When Roger Klaus lived at the Divine Lorraine Hotel in 1956 with his Colorado-transplanted family, the rate was $2.50 a week.
He shook his head and smiled at the idea of someone paying as much as $2,500 a month, as high-end units will go for when the long-abandoned property reopens in the next year.
He recalled the majesty of the North Broad Street apartment building in the heyday of Divine’s International Peace Mission movement.
“In recent years, when they’d show the graffiti all over it, it made me sad,” he said. “I don’t like to think of it that way.”
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On the same day the new owner of the Divine Lorraine offered tours last week, Klaus gave us a tour of Woodmont, Father Divine’s majestic estate in Gladwyne, where the long-deceased religious leader’s 91-year-old wife, Mother Divine, lives with 17 followers.
The 72-acre hilltop property is tucked discreetly next to Philadelphia Country Club and above a steep wooded decline that falls to the Schuylkill Expressway at the Conshohocken Curve.
Not a blade of grass looked out of place on the recent visit. When asked who took care of the landscaping, Klaus looked around. As he spoke, two elderly women picked over the main house’s blossoming flower beds. One woman, or “sister,” as the women are known within the celibate religion, dragged a hose to water some bushes.
“We all pitch in,” Klaus said.
He gave me and my photographer a tour of the house’s first floor -- the high-ceilinged grand entrance hall, Father Divine’s office, a sitting room, a drawing room off the banquet hall, the bright atrium. Wrought iron and carved wooden paneling dominate the window sills, door frames and trim. Known as Woodmont for its early 20th-century presiding family, a wealthy heir and follower of Father Divine ceded the property to the religious movement in 1953.
Mother Divine, who married the religious leader in 1945, was not able to talk with us, Klaus said.
When asked about her health, he said Mother Divine spends much of her time in her second-floor bedroom, but recently ate dinner with the rest of the Woodmont community, which gathers every Sunday for formal dinners. Mother Divine and all the sisters at Woodmont stay in the main house; the brothers stay in another house on the property.
The size of the Peace Mission movement is ever-dwindling, which seems inevitable with a stance that calls for lifelong celibacy.
“If I had to guess, I’d say there are about 100 (followers),” said Professor Leonard Norman Primiano, chair of religious studies at Cabrini College and one of the foremost experts on the International Peace Mission. “There are a few people left in places like England, Switzerland, even Australia. It was truly international at its height.”
Sister Yvette introduced herself in the great hall as a lifelong devotee who came to Woodmont 30 years ago from Switzerland.
“In Switzerland, Germany, France, they all had extensions there,” Sister Yvette said, using the movement’s term for church branches.
Decades later, the manpower and footprint in urban centers like North Philadelphia may be shrinking, but the movement’s footprint at Woodmont is as strong as ever. A $2 million library dedicated to the life and teachings of Father Divine will open by the fall after four years in the making, Klaus said.
The residents of Woodmont hope the library will attract new interest in the movement, and more visitors to the estate’s open houses to the public every Sunday, April through October.
Outside the main house, staring across a bowed front lawn some five football fields long and wide that he had cut earlier in the day, Klaus is hoping for some good news.
“I want your story to be about the uplifting aspects of Father Divine,” he said, when asked about how the International Peace Mission has been portrayed in recent years. “Not like most of the other bologna.”