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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Mother Divine: The Real Philadelphia Story


By Thom Nickels
       Contributing Editor

Woodmont is not only a world set apart, it is a world with a history. Located in Montgomery County, this 72-acre estate is the home base of The Peace Mission Movement, started by Father Divine in 1919 in Sayville, New York.
 The mansion itself is a multi-room French Gothic masterpiece, designed by Quaker architect William Price for Philadelphia industrialist Alan J, Wood, Jr., in 1892. After the demise of the Gilded Age and the selling off of many of Philadelphia’s old mansions, it was sold to Father Divine for a relatively humble $75,000.
                Woodmont then became the headquarters for the Peace Mission Movement.
                As the rush of 21st century events seems to pummel the world towards some kind of catastrophe, Woodmont has remained outside the fray. Since the passing of Father Divine in 1965, the Peace Mission Movement has been under the direction of Father Divine’s second wife, Edna Rose Ritchings, a white Canadian woman he met in 1946. 
                The Peace Mission Movement began as a force for peace and goodwill between the races, as an incentive to make-- as Mother Divine notes in her small book, “The Peace Mission Movement”-- people “industrious, independent, tax-paying citizens instead of consumers of tax dollars on the welfare rolls.” In the area of theology, many of Father Divine’s followers believe that he was/is God. In the past, this fact has annoyed many members of the press and resulted in bad publicity for the Movement.
                Father Divine’s greatest contributions are probably in the area of Civil Rights. As early as 1951, he advocated for reparations for the descendents of slaves and for integrated neighborhoods. Decades before the Civil Rights Act, before the NAACP, before Stokley Carmichael, Angela Davis or the Black Panthers, Father Divine preached peaceful non-violent social change.   Unfortunately, Father Divine’s “preaching” work on behalf of Civil Rights is a mostly understated fact.
 Father Divine’s marriage to the second Mother Divine (the first was an African American woman named Peninniah, who died shortly after the Woodmont purchase) was a celibate affair, as members, both married and unmarried, are prohibited from having sex, or using alcohol and tobacco. 
                An invitation to attend the monthly Sunday banquet at Woodmont, which the Peace Mission Movement considers a Holy Communion service, was extended to me and Philadelphia artist Noel Miles because of a book we are working on.  Miles had gone to Woodmont before, with brush and canvass, to capture the marvelous interiors for our project when Mother Divine extended the invitation.
                When the day of the pilgrimage arrived, we boarded the R-7 for Bryn Mawr, and then hailed a cab to Gladwyne, where Woodmont is located. Our cabbie, a rather youngish urban type who seemed more suited for a city taxi than navigating the lost vistas of Montgomery County, had no idea where Woodmont was, but, like a true shyster, he tried to hide this fact by driving fast.
                When it became apparent that he was winging it, Miles made him get his bearings. By happenstance or miracle, we happened to notice the Woodmont address etched simply and unobtrusively on a stone wall. The taxi then took the long rustic driveway through a corridor of trees. Along the road to the mansion I noticed a few clumsily etched hand carved road signs, the kind you’d see in a Boy Scout camp circa 1960.
 A wide clearing in the brush brought the mansion into view.
At this point, the cabbie could barely suppress an “Ahhhhh!”
Holy Royal Family Highgate! Or was this some unnamed palace on the Thames transferred via UFO to fairly predictable Montgomery County where the only queen had been Hope Montgomery Scott? I spotted an elderly white man sitting on a chair—or was it a tree stump?—near what looked to be a shed. A watchman of some sort, very polite. Did he sleep in the shed? I was full of questions.
The cabbie let us off in the middle of the massive semi circular drive.
                 A small black woman in a beret and white gloves with a “V” embossed on her blouse, waved to us as we approached the mansion. She was perched several heads above us, sentry-like, on the portico landing. Shades of Buckingham Palace formality. Her smile was beatific but steely; her thin body conjuring images of self denial. Introductions were made and up the steps we went, the cab idling as if the cabbie wanted a longer glimpse. 
                “Call if you want a pick up,” he shouted from the cab.
                We were not banking on a pickup but a ride home, or at least a ride to the station from one of the dinner guests.
 Inside the grand reception room, we saw museum quality gilt framed paintings, lush carpets and oak woodwork. Miss Faith, the sentry of the steps, explained the history of the house.
                We noticed a mammoth framed portrait of Mother and Father Divine hanging over the reception area like an iconostasis in a cathedral.
                “My one aim is to live a virtuous life under the Personal jurisdiction of FATHER DIVINE,” Mother Divine wrote in 1952. “My Marriage to FATHER has brought the fulfillment of this desire and I can most assuredly say that in these past four or more happy years that I have been married, FATHER’S Virginity has been more firmly established in my consideration, for I have not seen anything about Him that reflects that of a man.”

                “May I tape our conversation?” I asked Miss Faith.
                “Oh no, you may not,” Miss Faith said, looking at me in disbelief.
                This was a perfectly natural question for a journalist, but Miss Faith’s reaction somehow made me feel thoroughly ashamed of myself. Was I now a besmirched house guest who had to be watched?
                 I would later discover that in years past journalists delighted in taking advantage of Mother Divine’s generosity and then went on to butcher her in print. It’s the way journalism is these days, where stories about suburban teachers having sex with seventeen year olds is considered breaking news.
                Without any sort of announcement, namely the ringing of chimes or a small hand bell, my eyes were drawn to the top of the magnificent central staircase.
A woman in a long white beaded dress who was being escorted down the central staircase by an elderly woman in a beret. It was one of those cinematic moments, half Royal Family, half an exciting ‘new’ story that has yet to be told.
 “Who are these people?” I heard Mother Divine whisper to the aide. When she was reminded who we were, Mother approached Miles first, extending a hand.
When Mother turned to me, I took her hand and said that it was an honor to meet her.
 After all, this was the brave woman who, in 1972, issued the Rev. Jim Jones and his followers, his marching orders. Mother Divine ordered Jones to leave the Woodmont estate after he attempted to take over the Peace Mission Movement, claiming that he was the reincarnation of Father Divine.  Some 200 of Jones’ followers had arrived from California, “pretending,” as Mother states, “a sincere desire to fellowship with members of the Movement.”
                Mother asked them to leave when “his distaste for the government of the United States and the establishment, and the prosperity of the followers in general began to be expressed in casual, then more deliberate remarks he made to Mother Divine and others.”
                Several years later would come the insanity of the People’s Temple in Guyana.

                In my quest to find out more about the Mission, I asked Miss Faith “where the chapel was, the place where you have services.” My question was met with puzzlement. “The banquet is the holy communion service,” Miss Faith said.
                I would understand the mechanics of this very soon, once the banquet got underway.
                The lush, white banquet table sat about 60 people. A swan on a “lake” of glass was the centerpiece, in addition to fresh flowers. Women outnumbered men about 10 to one. Mother sat at the head of the table; beside her was a setting for Father Divine. An attendant stood behind my chair and Miles’ ready to assist us during the meal.
                Dinner began when Mother rang a large hand bell. A female cook in a white uniform produced the platters from a small kitchen directly behind Mother. Numerous platters of salad items, including a wide assortment of vegetables, condiments and sauces, set the pace for more complicated platters offering meats and fish, rice, potatoes, breads, more vegetables and meats until at last diners could devote their entire attention to the business at hand, eating, rather than the elaborate ritual of passing platters.
                When platters are passed from one diner to another, they must never touch the table. Diners must also not hold two platters at the same time, so the entire synchronization of the plates had the movements of a dance. While this was going on, diners listened to an old audio tape of a Father Divine sermon. The mostly elderly crowd—men in suits and women in Peace Mission uniforms—beret, and a jacket embossed with a V—combined eating with the singing of hymns. A few elderly white women, European by birth, clapped their hands in sing song fashion in between mouthfuls.
                The plate passing started up again when dessert was served: huge cakes, pies, jello molds and ice cream were passed in the same fashion, all homemade, all luscious, and yet not a single person at the table looked to be overweight.
With synchronization worthy of the Rockettes, additional platters kept being delivered to both sides of the table. Diners were expected to take only what they could eat. I ate all of what I put on my plate except for a little bit of Salmon skin. The food was marvelous, the vegetables among the best I’ve ever tasted.
                After dinner, Miles and I were asked if we wanted to say a few words to the assembly. I mentioned that the dining experience reminded me of the time I spent in Catholic monasteries, when you would eat in silence while listening to a monk read from scripture or the lives of the saints.
The Catholic connection, as it turned out, was not that far fetched. A woman from Saint Paul’s parish in South Philadelphia told me to look out for a lineup of Catholic saint statues around the parameter of the Peace Mission dining room.
I counted ten or more Catholic saints positioned some ten feet above the heads of the diners.            
                For me, the hymns and hand clapping that occurred during the banquet raised a red flag: “Here’s where biting journalist types like Christopher Hitchens have a really wicked time ripping into Mother and all things Divine,” I thought.  
                But Woodmont, in rapidly deteriorating world, is actually more of a treasure than not. It’s quiet, isolated, beautiful, a mansion with many rooms and good food, an empire with its own benevolent queen, a masterful lady with a piercing glance.
                After dinner, Miles and I were told that Mother wanted to see us alone, in Father Divine’s office.
                The office, as it turned out, is a dead ringer for the oval office in the White House. Miles and I stood with Mother by Father’s desk, an aide not far away.  Directly in front of the window was Father Divine’s shrine and tomb. For a few moments things were very quiet, then sunlight hit Mother Divine’s face.

                We both agreed, on the train ride home, that here was the real Philadelphia story.