Bones of contention
Jan. 25, 2004
Wendy Thomas Russell
ReligionNewsBlog.com • Monday January 26, 2004
But son’s opposition prevents the church from exhuming body.
LONG BEACH — For nearly 27 years, Daniel Sperato’s bones have lain beneath a triangular tombstone in an Escondido cemetery.
His son says that’s where they belong, and that’s where they should stay.
Not everyone agrees.
In life, Sperato was the founder of Morningland, a Long Beach religious sect that combines Eastern and Western religions, metaphysics and astrology. Called “Master Donato,’ Sperato was a revered teacher who brought hope to some hippies in a generation searching for a spiritual path. His mantra: “We are all one.’
- Morningland, Christian Research Institute
In death, the minister’s existence took on new meaning. He was elevated to “Donato the Christ,’ and his church under the leadership of his wife, Patricia evolved into a controversial commune; some call it a cult.
Past members describe an almost-militaristic atmosphere where men were encouraged to get vasectomies, family ties were intentionally shattered and hundreds were excommunicated for no clear reason. Donato, members were told, was in a spaceship hovering 25 miles above the earth’s surface, sending telepathic messages to a few chosen “disciples’ below.
Whether Sperato would have supported Morningland’s evolution is a source of much disagreement. His Long Beach followers, who continue to operate a church at 2600 E. Seventh St., say he would have. Sperato’s son, Marcus, who now lives in Colorado, says he would not.
The disagreement came to an unlikely head this month.
Six months after the death of Patricia Sperato, or Sri Patricia as she was known, members of Morningland formally requested that Daniel Sperato’s body be exhumed and placed in a crypt under the church’s altar.
Sri Patricia has already been buried there, and Morningland officials say they are merely trying to follow the desire of their founders.
“It’s their wishes,’ says one member, who calls herself Zentare. Church officials, she says, want to carry out those wishes “as you would for anyone.’
They’ll have to get around Marcus Sperato first.
Marcus, now 40, rarely saw his mother over the last two decades and doesn’t doubt that she wanted to be buried in her church. But he says his father chose his resting place a long time ago and it wasn’t on Seventh Street.
“I would not want them to move my father,’ he says.
Unless the church decides to seek a court order, Marcus’ opposition may be all it takes to prevent the transfer, according to city and cemetery officials.
Dewey Ausmus, the general manager for the cemetery district that includes Oak Hill Memorial Park, where Daniel Sperato is buried, says the situation is a rarity. Most exhumed bodies, he says, are transferred to other cemeteries at the request of families, not followers.
“We were contacted last week in person by a couple from Morningland who indicated that they were interested in transferring (Sperato’s) body,’ Ausmus says. “They seemed to be wanting to do it fairly soon.’
But, for now at least, the son’s opposition will keep San Diego County from approving a permit to move the body, says Elizabeth Reyes, supervisor in the county’s death-registration office.
“If there’s a will, or if there’s somebody who has custody of the person’s estate, then they’re the ones that have authority,’ she says. “If there’s a conflict there, they would probably have to settle that through the court.’
The burial of Sri Patricia was a different matter.
Mike Qualters, a records supervisor at Forest Lawn Memorial Park & Mortuary in Long Beach, which handled the burial, says Sri Patricia’s body was transferred to Morningland church July 21 for burial at the request of a church member who had been given her durable power of attorney for health care. Forest Lawn, Qualters says, doesn’t even have her next of kin on record.
While unusual, burying Sri Patricia in her church required no special authorization, says Michael Johnson, a support services manager for the Long Beach’s Health and Human Services Department, which approved the burial permit.
“Under state law, church organizations are allowed to conduct burials on site,’ he says. “And they qualify under state law.’
Zentare says Morningland officials don’t care to discuss details of the burial plans, or to allow the press inside the church.
“We’re not really interested in any publicity,’ she says. At its peak of popularity, Morningland boasted up to 2,000 members and had chapters in Escondido and Crestline.
In 1977, the church, a nonprofit organization called Morningland Corp., bought the Seventh Street property, a former Jewish temple with several adjacent storefronts between Molino and Ohio avenues, for $119,000. The storefronts were used by Morningland to sell clothes and books. The church had a publishing arm to dispense its own material.
Today, Morningland’s membership has dwindled to less than 100, and the property assessed at $750,000 is almost entirely without distinguishing features. While the landscaping is well-kept and attractive, the yellow-stucco building has few windows left, and storefront doors have been tastefully covered.
The only indications that Morningland still exists inside are some pictures of angels adorning a window near the front entrance, and a modest poster advertising “Morningland Community.’
Angels replaced UFOs as a central force in Morningland’s dogma in the 1990s, after members of the Heaven’s Gate cult in Rancho Santa Fe committed mass suicide in an effort to ascend to an awaiting spaceship in the sky.
“They backed off UFOs,’ says Anne Spera, a former member and good friend of Marcus Sperato. “Now, they’re into angels. ‘Angels’ is the key word now.’
Zentare, of Morningland, says membership totals are elusive, especially because so many people attend only on occasion. She describes today’s Morningland in straightforward language.
“We’re a simple prayer group,’ she says. “We have meditations. We teach simple meditation.’
That wasn’t always the case.
Shortly after her husband’s death, Sri Patricia began redefining Morningland. In addition to aura, numerology, tarot card and palm readings, Morningland also began to tout miracles and mind-reading. Sri Patricia, who claimed she could read people’s thoughts and communicate with her dead husband, proceeded to “purge’ all those members accused of not putting Morningland above themselves.
The excommunicated, many of whom believed that the only way to heaven was to be one of Donato’s disciples, were devastated. At least one committed suicide, according to Al Stone, a Santa Monica acupuncturist and ex-member who now runs a Web site called www.ex-morninglanders.com. Others tried to return and were turned away. Dozens sought psychiatric counseling, and now say they believe they were led astray at best.
“I was fooled,’ says Stone, who was forced to leave in 1982. “Had they kept me around, I think I’d still be there. It’s a blessing (that I left), even though at the time it felt like a curse.’
In addition to advertising miracle healings, the church also made public predictions about the future.
One high-ranking official, called a gopi, told a group of Long Beach residents in January 1978 that it looked “very good’ that former Gov. Jerry Brown would be the next president (it was Ronald Reagan), and that “Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ would surpass “Star Wars’ by $10 million at the box office (it didn’t).
For the next decade, scandals plagued the group.
In 1980, a San Diego County grand jury indicted Sri Patricia and Morningland’s longtime attorney, Ed Masry, on charges of attempting to bribe Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally. The alleged bribe $10,000 of church money was to be laundered through Masry’s office and used to set up a rigged state Assembly committee to investigate possible police harassment of nonmainstream religious groups, authorities said.
Masry, who since has become famous thanks to a movie based on the life of his real-life assistant Erin Brockovich, strongly denied the accusations and eventually was acquitted. Dymally never was charged, though he later said he believed the scandal injured him politically. Officials dropped their case against Sri Patricia.
Morningland’s claims of miracle healings also drew fire.
In 1986, an AIDS patient said he paid Morningland more than $700 in 2 months to be healed of his disease, only to find his condition worsen. At the time, Sri Patricia was advertising that she could heal AIDS, but later said she never suggested patients stop seeking medical attention.
Also, in the mid-’80s, ex-Morningland members began breaking the sect’s code of silence and speaking out about the group. They described an extreme form of “free love,’ in which men were encouraged to get vasectomies, couples were encouraged to break up and pair with members of the same sex, and marriages were sometimes arranged.
“The peace and love gave way to discipline and obedience,’ Stone says.
In December 1986, the controversy surrounding Morningland came to an explosive climax.
A Bellflower man named Thomas McCoy placed a bomb just outside the church, and partially detonated it, shattering windows and blackening a nearby wall. A bomb squad spent the next seven hours trying to defuse the bomb, so that the rest of it wouldn’t explode and destroy the entire city block. They eventually detonated it safely.
McCoy told authorities he was trying to protect his sister, who allegedly was threatened and harassed after breaking up with a Morningland member and leaving the group. McCoy was sentenced to three years in prison.
Since then, Morningland has stayed relatively low-key. Members have purchased an apartment complex across Seventh Street, where some live. And they still hold services, classes and seminars. But without Sri Patricia at the helm, Morningland’s future remains uncertain.
For Marcus Sperato, the church holds more bad memories than good.
He says he fondly remembers his father, who directed the North Long Beach Boys Club for years, even after founding Morningland.
“My dad actually started the church to help people,’ Marcus said. “People were looking around to find something that felt good for them, find something different. … He was real good with people.’
But Marcus says he strongly believes his mother’s greed corrupted the church and damaged him. He describes how, as a child, his mother made him spy on other members of the church, and how she disowned him after he chose to leave, even though he was only 18.
“My mom saw the power that was there,’ he says, “and she took it to the extreme. Everything got twisted around, and everything went down real quick. … Dad wouldn’t have supported it.’
Marcus could be talking about himself.
Although he doesn’t say much about the sad turn his life took in adulthood, his friends who are sympathetic and deeply protective say he spiraled into homelessness, drug addiction and alcoholism. Without a family connection, they say, he didn’t stand a chance.
They say the saddest part is that he doesn’t have the money or means to assert his rights as an heir to Morningland. He says the church didn’t inform him of his mother’s death or the burial plans, and he has no way to gather his parents’ personal effects. Marcus is also searching for his sister, Lynn Connell, with whom he lost contact years ago.
The church, he says, won’t return his phone calls or letters, and he’s confident he would be turned away at the door.
Zentare contends that the church would give Marcus permission to come inside, and she says she’s not sure why no one has received Marcus’ recent telephonic and written messages.
Today, Daniel Sperato’s headstone in Escondido bears the unmistakable mark of Morningland. The pyramid- shaped stone reads “Master Donato’ and includes two dates: one indicating his “Avesha’ in 1971, the other indicating his “Maha Samadi’ in 1976. Both are Sanskrit terms used in yogic literature and refer to the day Sperato gained his power as a master, and the day he departed the living and “ascended’ as a saint. The words are accompanied by Morningland’s symbol a triangle with a rising sun and a flame in the middle.
And, of course, it includes his favorite incantation: “We are all one.’
Marcus Sperato said he doesn’t go to visit his father’s grave site often. But he likes the idea of knowing he can.
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