CORWIN SPRINGS – Last week, the Church Universal and Triumphant announced it is breaking ground on a new office building at its headquarters here.
That’s not so unusual. Groups put up structures all the time.
What is unusual is the contrast with what happened 15 years ago, when the church was wrapping up its last major construction project: a 756-person underground bomb shelter in a mountain meadow tucked into the upper reaches of the church’s sprawling Royal Teton Ranch.
At that time, church members were constructing similar, if smaller, structures in Glastonbury, a Paradise Valley subdivision then limited to members of the New Age sect.
Church leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet had said nuclear war was likely, and bombs could land in Paradise Valley. Church members hoped the bombs would never launch, but they wanted to be prepared if the missiles did fly.
On the night of March 15, 1990, hundreds if not thousands of CUT members entered the bomb shelters they had hurriedly constructed. They had gathered here from as far as Europe and South America. Some had quit jobs and run up big debt, anticipating apocalypse.
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The times were weird and tense. The media swarmed all over Paradise Valley.
Then, nothing happened. Church officials maintained the next day the whole thing had been a drill. But some members didn’t know that: before they left their shelters, they turned on the Geiger counters.
March 15, 1990, was the acme of a long-building controversy surrounding the church.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, church leaders butted heads with environmental groups, politicians, anti-cult groups, state regulators and officials from Yellowstone National Park, which was next door to the church’s 12,000-acre Royal Teton Ranch. There were lawsuits with county, state and federal governments. Church officials were arrested on weapons charges.
Divorced parents who didn’t want their kids around the bomb shelters headed to the courthouse. A handful of teenage children of CUT members ran away from all the strangeness. In a couple of bizarre cases, church members were held against their will. Some described it as “deprogramming.” Others, including prosecutors, called it kidnapping.
These days, things have changed. The church hasn’t been much of a newsmaker for the past several years.
The year 1999 appears to be a tipping point, a time when the church and its neighbors learned to get along, 18 years after the church bought its first property in Park County.
On Aug. 31 of that year, politicians of both major parties, green groups and the National Park Service gathered for a big party in a sun-baked meadow just north of the Yellowstone border and heaped praise on church leaders.
“They’re a wonderful, wonderful bunch of people,” Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said of the church.
Ten years before that, a Yellowstone official had declared the church the single biggest threat to the integrity of the park.
Change of heart
So what changed? For one, all those officials were gathered that August day to celebrate the exchange of 6,300 acres of church land and a conservation easement on another 1,500 acres for $13 million in federal money.
The deal put a lot of wildlife habitat in public hands, and spelled out a major reduction in the church’s local presence.
But 1999 was also the year Prophet announced she had Alzheimer’s disease and would retire, removing the charismatic but controversial leader from the church’s forefront. The church’s membership had already shrunk and money problems mounted as donations from members kept dropping.
During the “shelter cycle,” the church had 600 employees at Corwin Springs and many hundreds of followers in Park and Gallatin counties. But by 1999, the church had already laid off 90 percent of them and closed its construction, engineering, food processing and printing businesses.
Followers were filtering away to other pursuits. Donations flowing into the church — and it needed millions annually to stay afloat — dropped every year.
Gilbert Cleirbaut, president of the church at the time, said he wanted his church to stop acting like “a cult.”
Shortly after the CUT sold half the Royal Teton Ranch, considered holy land by many members, it sold another Paradise Valley Ranch to a private buyer for $12.5 million. It opened up the Glastonbury subdivision to land-hungry people of any religion or none at all. Along the way, it abandoned plans to build a new town the size of Gardiner at the base of Devil’s Slide.
The church originally intended to be an exclusive, self-reliant community in Montana, moving its headquarters here from California in 1986. That didn’t work.
By the end of the 1990s, the church had “without question” started to learn to live with its neighbors and adapt to its surroundings, said Murray Steinman, a former vice president. “Individuals and institutions have to learn.”
And the larger community around the church changed, too. Nonmembers stopped boycotting businesses owned by church adherents. Local anti-church groups disintegrated. Members and non-members began hiring each other and working together. People started to get to know each other and, for the most part, started to get along.
Rob Balch, a sociology professor at the University of Montana who has studied a number of new religions around the country said such groups often get one of two labels: “new religious movement”; or “cult,” generally considered a pejorative.
After a period of growth and controversy, such groups sometimes become more isolated and secretive. “But some groups go the opposite direction, mellowing out,” he said.
As for CUT, which he has studied since 1991, “I never thought they’d be a dangerous cult or anything like that,” he said.
“Their beliefs are still outside the norm. But it seemed like every time I went down there, it was a little less cult-like.”
The church today
“Many people have the idea the church has just dried up and moved away,” said Erin Prophet, Elizabeth Prophet’s oldest daughter, now a technical writer in the Boston area.
Not so, say church officials.
It still has about 200 groups of followers in the United States and 38 other countries, according to the church’s Web site, www.tsl.org. The church proselytizes in Africa, Latin America and Russia.
Internet technology has made it easier to reach out long distances, church spokeswoman Destyne Erickson said, and reduced the need for a big staff at headquarters.
Even without Prophet, the church says it has the spiritual answers people want.
CUT theology is vast and complicated. It relies on notions of karma and reincarnation, while incorporating elements of Christianity, Buddhism, Zoraastrianism, Taoism, astrology and Confucianism. Critically, all of this is overlain by the teachings of “Ascended Masters,” celestial beings that spoke through Prophet, before her health failed.
“Is there a church for the age of Aquarius that unites the world’s religions?” the Web site asks rhetorically. “The answer is yes. Church Universal and Triumphant is that church.”
Erickson said neither of the church’s presidents, Lois Drake and Kate Gordon, were available for an interview with the Chronicle, despite repeated requests over a 10-day period.
Much of the church’s outreach work now is done through Internet broadcasts and the printing and translation of church literature, Erickson said. Books are printed in 24 languages, and sales hit an all-time high this year, a February newsletter said.
However, the church continues to operate at a deficit.
“We are not yet out of the woods,” the newsletter said.
The church spends $6 million a year while income is only $5 million. Last year, tithes and donations from members grew to $3 million, an increase that constituted a reversal of a nine-year trend of shrinking donations, according to the newsletters.
There have been snags in the church’s attempts to spread out internationally. In 2003, the church underwent a major internal rift when its board of directors fired several directors of its Moscow, Russia, affiliate. CUT is a growing religion in Russia, despite reports by members of persecution there. Some have been jailed or institutionalized for their religious beliefs, some Russian members said in e-mails.
In lengthy e-mail exchanges obtained by The Chronicle, there were accusations that Russian CUT members were pirating church materials, and counteraccusations that Montana CUT officials demanded expensive luxury hotels paid for by impoverished Russian followers.
The rift lingered for some time, with some church officials accusing the board of directors of heavy handed and unfair treatment.
“When Elizabeth Prophet was in charge, that kind of authoritarian style was acceptable,” Balch said.
She was the boss, the one with a unique pipeline to God.
“Without her, it’s seen as heavy handed and illegitimate,” he continued.
The rift appears to be settled now, and CUT recently has been granted official recognition by the Russian government.
Bradley C. Whitsel, a political science professor at Penn State-Fayette, published a scholarly book about the church in 2003. “The Church Universal and Triumphant: Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s Apocalyptic Movement,” details the church’s history and different incarnations back to the 1950s.
The church lost lots of members and money after apocalypse never arrived, Whitsel found. That, in part, forced some of the land sales.
Now the CUT is trying to refocus itself from its origins, which Whitsel described as “steeped in conspiracy and feelings of besiegement.”
He predicted the rise of “splinter groups,” some focused on survivalism, others focused on more spiritual matters.
In addition to financial challenges, at least eight people around the world are now calling themselves messengers and trying to “undermine the foundation” of the church’s mission, CUT announced in a March 3 memo.
Whitsel predicted that would happen.
“As the church’s attempted metamorphosis takes shape, new splinter organizations will almost certainly appear” and claim the “true” doctrine, he wrote.
Church officials say they predicted it, too.
“Mother and Jesus told us that in the latter days there would be many false prophets in the land who would imitate the voice of the masters,” the memo says. “There is a razor’s edge of difference between a true and false messenger.”
Those are internal matters.
Looking at the church from the outside, observers see a quieter, much smaller operation at the Park County headquarters.
The intensity of the “shelter cycle” is 15 years in the past. The church retains about 6,000 acres at Corwin Springs. And its recent announcement that it intends to build an 18,000-square-foot office building indicates a clear intention to stay put.
“We’re here to stay and we look forward to many decades and centuries of harmonious living with our neighbors and friends,” Erickson said.