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Keys to the Kingdom (Part II)


“Prodigal Son” and “Keys to the Kingdom,” September and October 2010.
In this powerful two-part series, senior writer J.F. Pirro documents the 74-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. The revelations about the withering cult and its reclusive matriarch are shocking.

[Part 2 of 2. Click here for Part 1.]

Tommy Garcia with Mother Divine in 1989. 

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. 10-12. 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 is now a dwindling interracial, celibate religious and social movement long past its 1930s prime.

An early photo of Mother Divine.

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.”

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 by followers for him. 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 e-mails 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.


Woodmont’s great hall ceiling.

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 July 2006 and converted into housing for Penn and Drexel students.

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 Leonard Norman Primiano, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Cabrini College, who has 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 (a 5-foot-2 black man) established that. And when he married Mother Divine (a white Canadian), he demonstrated that.”

The Woodmont estate’s dining room

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 sold for $9 million four years ago. 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 all-ness 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 by the township, which 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.”


The Peace Mission matriarch at the door of Father

Divine’s “Shrine to Life” mausoleum during a tour.

Tommy Garcia wants to celebrate Father Divine as a good American, not a God. A baptized Catholic raised at Woodmont after he was abandoned by his mother when she became a Peace Mission follower, Garcia claims rights as the movement’s future leader, despite its opposition to him. For Garcia, religion is a means of helping others. 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.

Once groomed as a so-called successor to Father Divine before leaving the movement as a teenager, 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.’”

But thanks to a 6 ABC segment last fall, which insinuated Garcia had a lawsuit against the mission, he’s been cast as a gold-digger. “That’s bull–it,” Garcia says. “If I take over, I’ll have to create a plan to keep the place in business. I’ve always wanted this to play out the way it’s destined.”

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.


Mother Divine in front of Father Divine’s mausoleum.

Tommy 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 played hide-and-seek in the manor house. “Tommy was king there,” he says. “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. But in 2004, Life had echoed Margaret Faith’s position, warning Garcia in an e-mail reply that he was “treading on dangerous ground.” But not on this day, contends Corl. “He said they would all love to see him,” he recalls.

A few days after Corl’s visit, Garcia says he 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 (his wife) 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 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 explains. When searching anything movement-related, his website, TommyGarcia.com, also pops up. “There are two sides of the story,” he says.

Garcia also is 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 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, Chaney “Missouri,” remained with the Peace Mission under the name of “Sunshine Flowers.”

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 an 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.”

In 1930, Cora Tinsley Martin left 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.”


A more recent photo of Mother Divine

Since 1989, Tommy Garcia has communicated with Mother Divine via six e-mails, 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 governmental agencies. “The movement peaked years ago. Now 80-year-olds are shoveling snow.”

Experts say 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 spin-off 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 e-mails 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.”