s stationed in McLean, Virginia — Leo’s other home base — and was in town visiting friends.
Leo explained his interest in the church in his emailed statement.
“The church commemorates the arrival of the Jesuits who birthed the Catholic Faith in New England on this island in the early 17th century,” he said, adding: “Its 19th century architecture and stained glass artwork, as well as a stone monument dedicated to the first Jesuit settlers, tell a moving story about the beauty and continuity of the Catholic faith in North America.”
Much has been made of how Leo’s worldview is shaped by his Catholic faith. Leo’s ownership of Saint Ignatius Church has not been previously reported, though he recently told the conservative publication Maine Wire, “We love the church here. It’s a church that struggles geographically and in terms of its sheer numbers, but it’s a place where we think we can help.”
According to our review of property and business records, Leo purchased Saint Ignatius in March for $2.7 million from the Roman Catholic bishop of Portland, Maine.
In his statement, Leo said that “the proceeds of the sale are being used by the Catholic Diocese of Portland to restore parts of another historically, architecturally, and artistically significant Catholic Church building elsewhere on the island, in Bar Harbor.”
Leo is known to attend services in Bar Harbor, a larger town on the other side of the island — and protests occasionally occur at that church. One house overlooking the Bar Harbor church had a sign out front Sunday criticizing Leo and the Federalist Society.
Leo did not respond to questions about who or what organization is funding his Sacred Spaces Foundation.
Saint Ignatius Church is now officially owned by a Maine company called Chelsea Holdings, LLC. The company filed an annual report earlier this year listing the Sacred Spaces Foundation as its manager.
Leo incorporated the Sacred Spaces Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit, in Virginia last summer, according to state records there.
That filing says the foundation was “established exclusively to further charitable and educational activities, including for the purpose of educating the public on the importance of religious expression and human rights of conscience.”
Conservatives argue that people should have a right to conscientiously object to performing acts that do not align with their religious values — like medical providers who oppose abortion, or the Colorado web designer in the recent Supreme Court case who persuaded justices that she should be allowed to refuse to make wedding websites for LGBTQ couples, even though no such couples had asked her to do so.
Several organizations funded by Leo’s network filed briefs supporting the web designer’s case at the Supreme Court. The court’s decision in the case may make it impossible for officials to enforce antidiscrimination laws across the country.
Two months after Leo formed the Sacred Spaces Foundation, he accepted an award from the right-wing Catholic Information Center and gave a speech touting the importance of evangelization and personal efforts to spread Catholicism.
“This evangelizing work extends to every facet of life, including law, public policy, and politics, which are the areas that I know best,” said Leo. “They need light and salt, no less than any other field. And many here have long promoted a legal culture that respects and upholds the dignity of the human person. This work is an integral part of the new evangelization, insofar as it reflects Catholic teaching, spreads Christ’s message, and helps draw others closer to God and what He wants for us.”
“He Wants to Be Some Kind of Holy Martyr”
Leo’s speech to the Catholic Information Center wasn’t only about spreading the word: he also complained that Catholics are under siege.
“Catholicism faces vile and immoral current-day barbarians, secularists, and bigots,” Leo said, ranting about “woke ideologies” and “the progressive Ku Klux Klan.”
He continued: “If you happen to be a particularly prominent Christian, they intimidate and harass you outside your home and in restaurants and stores with the express purpose of driving you into social and professional exile.”
It was tough to square that perception about barbarians at the gates, driving him out of town, with the reality of the hourlong protest outside Leo’s two-acre property on Saturday afternoon.
The two dozen or so protesters were mostly older women. The group wore custom shirts decrying Leo’s dark money fortune and peacefully held signs with slogans like “We won’t be silent” and “Follow the dirty $ to NE Harbor,” while some scrawled messages on the road with chalk. A few people driving by in Subarus and a Range Rover honked their car horns in support.
“It looks like a lot of women over seventy-five — seems extremely barbaric,” joked protester Bettina Richards. “The fantasy that he wants to be some kind of holy martyr is laughable.”
“He’s bothered — I might be too — but we have never done anything to threaten him in any way,” said Susan Covino Buell. “We just stand here.”
As for the claims about religious persecution, Covino Buell noted, “There are lots of Catholics in this world. I have never stood in front of anybody’s house who was Catholic. It has nothing to do with it, except for the fact that he is a reactionary, ultraconservative, and his beliefs are incompatible with democracy. It can’t be your way just because you are passionate about it, Leonard Leo. That is not how we function here.”
Leo’s three security guards stood out front taking pictures of the protesters — supplementing the two security cameras already facing the road from his property, where a tall wooden fence and leafy green trees blocked a clear view of the house from the road. The men periodically leaned on an SUV they parked in his driveway to block out anyone who might try to drive in.
Several attendees noted that cops had always been present at their Leo protests, but there were conspicuously none at this event, which took place days after a protester sued the two police officers who arrested him at a Leo protest last summer.
Leo’s team started washing chalk writing off the pavement as soon as the protest let out — just before Leo drove to Mass in his giant black Chevy Suburban.
“He’s so thin-skinned,” said protester Nancy Shafer. “Frankly, it makes us so happy, because he gets so riled up. If he just ignored us, we would have lost some steam, but he gets so upset that it’s kind of fun. He’s obviously super insecure and immature and a total baby.
“I selfishly want him to leave this town,” she admitted, “but that’s not going to stop the problem. We need to work here and everywhere to try to raise awareness of what’s been going on.”
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