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Prodigal Son (Part I)

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“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 1 of 2. Click here for the conclusion.]

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

With the Peace Mission seemingly on its last legs, its picturesque headquarters in Gladwyne is still a sight to see, even if its aging matriarch, Mother Divine, remains largely out of sight. Just when a savior seemed unlikely, a former Peace Mission prodigy has emerged with a plan to resurrect the controversial movement—if only he could get Mom onboard.

A photo of a young Tommy Garcia used in his Peace

Mission recruitment.

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 here at Woodmont, 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 74-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 reads, “Peace.”

“No snow is falling on us,” says Mother privately but within earshot, her eyes 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.

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—suspicions even—about the Peace Mission’s intentional community (sociological lingo for a cult) and about Woodmont, also the spiritual headquarters for Palace Mission, Inc., one of the movement’s incorporated churches. Even so, the estate remains free and open to public tours on Sunday afternoons from April through October.

Father Divine died in 1965. His death is the impetus behind the group’s annual “Holy Days” open house held Sept. 10-12. Yet Peace Mission members continue to live at Woodmont and various Philadelphia outposts with same-sex, “opposite-complected” (Peace Mission speak) roommates. They practice celibacy. Followers say they neither look back nor forward. Ideologically, there’s no past or future. There are no time lines, 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—all of them systematically stripped of family at one point—are in their 80s, 90s or older.

The Peace Mission’s Woodmont headquarters in Gladwyne.

So 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, despite what 6 ABC conveyed last fall. Though its cameras were turned away at Woodmont’s gates, its story insinuated that Garcia has a lawsuit against the Peace Mission. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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 years of social damage and abuse he and other defectors say they’ve experienced.

He’d like to use Woodmont as a hub for launching a foundation for abandoned children—like he once was—and another foundation 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.”

 

The office where Garcia first met Father Divine.

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 with a big smile, telling him his real mother and father didn’t want him, but that Father did. Then, he was ushered off with a chauffeur and bodyguard named Happy Love to buy clothes at the 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 now. “He was driven by limo, but 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. But after Father’s death, Mother sent Tommy to the Church Farm School in Exton for seventh and eighth grade from 1966 to ’68. While 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, which last published in 1992, Father spoke of symbolically uniting Canada, the United States and Mexico to form a single borderless continent.

In Garcia’s view, Mother Divine—born Edna Rose Ritchings in Vancouver (which the mission denies, as it does Father’s early life as George Baker Jr., the son of Southern sharecroppers) 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, 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, she was immediately cremated when Philadelphia funeral director Bernard J. Archer was told Ms. Harmony 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, ‘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.”

 

Garcia and his sister Susy in 1960.

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 (another Peace Mission celebration day)—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. This spring, 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.”

 

Followers come out in droves for Father in the 1930s.

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 a 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, she 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 Sonya later in her life. “By then, I was what they call ‘mortal flesh,’” says Hoffmann.

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 for 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.

 

The Divine Lorraine, one of two Philadelphia

hotels owned by Father Divine.

Both before and after the death of Father Divine, a battle for succession at the Peace Mission was being waged. The 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. (Read the Peace Mission’s response to the Guyana mass suicide six days after the tragedy at libertynet.org/fdipmm/mdbook/jimjontx.html.)

“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.”

 

Father Divine with his first wife, Peninah.

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, and 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 be-all, end-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.”

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, an 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.”

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