Type to search

From the Archives: The 80-Year Saga of Gladwyne’s Peace Mission

Share

Bringing back a 2010 story, we still wonder, will the International Peace Mission’s prodigal son ever own the keys to the divine kingdom?


EDITOR’S NOTE: In this two-part series that originally ran in MLT’s September and October 2010 issues, senior writer J.F. Pirro documents the 80-year saga of Gladwyne’s Peace Mission, one of the Main Line’s most mysterious and controversial institutions. Much of the story is told through the eyes of a man who was thought to be a potential successor to its deceased leader, Father Divine.

 

 

 

“She is wonderful. She is wonderful. God bless Mother forever.”

Mrs. M.J. “Mother” Divine stands before her 20 visitors in a matching navy-blue overcoat, knit hat and wool pants. Her earmuffs are white, her orthotic shoes an institutional tan. Not that color matters at Woodmont.

Woodmont is the Gladwyne headquarters of the Rev. M.J. “Father” Divine’s International Peace Mission Movement, an interracial religious and social sect that peaked in the 1930s and still worships its founder as God.

The 72-acre Woodmont estate is the dissipating movement’s self-proclaimed “Mount of the House of the Lord.” Beyond its parking lot, which Mr. Leon supervises, a series of solar panels powers the property’s newest structure, a library dedicated to housing Father’s words and wisdom. “We’re going green around here,” says Mr. Roger, another Peace Mission “brother.”

With a date stone that reads, “2009 A.D.F.D. (Anno Domini Father Divine),” the library is one of two Peace Mission shrines. Father is buried in a reported $300,000-$500,000 mausoleum in the shadows of the striking 1892 Gothic manor house built by Alan Wood Jr. Perched high above what were once Wood’s steel mills in Conshohocken. Woodmont was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1998. Near the bronze plaque indicating as much, a matching smaller one simply says, “Peace.”

“No snow is falling on us,” says Mother privately but within earshot, her eyes all but horizontal slits recessed in a puffy face. “It’s a beautiful sky. It’s good to get out of the house.”

Then, as if on cue, Mother greets the participants in Woodmont’s Winter Trek, a long-standing public walking tour of the grounds. Her voice elevates a notch: “Peace, everyone. Welcome. Thank God for this beautiful day. Let’s first go over here and take a good look at Conshohocken.”

With a female follower on each arm— one Black, one white—Mother makes her way up the embankment of Montgomery County’s highest peak as another follower fawns over her: “Peace, Mother dear.”

But that’s as far as Mother Divine gets this February morning. For the first time in more than 30 years, she won’t be leading the tour. Yvette Calm will. When approached on her retreat to the manor house, Mother immediately consents to an interview at the mere mention of discussing Father Divine and Woodmont. “I can talk to you right now,” she says, her eyes widening, her mouth forming a smile harmonious with her kingdom name, Sweet Angel. But almost instantly, the request—like others before and since for this story—is quashed by her entourage. “Later, after the walk,” several say in unison.

Born Edna Rose Ritchings in Vancouver, Canada, and now in her mid-80s, Mother Divine has lived an extraordinarily public life. But as her physical and mental health has deteriorated, she’s been carefully coddled and guarded. Her receding public persona raises questions about the Peace Mission’s intentional community (sociological lingo for a cult) and Woodmont, also the spiritual headquarters for Palace Mission Inc., one of the movement’s incorporated churches. Typically open for seasonal tours, the estate is temporarily closed due to COVID.

Father Divine died in 1965. His death is the impetus behind the group’s annual “Holy Days” open house, normally held in September. Peace Mission members continue to live at Woodmont and various Philadelphia outposts with same-sex, “opposite-complected” roommates. They practice celibacy. Followers say they neither look back nor forward. Ideologically, there’s no past or future. There are no timelines, no seasons. They do not reminisce. Heaven is on Earth—or at least atop the Mount of the House of the Lord.

At the movement’s height, Peace Mission membership was thought to be 2 million, with an estimated 170 “heavens,” or extension settlements. Now, like their aging matriarch, most followers are in their 80s, 90s or older. All of them have been systematically stripped of family at some point.

Illustration by George J. Rothacker

What happens when Mother Divine lays down her physical body? What lies ahead for the pristine Gladwyne property that Palace Mission communally owns? Who gets whatever millions might remain from the lifetime work and contributions of thousands of converts? When a cult dies, exactly who is left to pick over its carcass? And does its religion survive?

In one way or another, the answers to these questions may well involve 56-year-old Tommy Garcia. Mother Divine has publicly called him “a thorn in her side.” But he’s also a willing savior. Garcia was raised in the movement. And if he’s permitted to return to his childhood home, he has a plan reminiscent of Father Divine’s original outreach efforts—one that could reverse the years of social damage and abuse he and other defectors say they’ve experienced.

Garcia wants to use Woodmont as a hub for launching a foundation for abandoned children and another to bridge the country’s enduring racial divide. “[Mother Divine’s] cronies and handlers think I’m a threat to the later part of their lives,” says Garcia. “They’re living in a make-believe land of luxury, and they’re scared I’ll take that away. Plus, I know too much, have seen too much—and I talk up a storm.”

In some ways, Tommy Garcia died and went to heaven when he arrived at Woodmont in June 1962. That first day, Father Divine greeted the 8-year-old boy with a big smile, telling him his real mother and father didn’t want him, but that he did. Then, he was ushered off with a chauffeur and bodyguard named Happy Love to buy clothes at King of Prussia Plaza. “Tommy, I’m not God,” Garcia recalls Father Divine telling him. “But these people believe I am—and I don’t want to disappoint them.”

Tommy was enrolled at Gladwyne Elementary School between 1962 and 1965. Judy Bard, his fifth-grade teacher, recalls that he was always dirty and that no one ever came to his parent-teacher conferences. “He was hiding his identity,” Bard says. “He was driven by limo, but he insisted that he was dropped off a few blocks away. In those few blocks, he dirtied his clothes. He didn’t want anyone to know who he was.”

Before long, other kids caught on anyway. They noticed that the rich kid in the limousine had a last name that didn’t jibe with the Gladwyne stereotype. Trouble followed. One day, Tommy bloodied a bully’s nose after the adversary asked if that “ni—r on the top of the hill with the white wife was his daddy.”

The school called Woodmont. Father Divine wouldn’t stand for violence—not in a peace mission. To avoid further harassment, Garcia says, Father directed a high-ranking church officer, Ms. St. Mary Bloom, who sometimes acted as his guardian, to prepare adoption papers (documents that have never surfaced) to officially make Tommy a Divine.

After Father’s death, Mother sent Tommy to the Church Farm School in Exton for seventh and eighth grade from 1966 to ’68. There, Garcia contacted his biological father, Tomas Guillermo Garcia, in California. He left the mission with Mother’s advice to “learn all you can learn about the outside world, then come home to Woodmont.”

As an adult, Garcia paid his former elementary school teacher a visit—first to her classroom, then to her home. “That night, he told me the story I never knew,” Bard recalls. “But he also wanted to learn about himself. He was trying to piece together his past.”

The way Garcia explains it, Father Divine—then in his mid-80s—had needed a successor to groom. According to him, Father had sent a recruiter to the West Coast to find a “brown little boy with charisma.” In The New Day, the Peace Mission’s now-defunct weekly newspaper, Father spoke of symbolically uniting Canada, the United States and Mexico to form a single borderless continent. In Garcia’s view, Mother Divine represented Canada. Father was the United States. Tommy, the offspring of a Greek mother and Mexican father, represented Mexico.

Peace Mission recruiter Louise Schell came upon young Tommy and his birth mother, Georgia Costa Garcia, who was photographing him on Sunset Boulevard just outside Paramahansa Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship Temple in Los Angeles. Photos were sent to Father for approval. Garcia says he later saw them in a safe at Woodmont.

Garcia still recalls Schell’s piercing blue eyes as she convinced Georgia to travel to Philadelphia to escape an abusive, alcoholic husband and father. Within two hours of their arrival at Woodmont, Tommy was separated from his mother and his younger sister, Susy, then 3.

The Peace Mission has a long-documented history of separating children from their birth parents, then raising them within the sect under guardianship. Swarthmore’s David Clark, a founding board member of the Recovering Former Cultists’ Support Network, says cults offer “idealistic altruism but, in reality, are very exploitive.”

“Only the leadership benefits,” asserts Clark, an International Cultic Studies Association speaker for two decades now

Keenly aware of their inherent legal, civil and religious rights, cults orchestrate custodial matters in ways that won’t—and can’t—be legally contested. Sects infiltrate counties or states that are favorable to them, particularly with regard to religious tax exemptions, says Clark.

Other than Father Divine, Tommy was the only one with a private room at Woodmont. It came by request after he claimed he was sexually abused and shot at on the estate the week he arrived. Garcia says he also wore handcrafted suits identical to Father’s. At the Holy Communion Banquet, the mission’s ongoing religious celebration, he sat in a lion’s head chair, the type reserved only for Father and Mother.

But the first time Margaret Faith met Tommy at Woodmont, he was crying in a corner of the kitchen. “No one wants me,” she recalls him saying.

“I made friends with him,” recounts Faith, an octogenarian who lives in an Ardmore apartment and, for decades, was Father’s personal waitress. “We were nice to Tommy. I was very fond of him. But now what I’ve heard [about a lawsuit], I don’t like. He didn’t even get that close to Father—definitely not. There were a lot of different children we were taking care of. In his case, we had no choice. He was brought—dumped, you might say.”

After Tommy left the movement, his sister, Susy, remained with the Peace Mission until 1974. There, she battled drug abuse and endured a longtime consensual teenage sexual relationship with a middle-aged, now-deceased follower. After a subsequent pregnancy and abortion, she was exiled for bad behavior. She was later married at Elvis’ Graceland to a Hollywood dentist, only to be murdered by two strangers in Los Angeles in 1993—a case that was solved in three days. “Her brainwashing had a direct effect on her death,” says Garcia, who considers her mission relationship a molestation. “She was still living in the other world, the only one she ever knew. Susy didn’t have a chance. They stole her soul.”

In 1978, Garcia’s birth mother legally changed her name to Harmony Faith Love. She died in the movement on Jan. 25, 2001, and the non-traumatic seizure said to have killed her still puzzles her son. Police and the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office documented a bottle of Dilantin on her nightstand. It’s a medication known to produce a lateral stare (and compliance), but also commonly prescribed 30 years ago for epilepsy. Garcia maintains that there was never a family history of the disorder.

Following an autopsy, Ms. Harmony was immediately cremated when Philadelphia funeral director Bernard J. Archer was told she had no immediate family. Four months later, Garcia received a certified letter from the movement with a copy of his mother’s death certificate. It was wrapped in Peace Mission letterhead.

It’s likely that a few phone calls made by Lori Garcia stirred the anti-Tommy stew at the Peace Mission. Unbeknownst to her husband, Lori called Woodmont in early 1998 and asked for Mother Divine. She wanted to know the whereabouts of Garcia’s birth mother. Apparently, because Lori’s maiden name (Reicheg) sounded similar to a last name of two other sister-followers (Kryshak), she was put through. She introduced herself as Tommy’s wife, but Mother wouldn’t answer questions. “She kept repeating, ‘The spirit moves in mysterious ways,’” Lori remembers. “She must have said it 20 times. Then I hung up.”

It’s the only contact the two ever had.

In May 1999, Lori reached Garcia’s mother at her job in the Key Flowers dining room at Father’s Divine Tracy Hotel in Philadelphia. “I told her who I was, and all she kept saying was, ‘I don’t identify with those links (nondescript code, Lori believes, because her conversation was monitored).’ I thought to myself, ‘Is she totally brainwashed?’ At the end, I said, ‘You are my mother-in-law. You are Tommy’s mother. We will always have a place for you. You can come live with us and be safe.’ All she said was, ‘I will keep your information for future use.’ Then, less than a year later, she suddenly disappears.”

Father Divine’s Modesty Code: “No Smoking. No Drinking. No Obscenity. No Vulgarity. No Profanity. No Undue Mixing of Sexes. No Receiving of Gifts, Presents, Tips or Bribes.”

Following Tommy Garcia’s years at Woodmont, it took his sister’s murder, years of soul searching, his marriage to Lori, and hypnosis in 2006 before he could confront his past and focus on the future. As founder of the Association for the Alignment of Past Life, Dr. Morris Netherton has encountered some bizarre cases in his 45-year career, including victims of Germany’s Josef Fritzl, who fathered six children during a 24-year confinement with his sex-slave daughter. Within six weeks, Netherton broke the spell on Garcia.“Father Divine turned him into the Little Divine One,” Netherton says. “He was told his whole life, ‘This will all be yours. When Father dies, you’re the leader, the messiah, and all the land and money is yours.’ Then, Mother Divine stepped in.”

In those sessions, Garcia recounted his sexual abuse away from Woodmont in Divine-run city hotels, where interracial male roommates engaged in sex acts in his presence, then involved him. He could name names, but he hasn’t publicly. He was never abused by Father Divine, but the Peace Mission’s celibacy code inspired same-sex activity, since there was “no undue mixing of the sexes,” says Garcia.

“Tommy’s case is real,” says Netherton. “[Under hypnosis], his story never changed, and he would not—and could not—find what’s not there. I really hope he finds peace, but there was this contrast between the way things were supposed to be in the kingdom and the way he was literally raped. I asked him over and over, ‘Are you sure you want to put this out there?’ He said, ‘Yes, I want to tell the truth about them.’”

Garcia contends that the bulk of the abuse he suffered was mental. “Master Tommy,” he says, was never brainwashed as a follower, only as a leader—to attain his status as the Son of God, as the Prodigal Son. “I had to march in step to that, or the threat was that I would be sent to an orphanage,” he says. “I was a Garcia, but I had to act like a Divine. Father Divine made me feel more special than my own dad ever did. He showered me with gifts, all totally contradictory to the code. Once, for me, he had a banquet with entirely Mexican food. The person I am today is not because of my (ill and largely estranged) biological father, but because of Father Divine.”

Garcia recounts his last visit to Woodmont in 1989. After a banquet, Mother rose and addressed the crowd, saying she was aware that many followers didn’t believe in her deity or rank as Father’s “Spotless, Virgin Bride.” Followers adored Father’s first wife, who was black. But he told his flock that the white woman he named “Sweet Angel”—who may have been 50 years younger when they married in Washington, D.C., on April 29, 1946— was a reincarnation of Peninah, his first spouse, who’s said to have died in 1943.

In response, Garcia rose and defended Mother. “During my speech, followers began shouting, ‘Praise the Lord! The Prodigal Son has returned!’” he says.

As Mother retreated upstairs that night, she called to Garcia, telling him that no one had ever defended her in front of the followers. “She thanked me,” he says. “She also said she was aware that (high-ranking church officer) Dorothy Darling wanted to speak with me—but that, if I loved her the way she knew I did, I would honor her request not to speak with Ms. Dorothy.”

Garcia believes Darling—who, before her death in or around 2002, told others that she was unhappy with how the Tommy issue was handled—may have held his adoption papers after Ms. St. Mary Bloom died in a mission residence fire some 20 years earlier. Or, at least she knew about them. Without success, Garcia searched adoption records in Montgomery County and New York, Father’s headquarters before his move to Philadelphia in 1942. A similar search here came up empty. “So I was kidnapped, brainwashed, molested, told no one wants me,” he says. “Now, [I’m] told I’m a thorn in Mother’s side when she’s been a dagger in everyone’s back all her life. Inside, I feel like damaged goods, but I can’t act that way.”

On the Main Line, the singular enduring image of Father Divine’s Peace Mission was the caravan of black limousines that always came and went along Spring Mill Road to and from Woodmont. Others still speak of Divine’s fleet of domestic workers for hire. With names like Sincere Enthusiasm, they surrendered the bulk of their earnings for the right to live communally as consecrated co-workers and worship Father Divine as a deity.

Divine’s is a well-documented social model. Beginning in 1919 and strengthening from the Great Depression through the 1940s, the Peace Mission uprooted followers from their families— and from poverty—turning them into a loyal, self-sufficient lot. “What began happening en masse [for blacks] in the 1960s and ’70s, Father Divine began in the 1930s,” says Bob Thomas, an architect who, in the early 1990s, did the master planning at Woodmont that led to the visitors’ center and library.

Critics say Father—all 5-foot-2 of him— was a dynamic salesman who used religion and economic desperation to prey on weak minds. At open banquets, he fed guests, then bowled them over with charismatic sermons and stories of faith healing and acts of retribution. Still, Garcia says, “As happy as all of those people were supposed to be, they weren’t happy every day.”

But snitching often advanced standing, and surviving followers and defectors remain fearful of retribution. Emptied of their finances, many were left too insolvent to leave. Sonya Hoffmann was a child in the mission from 1960 to 1972. She was raised in multiple Main Line homes with her German grandmother, live-in housekeeper/follower Elise Vollman (known as Lisa Free in the movement). Anytime Hoffmann was sick or injured, she was told it was Father’s retribution for bad behavior—and that she must beg his forgiveness to be cured. After she burnt her hand black, the mission never took her to a doctor, but Bryn Mawr Elementary School finally did when the wound wouldn’t heal.

A month from graduation in 1972, Hoffman says, Mother yanked her out of Lower Merion High School—then, ultimately, “put her out” (mission speak for expulsion) weeks before her 17th birthday, and after a drug overdose and hospitalization. “There was so much damage done,” says Hoffmann, now 55. “Adults are supposed to help kids grow, but everything they did to me was harmful.”

Hoffmann’s grandmother was pressured to surrender custody of her, but she never did—which explains why they lived outside movement-owned properties. Her grandmother died in the movement at age 103 in 2003, and she’d been told never to speak with Hoffman later in her life. “By then, I was what they call ‘mortal flesh,’” she says.

Sometimes called angels, Peace Mission members continue to follow doctrine, speaking from scripts, as if frozen in time. “They made me listen to tape recordings of Father Divine,” Garcia says. “They made me read The New Day daily. But Father Divine never preached to me—not once. He told me he wasn’t God. But most of the rest of them pushed that he was God 24 hours a day.”

Still, Father’s spirit and charisma moved many—Garcia included. All were left to interpret the influence. Books on Father and the movement tend to end with his death. They don’t address the decline of the sect as it has evaporated—and continues to evaporate—under Mother’s charge. Garcia’s view, and that of others, is from the inside out.

Both before and after the death of Father Divine, a battle for succession at the Peace Mission was being waged. Rev. Jim Jones, the infamous leader behind the 1978 Jonestown Massacre in Guyana, had visited Father as many as six times between 1959 and 1965. That much has been substantiated by the Jonestown Institute at San Diego State University.

Like Garcia, Jones was led to believe he’d succeed Father Divine. In part, some researchers and historians suggest that Tommy Garcia was recruited to stifle Jones’ increasingly aggressive interest. After Father’s death, Jones would arrive with “train-length” busloads of his own followers, says Hoffmann. In a final takeover attempt in 1971, he left with 30-40 mission members. “For two weeks, it was a battle of the cults, back and forth across the banquet table over which one was better,” she says.

“Father Divine taught [Jones] to be God,” says 80-year-old Ted Patrick, who was a special consultant to Gov. Ronald Reagan before he left to turn cult deprogramming into an art form.

Often jailed and sued, the San Diego resident claims 2,600 deprogrammings, including some in Philadelphia involving Peace Mission followers. “He had a lot of people fooled,” Patrick says of Father Divine. “Everybody knew him in those days as God Almighty, King of Glory.”

Rebecca Moore, the chair of San Diego State’s religious studies department, lost two sisters (Carolyn Layton, Jones’ female companion who ran daily operations, and Annie Moore, his nurse) and a nephew at Jonestown. Twelve years ago, she joined her husband, Fielding McGehee III, in forming the Jonestown Institute, starting the process of uniting some 100 Jonestown survivors, preserving some 35,000 Peoples Temple resources and formally linking Jones to the Divines. “One reason Mother Divine was so hostile to Jim Jones is because she saw him as a real threat,” says McGehee. “Now, Tommy is trying to do the same thing. I’m sure Mother Divine does not distinguish between the two.”

E. Black, a 30-year Peace Mission researcher who conceals her real name, has written extensively that the current incarnation exists only as an immediate support system for Mother Divine and her current staff. “It has absolutely no social reach or impact on the contemporary societies where it states it exists,” she says, pointing out that the movement is engineering a move into extinction.

Garcia admits that his relationship with Mother Divine was always strained. He calls her shrewd and calculating. “Is she the head of the movement?” he poses. “Yes— because of her position. But can she lead? No. All of the followers have left except for a small group of those who’ve decided that they should continue to live a life of luxury and privilege off the backs of thousands. And that’s where we disagree.”

Now a local short-sale real estate investor, Hoffmann says the mission “worked me to the hilt.” Before child labor laws, she picked in Woodmont’s fields from 5 a.m. on Saturdays until banquet at 2 p.m., then served all night. She says she was never paid a penny for 40-plus work hours a week. After she turned 16 and had working papers, she washed dishes for two months at Haverford College. Those checks went to her grandmother—then, presumably, to the mission. “If [Mother dies] tomorrow, I won’t shed a tear,” says Hoffmann. “I feel sorry for all those people who worked their behinds off for all those years, for those who bought the properties, for those who gave up all of their money only in the end to not even be properly taken care of.”

Born George Baker Jr., the son of Southern sharecropper, Father Divine has a 1,293-page FBI file. It’s been reported that he moved to Philadelphia to escape a $6,000 legal summons won by a defector in New York. Among his diverse service-industry businesses were grocery stores, gas stations, farms in New York, and real estate holdings everywhere. On the wealthy Main Line, his domestic housekeepers filled an undeniable need.

It’s always been difficult to track Father Divine’s following in Europe and elsewhere. Every business, farm, hotel or church was a self-contained, well-oiled moneymaking machine. But just before his death, the machine began leaking oil. The last of the 25 New York heavens was sold in 1985. The Peace Mission extension in California dried up in the ’90s.

The mission’s Philadelphia decline is perhaps most notable for the recent sale of its two landmark hotels. The 10-floor, 350-room Divine Lorraine on North Broad Street became the first integrated first-class hotel in America in 1948. It first sold for a reported $2 million in 2000, twice since, and was just listed by the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia as an endangered property. The Divine Tracy in West Philadelphia sold for a reported $9 million in 2006. It now houses Penn and Drexel students.

In the end, there simply weren’t enough of their own to operate the hotels according to Father Divine’s code. Garcia and Hoffmann estimate that 90 percent of the followers remaining after Father’s death left under Mother’s early reign. “The difference was in how people were treated,” says Hoffmann, who was stripped of the end-all, be-all “Rosebud” choir jacket Father had given her at age 6. “It was all Mother. She was it. She was the ruling factor. It was her way, and you had to do what she wanted. If there was resistance, she started her stuff. She was ruthless— quite contrary to her name, Sweet Angel.”

THE DIVINE LORRAINE ON NORTH BROAD STREET BECAME THE FIRST INTEGRATED FIRST-CLASS HOTEL IN AMERICA IN 1948. IT SOLD FOR A REPORTED $2 MILLION IN 2000.

At 92, Bernard Archer is among the oldest licensed funeral directors in the state. He has handled the Peace Mission’s city business since 1969. But not at Woodmont, where “a classy undertaker” goes. He gets the call if there’s a death at South Broad Street’s Circle Mission Church, Home & Training School or the Westminster Evangelical Home (the mission’s designated elder-care facility on North 41st Street). Up until the past six or eight years, automatic cremation was ordered. “The body was always burned,” Archer says.

Now, there are traditional viewings and burials that about 20 people attend, but the death rate is down to one or two a year. It was eight or 10 for years, Archer says.

One source says Mother Divine has been centralizing control and funneling money back to Woodmont. Another says she’s “downloading the organization to practically nothing.” Like a pension system, if no one is paying in, funds dry up. Father didn’t believe in health or life insurance— let alone Social Security—so something has to give. “Either they run out of people, run out of money, or both,” says Dan Fascione, a 30-year neighbor whose property borders Woodmont on three sides.

Fascione has sat with Mother and her advisers at Woodmont. He says it’s clear that a “genius” is running affairs— whoever it is. “It’s like the last of the Shakers (at Sabbathday Lake, Maine), so it’s an eerie feeling,” he says. “And I do worry about it.”

No one knows—or won’t say—what happens when Mother dies. The Peace Mission’s ideology doesn’t support any sort of hierarchy or develop leaders. “There are no layaway plans,” says Meekness Faith, one of two Peace Mission church presidents who spoke on Mother’s behalf after the February trek at Woodmont.

But concern for the fate of the mission may be unwarranted. Former Gladwyne ward commissioner Ken Davis suggests that maybe there’s an outsider—an element of surprise—that no one knows about. Still, he says, “I hope [Mother] and the movement have made provisions. It would be foolish, if not.”

Assessments of the aging Mrs. M.J. (Mother) Divine’s health vary—though few are positive. One source claims he’s known the symbolic leader of Rev. M.J. (Father) Divine’s International Peace Mission Movement for 15 years. She didn’t recognize him the last time they met. A participant in this year’s annual “Winter Trek” at the Peace Mission’s historic Woodmont estate recounts an odd conversation with Mother that February day: “She asked me four times if I went on the walk.”

Some believe Mother suffered a mild stroke two years ago—or that she may have the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s. Tired and passive, with less energy and focus, Mother no longer attends meetings and functions for the Lower Merion Historical Society or the Gladwyne Civic Association. “She isn’t what she was two years ago,” says one insider.

Now in her mid-80s, Mother Divine appears to be getting the same sort of protection inside the secretive sect’s Gladwyne headquarters that enveloped her husband in his final years. And it’s likely her retreat from public view will continue as she shows further signs of mortality. “Life is eternal, so [followers] defy biological retardation,” says Jill Watts, a history professor at California State University San Marcos and author of God Harlem, USA: The Father Divine Story. “Within the theology, I see what they’re doing. If you’re a true follower, you can’t extinguish yourself and die. They see it as continuing on a different plane.”

With its matriarch largely sequestered, the Peace Mission continues to conduct its ceremonial business in plain view. It hosted its annual “Holy Days” open house Sept. 1012. The event recognizes Father Divine’s death on Sept. 10, 1965, along with the September 1953 dedication of Woodmont as the “Mount of the House of the Lord” and the September 1968 dedication of Father’s “Shrine to Life” mausoleum. Those Peace Mission followers who remain continue to worship their Father as God in what’s now a dwindling interracial, celibate religious and social movement long past its 1930s prime.

The Peace Mission’s core beliefs will not allow its followers—no matter how few in number—to concede defeat. “Cult-minded selectivity is an interpretative process that’s always morphing with failed predictions,” says Swarthmore’s David Clark, a founding and current board member of the Recovering Former Cultists’ Support Network.

Swept up in all this uncertainty is the fate of Woodmont. Its 1998 National Historic Landmark designation amounts to little unless the Peace Mission followers named on the active deed allow Lower Merion Township to list the old Alan Wood Jr. mansion as a Class I building. Otherwise, it can be sold and subdivided—or demolished. There’s fear that increased preservation pressure will put followers on the defensive, perhaps even prompting a scenario along the lines of the controversial destruction of the La Ronda mansion in Bryn Mawr. And other than a philosophical agreement, no conservation easement has been signed to protect the grounds, says Mike Weilbacher, former executive director of the Lower Merion Conservancy.

Few think the Peace Mission movement will disappear tomorrow. But if not tomorrow, then when? A year? Ten years? Gladwyne’s Alan Wood, whose great-grandfather’s brother built the French Gothic, 32-room manor home in 1892 for $1 million, recounts the first time he visited his ancestral edifice. It was in the mid-1950s. He was 11 years old. “It was quiet,” says Wood, who has attended banquets there and remained friendly with Mother Divine and the followers. “The guys sitting around wanted to know who I was. I told them, then they said, ‘Your ancestor was sent by God to build this place for Father Divine.’ I sort of smiled.”

LIKE FATHER DIVINE’S OTHER PROPERTIES, WOODMONT WAS PURCHASED FOR HIM BY HIS FOLLOWERS. IT’S OWNED COMMUNALLY BY PALACE MISSION INC.

Wood says his ancestors bought the land at a sheriff’s sale for less than $20,000 in 1881. A decade after building, Alan Wood Jr. sold the house and 300 acres to a nephew in 1902 for $250,000. Fifty years later, Peace Mission followers chiefly led by Warner Hunt (John DeVoute in the mission) paid J. Hector McNeal’s widow $75,000 cash, saving it from demolition. Much of the acreage had already been sold—a large chunk of it to build Philadelphia Country Club, which declined interviews.

Woodmont is owned communally by Palace Mission Inc., a conglomerate of church members. That would be consistent with Father Divine’s other properties and possessions, which were always purchased for him by followers. It’s been said that the 1940s deed from the Divine Lorraine, the Philadelphia hotel the sect sold in 2000, included hundreds of names. In the case of Divine’s New York empire, as owners on a deed dwindled to one living survivor, the property was quietly resold and deeded to other followers to keep it held communally.

The father of Blank Rome firm partner Lawrence F. Flick II represented the Peace Mission for years until his death one year ago. He recounts the painstaking efforts it took his dad to track down every person whose name appeared on a group deed when signatures were required.

Real estate attorney and Blank Rome partner Matthew J. Comisky is a former president of the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners who has represented the Peace Mission in the past. And while he wouldn’t return calls or emails for this story, sources say he once spoke of turning Woodmont into a state park along the lines of the Ephrata Cloister, a sect that met its end in modern times in Lancaster County.

It’s believed that Mother Divine may not have many, if any, personal assets. If she had, she contributed those funds to the Peace Mission years ago. One source suggests that she may not own anything more than the hairbrush in her dresser drawer, so her death may not trigger much in the way of state, estate or probate activity.

In the end, the fate of Woodmont might well be in the hands of the last living follower who still owns stock in Palace Mission Inc.—or, as one person close to the movement says, the last “senile, doddering old lady.” Or someone who comes out of Woodmont’s woodwork with an estate challenge.

Palace Mission Inc. was formed in New York, but a search of online records at the office of the New York Secretary of State shows that no such entity still exists. As for its qualifications in Pennsylvania, it has a registered office at 20 S. 36th St.—the West Philadelphia address of the Divine Tracy hotel, which was sold in 2006.

The Woodmont estate isn’t on the real estate tax books. Categorized as a parsonage—or the home of a religious figure—the estate wouldn’t normally be exempt under that designation, according to Gilbert P. High Jr., Lower Merion Township’s solicitor. But the years of Peace Mission religious services do make it exempt, perhaps suggesting an alternative need for its Holy Communion Banquet celebrations.

The banquets still rotate among Woodmont and several mission extensions in the city, and they still draw a crowd— albeit a smaller one. Philadelphia music legend Kenny Gamble has attended. So has (recently deceased) Leonard Norman Primiano, former chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Cabrini College, who mounted his own “Father Divine Project”—a multimedia documentary and video podcast.

Every year, each Peace Mission church elects a president, often re-electing the current one. From Woodmont’s stunning dining room, longtime follower Meekness Faith sums up the integration and celibacy in the movement. At banquets, everyone sits “like a checkerboard,” alternating light- and dark-“complected” followers and guests, men on one side and women on the other. “As we’re all brothers and sisters,” says Faith, who’s president of the Unity Mission Church Home Training School and Bible Institute in Philadelphia. “What does it take from God to make us feel this way? Father Divine established that. And when he married Mother Divine, he demonstrated that.”

Following Woodmont’s Winter Trek in February, Faith and Margritha Kranich, president of the Palace Mission Inc. church at Woodmont, spoke on behalf of Mother Divine. Neither woman would provide her age, nor would they acknowledge having parents in the mission, only referring to guardianship. Faith was comanager at the Divine Tracy for 36 years before it was sold. More than once, she raised her hand a foot or two above the ground to indicate how long she’s been in the movement.

Outside sources close to the inner sanctum suggest that even followers of rank like these don’t have answers to address their mortality. At the same time, others contend, there must be some pragmatism—a legacy plan— even without a living leader and active proselytizing. “As for the question of who leads? There’s no answer,” says Watts. “There was only ever one answer—and it was Father Divine.”

Faith and Kranich say Mother Divine is “the one.”

“And that has not changed,” Faith says. “She is the perfect example and sample for all mankind. Why add to what God has already done? It remains her job to portray and demonstrate Father Divine’s concepts to mankind.”

As for Mother’s physical end, “we do not go there,” says Faith adamantly. “We rest in the nothingness of mortality and the allness of God. You simply follow what Father says, and you are a follower. Our job is to demonstrate what we’ve been taught.”

That at least partly explains why funds from the hotel sales were used for the construction of Father’s library, a separate stone building that matches the façade of the manor house at Woodmont. While the exterior is largely finished, the interior isn’t. Villanova architect Fred Bissinger says he can’t make headway with interior planning to finish the job, which also was stalled a year and a half when the township held up approval on a water line and insisted on an elevator. Sources say the only definite exhibit thus far features Mother Divine’s 64 wedding dresses. She gets one every April 29—her wedding anniversary.

Working on a fixed fee (a mission staple), Bissinger sounds frustrated. From the outset, he interpreted the library as something that could revive the movement. “I’ve spoken of revitalization,” says Bissinger, who’s attended banquets since the early 1970s, when he lived in a neighboring tenant cottage. “But while no one is contradicting my enthusiasm, I’ve been stronger on that point than the followers.”

Tommy Garcia wants to celebrate Father Divine as a good American, not a God. He’d like to use Woodmont, its grounds and what’s left of the movement’s infrastructure to launch a foundation for abandoned children—which he once was. Also, he’d like to form a second foundation to bridge the country’s divide between blacks and Hispanics.

Garcia has two websites in the works: RespectOurChildren.org and LatinoAmericanSummit.org. The way he sees it, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. In periods of recession, social movements thrive. Even so, much of the social outreach Father offered in the 1930s and ’40s has since been replaced by government programs. “To me, Father’s Divine’s message was never ‘I’m God,’” Garcia says. “It was, ‘If you have the means, help others.’”

Woodmont’s neighbors remain as skeptical of Garcia as Peace Mission followers do. “It seems like a story I’ve heard a thousand times,” one says. “He’s wounded, and he’s looking for a piece of the pie. That scares me. If he’s found his passion and his life is finally in order, do it. But why do it in Gladwyne?”

Another source says there won’t be “a Garcia period” in the new library at the Woodmont estate. For his part, Garcia prefers the court of public opinion. Open to hearing his story, Alan Wood suggests, “Maybe they need him. He’s the king put out.”

Ardmore octogenarian Margaret Faith, Father’s longtime personal waitress, says followers are taught to be humble and not seek credit or publicity. “Father taught me the exact opposite,” says Garcia.

Several former members maintain Faith was thrown out of the movement when she butted in on a lesbian relationship between two of the highest-ranked white members. She says she’s still in the Peace Mission, but couldn’t recall the last time she was at Woodmont. She continues providing for herself as a housekeeper.

Another defector, Judy Butterly— Mother’s dress designer in the 1960s— says Faith was given just $5 when she was “put out,” common lingo in the post-Father years. Faith then worked privately for neighboring estates in Woodmont’s shadows. “[Mother Divine] has the authority, and no one else can say yes or no [to Garcia],” Faith says. “We bent a lot of rules for Tommy, but he certainly doesn’t have any special place. If he has the idea that something belongs to him, he’s way off track. No one appreciates him challenging anything in the Peace Mission. I don’t know what’s caught up in his head.”

Sonya Hoffmann—also raised (against her will) in the movement alongside Tommy and his younger sister, Susy—has her own opinions about Garcia. “I didn’t find out he was ‘the chosen one’ until I read his website,” she says. “If Tommy thinks he’s coming back and taking over, I don’t think that’s going to happen. He’s delusional. He still thinks he’s what he thinks he is, but there’s no one there who thinks that. He’s been gone. Maybe it would be different had he stayed. He’s married. He’s all the things you’re not supposed to be.”

Early this past spring, Garcia sent flowers and a note to Woodmont for Mother through his boyhood friend, Gladwyne florist Wally Heppenstall. “No sooner was I back when an irate caller asked if I was the person who dropped off the flowers,” recalls Heppenstall, who owns Trillium Flowers. “I asked if Mother was refusing them, but they never answered. I was told to get them off the premises.”

When Heppenstall returned to Woodmont, the looks on followers’ faces were frightening. “I’m 6 feet tall, but these little old ladies who are just shy of walkers looked like they played football in their spare time,” he says. “One took the stance of a bulldog. Their intent was not peace and harmony, and I thought, ‘There’s a distinct chance Mother’s handlers are making decisions without her knowledge.’”

Heppenstall used to see Mother Divine at functions of the Gladwyne Civic Association, where he’s a board director. But he hasn’t seen her for three years. Whenever he’d tell her he was a friend of Tommy’s, she “beamed.” “Father Divine must be rolling over in his mausoleum to see what’s being done now,” he says.

Garcia maintains that the plan for his succession was in place. Otherwise, why would he be chosen by Mother Divine to greet followers and mourners at Father’s funeral? By her side at the casket, Garcia greeted lines of thousands that filed in, seven at a time, into the solarium at Woodmont. Now he’s convinced that he was a nothing but a pawn.

“The neighbors like Mother Divine, so when they find out she’s all but being held hostage, they’re going to be mad,” Garcia says. “Her handlers are like the Knights of the Round Table, but they’re all bad knights. Father’s plan was that, when she died, I would come back and run it, and carry out his ideals and teach people how to raise their level of life.”

After some years as a professional rock guitarist (among other endeavors), Garcia now runs Cabo Magic Sportfishing in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. While making vacationing fishermen’s dreams come true, he’s supporting a village industry by teaching a Divine-like self-sufficiency. And yet, while it’s Peace Mission policy to relinquish the past, Garcia wants to relive his.

For that, he has Kenny Corl, who was a classmate at Gladwyne Elementary School. Corl still lives on his family’s property off Spring Mill Road near Woodmont. At Woodmont, Corl and Garcia rode go-karts on the estate’s walking paths. They also played hide-and-seek in the manor house. “Tommy was king there,” says Corl. “He could do no wrong.”

Two summers ago, Corl took a friend on a Sunday open tour of Woodmont— they were the only two there. “No one is showing up anymore,” he says. “At the end [of the tour], I asked if Mother was there. They went out of their way to get her down ‘to see a friend of Tommy’s.’ It looked like she’d aged 100 years. They told her I was a friend of Tommy’s, and she just lit up, and said, ‘Tommy?’ She thought I was Tommy.”

Then, according to Corl, Philip Life— once Father’s chauffeur, who now spends his days online as the mission’s archivist— asked why it took so long for him to visit. Life told Corl to come back soon, and to bring Tommy along next time.

In 2004, Life had echoed Margaret Faith’s position, warning Garcia in an email reply that he was “treading on dangerous ground.” But not on this day, contends Corl. “He said they would all love to see him,” Corl recalls.

A few days after Corl’s visit, Garcia called Mother Divine. She answered but was clearly out of it. “I said, ‘Peace, Mother,’” he says. “She said, ‘It’s funny you called, because I was just sitting by the phone doing absolutely nothing.’ That’s totally unlike her. I told her that I want what Father Divine promised—that if she wants Lori and I to come and care for her, we will, and that we will carry on the ideals of unity for mankind.”

Corl is convinced that the Peace Mission must be saved—and fast. “Tommy needs to deal directly with Mother before she’s to the point that she can’t even talk at all,” Corl says. “I believe Tommy is genuine. No one has carried on Father’s giving. [Tommy] has that calling and needs an opportunity to come back without them stopping him. But if he can’t step up really soon, I fear it’s all going to be gone.”

Meanwhile, Garcia has secured two web domains. “I’m holding them for the future,” he says. “There are two sides of the story.”

Garcia is also busy uniting families nationwide—those who are searching for answers about relatives long lost to the Peace Mission. Some want to know what’s happened to bodies, inheritance, real estate and material possessions. Others simply want to lay flowers on a grave.

In 1930, Cora Tinsley Martin abandoned her husband and 10 children in rural Georgia to follow Father Divine, leaving a dead spot in North Carolinian Amy Cain’s genealogy research. “I want to know the facts,” Cain says about her great-grandmother. “I want to know how she died and what happened with her body.”

In 1937, three of Tom McKnight’s relatives—his mother, Sophia, an uncle and an aunt—left Youngstown, Ohio, with their mother to follow Father Divine, who was then in New York. Called “Sweet Pea” in the mission, Sophia has since died. Now 87, his uncle eventually left. But his aunt was took the name “Sunshine Flowers” and reamained with the Peace Mission.

A call to Woodmont this year was brushed off. But McKnight was finally told that Sunshine Flowers had died. “I never met my aunt, but I cried like a baby,” says McKnight, who lives in Alabama, has worked for the United Nations and still consults on the organization’s humanitarian missions. “It’s not possible to have opening or closure. For those who have succumbed to this movement, there’s a lasting perpetual mental torture—and no one has the right to do that.”

Since 1989, Garcia has communicated with Mother Divine via six emails, three phone conversations and an open letter he posted on his website in May of this year. He’s accelerated his efforts, in part, because of Mother’s advancing age and reports of her failing health.

Woodmont neighbor Dan Fascione first met Garcia on the estate’s grounds when Tommy was just 10. “It was easier to visit then,” admits Fascione, a retired human resources expert for local government agencies. “The movement peaked years ago. Now 80-year-olds are out there shoveling snow.”

Experts say that the Peace Mission is vulnerable. “It all sounds ripe for the picking,” says Portland, Ore.’s Kent Burtner, who was once on the board of directors of the former Cult Awareness Network.

“Why couldn’t a larger non-traditional sect like Scientology come in and take over?” Garcia poses.

Scientology, Burtner says, is known for forming “squirrel organizations,” or splinter and spinoff sects. Swarthmore’s Clark says Scientology has always had an interest in real estate to strategically position itself geographically. And with its moneyed, high-profile following, it wouldn’t lack the money to buy Woodmont.

But Peace Mission followers remain calm. “We believe in Father’s spirit,” says Palace Mission Inc.’s Kranich. “To us, this is not self-denial or sacrifice. Father said we could never grow old.”

Only Cabrini’s Primiano has ever approximated the number of remaining followers left anywhere. “A remnant of perhaps 150,” he wrote in the 2009 book, The New Black Gods.

When asked if the membership is growing, Faith replies, “Absolutely! We get emails from around the world. Father Divine’s said that his work is not confined to only those who can see you.”

But she does concede that the popular view is that the order is diminished to near extinction. “That is not our belief or conviction,” she says. “There’s no subtraction, no minimization, no itemization. They are concepts of the outside world.”

When asked if Mother Divine will answer questions for this story, as she promised she would, Faith says, “I didn’t say she would. What’s she going to tell you that we haven’t already said?”

Then again, maybe—just maybe— Mother would say that she wants Tommy Garcia to return and further refine Father Divine’s legacy. “Have I had success?” Garcia asks rhetorically of his life since leaving the Peace Mission. “Yes. Am I fulfilled? No. My only fulfillment will be to take what’s left [of the movement] and help as many people as possible. I’m a man without an island. Once you’ve been abandoned, that awful feeling sticks with you for the rest of your life. I would like what Father Divine promised me—and that’s Woodmont. It’s my home.”

In a recurring dream, the doors at Woodmont swing open, and Garcia walks in and says, “I’m home.”

“I’ve told Mother Divine,” he says. “She knows about my dream. She, too, has manipulated me to believe it will be. If she reads that [online] letter, she’ll realize I won’t be a thorn in her side. I’ll be the one pulling the thorn out of the lion’s paw.”

Woodmont Now

With the 2017 passing of Mother Divine— Edna Rose Ritchings or Sweet Angel Divine, Father’s second wife—Tommy Garcia was granted status as administrator of her estate. Like his various book projects over the years, it was another start-stop. The day after the Register of Wills’ decision in Montgomery County, he unsuccessfully attempted to serve those papers at the estate. The county may consider him to be the Divines’ child, with the legal role of marshaling and distributing assets. But apparently the dwindling, aging followers at Woodmont don’t agree. Responding to a phone call from Garcia’s attorney, Joel S. Luber, follower Yvette Calm’s response was direct: “We’re not interested. We’ll have him arrested.”

Not long after, Luber’s firm discontinued representation. “It was thought to be beyond our risk tolerance, so we had to back off,” Luber says now. “I was interested personally, and I was poised to file a lawsuit. But we pulled out.”

The International Peace Mission routinely defers to its own attorneys at Blank Rome, who didn’t return calls for this follow-up story. Garcia’s still dreams of returning to Woodmont and what remains of the interracial movement to apply Divine’s century of ideals spent elevating the lives of Blacks. It’s been a reinvigorated mission of late, now that the nation’s racial divide has widened dramatically. He’s also interested in funneling assets to nurture lost children, as he once was. “I can’t proselytize him as God, but I can use the millions (he assumes exists) to help people,” Garcia said in a 2017 interview. “I’d give up everything and move back to Philadelphia in a millisecond. If I could come back home, I will have come full circle.

Related: From the Archives: Why We Love Villanova Coach Jay Wright