Mar 12, 2017

Mother Divine, leader of the International Peace Mission, dies at 92

Mother Divine, leader of the International Peace Mission
Aubrey Whelan
March 6, 2017

She was a young woman, working as a stenographer in Canada, when she first heard of the Rev. Major Jealous Divine.

He was the charismatic and controversial head of a homegrown religious movement, literally God in the flesh to his followers. They called him Father Divine, and he preached racial equality, celibacy, and total devotion to the kingdom of heaven -- which, he believed, he was creating in Philadelphia.

The stenographer was intrigued. She immigrated to Philadelphia and met Father Divine in his office on South Broad Street.

It was during World War II. She was 21; he was probably in his mid-60s. She was white; he was black. Soon, they were married -- in 1946, in secret in Washington, where interracial marriages were legal -- and Edna Rose Ritchings, the oldest daughter of a florist, became Mother Divine, the “Spotless Virgin Bride,” the living embodiment of her husband’s teachings. The couple maintained that they never consummated their marriage, in keeping with Father Divine's devotion to celibacy.

After his death, she led his International Peace Mission for decades, eventually selling off the properties he amassed in Philadelphia and retreating with the last members of the movement to an estate in Gladwyne.

She died there on Saturday, March 4, followers said in a statement. The movement does not publicize birth or death dates, but she was thought to be 92. Her death was related to old age, said Christopher Stewart, the archivist for Father Divine’s library and museum at Woodmont, the mission’s Gladwyne headquarters.

Legally named Sweet Angel Divine, she was the second wife of Father Divine, and followers believed the spirit of his first spouse was present in her. Originally from Vancouver, British Columbia, she became a U.S. citizen in 1977.

Father Divine’s origins are obscure, and his birth name is not confirmed; historians believe he was George Baker and grew up either as the son of sharecroppers in the deep South or in Rockville, Md. But by the turn of the century, he was well on his way to establishing himself as an itinerant preacher emphasizing racial equality -- a radical theology for the time, as was his insistence that he was God himself. But he gathered fame and followers, leading an integrated congregation that included some wealthy followers who helped him build a small real estate empire in New York.

He won praise for the communal meals where anyone was welcome, and jeers for what critics saw as an extravagant lifestyle -- fine suits and a Cadillac and real estate holdings. Eventually, he fled legal trouble in New York -- a lawsuit filed by a former follower seeking the savings she had given to the church -- and established himself in Philadelphia, with headquarters at the Circle Mission Church on South Broad Street and two hotels, the first racially integrated hotels in the country, the Divine Lorraine and the Divine Tracy. They were known as much for their low rates as they were for their strict rules: no untoward mixing of the sexes, no smoking, no drinking, no foul language, and no tips.

Mother and Father Divine spent their time traveling among outposts of the Peace Mission, Stewart said, hosting the communal meals -- “holy communion” -- with followers that were the hallmark of the Peace Mission’s religious practice.

“Father Divine spent hours a day at the holy communion table, and Mother would be at his side presiding,” Stewart said. “It’s a real meal, a multi-course meal that you sit down to nourish body as well as spirit.”

Followers believed Father Divine would never die; when he did, in 1965, at about 80, the International Peace Mission said he had “laid his body down,” and Mother Divine continued to lead its followers, setting a place for him at holy communion and professing that her husband was still present in spirit.

She resided for years at Woodmont, where the mission hopes to open a library dedicated to Father Divine, and where visitors, for some time, could still come on certain Sundays and partake in a meal. She was described as soft-spoken and always well put together, almost glamorous -- quite different from her hard-charging, charismatic spouse.

"She wanted everything proper, she wanted his memory preserved and wanted to carry on the principles of the movement," said Robert Weisbrot, a history professor at Colby College in Maine who wrote about the International Peace Mission and visited Woodmont in the 1980s. "But she was not someone who was an aggressive social crusader. It was an inward-looking movement at the time she was leading it." (She didn't like the book Weisbrot eventually wrote on the movement -- she felt it wasn't appropriately reverent toward her husband.)

In the 1970s, the cult leader Jim Jones -- who would later commit suicide with 900 of his followers in Guyana -- tried to assume leadership of the organization, recruting Peace Mission members, Stewart said. Mother Divine eventually barred him from attending mission events, Stewart said. "She put the kibosh on that," he said.

She gave interviews from time to time, sometimes appearing at political rallies -- she liked Ronald Reagan and H. Ross Perot -- and occasionally weighing in on issues in Gladwyne such as a deer cull and a new municipal sewer system (she was in favor of both). The movement began to sell off properties as its membership dwindled. The Divine Lorraine, its most famous and most visible, sat vacant for years after the sale, and is now on its way to becoming a luxury apartment building.

“She was love personified,” said Roger Klaus, who described himself as “a student” in the Peace Mission, and who has lived at Woodmont with Mother Divine since the 1970s. “She commanded a presence when she walked into the room.”

There was much speculation on what would happen to the dwindling International Peace Mission after her death. She was firm that she had made no plans for a successor, and Klaus was vague on what the mission’s path was.

“We’re trusting Father’s spirit,” he said, “and that’s what we’ve always done.”

A viewing will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday, March 9, at Woodmont Estate, 1622 Spring Mill Rd., Gladwyne. Enshrinement will be held later.

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