A tiny church, a pot of gold, an ex-con spark a bitter feud

There are many places you would expect to find a South Boston hoodlum like Eddie MacKenzie on a Sunday morning, but the pulpit of the Swedenborgian Church on Beacon Hill is not one of them.

Still, there he was one recent Sunday, standing before the congregation, championing the right of this 186-year-old church to secede from the national organization of this tiny Christian sect.

“There is a renewed spirit of freedom and independence in our church,” MacKenzie told the 50 or so worshipers. “We need to truly believe we are God’s disciples. . . . We are filled with a revolutionary energy and spirit.”

As if on cue, the choir broke into “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Not that everyone in the pews felt like singing along. George Chapin, a church stalwart for half a century, remembers watching MacKenzie, dumbfounded, and thinking, “What the hell is going on here?”

Edward J. MacKenzie Jr. is a man of parts — many parts. A convicted drug dealer, he is the author of a maim-and-tell memoir about his years as a legbreaker for South Boston gangland leader Whitey Bulger.

He has been, as he describes himself, a man almost irresistibly drawn to cons and scams. He recently admitted to filing phony worker’s compensation claims and is awaiting trial on charges of swindling $200,000 from an elderly woman. And he faces charges in another court that he threatened to kill his ex-wife by chaining a cinderblock to her leg and throwing her off a bridge.

He is, in short, a busy man.

But he finds time for church. Indeed, within months of joining, be became part of a new leadership circle that is shaking the rafters at Boston’s Swedenborgian church — and raising doubts among some about how the church’s wealth is being spent.

Upfront about his prolific rap sheet, MacKenzie has won an ally in the church’s longtime pastor, the Rev. G. Steven Ellis, who sees him as a man who turned his back on crime, a sinner seeking spiritual sanctuary. Ellis, a Bible scholar who has been pastor of the Boston church for 22 years, has sided with MacKenzie against church elders, who are skeptical of MacKenzie’s conversion and worried about his motives. Ellis did more than take MacKenzie’s side. He nominated him for church treasurer, pushing aside his own mother-in-law.

And so in September, MacKenzie took office. It seemed like a very auspicious move.

For while the Bowdoin Street church is poor in numbers, it is rich by any other measure — and may soon become much richer. The church owns an 18-story apartment building above its chapel that churns out more than $1 million a year in clear profit, according to an October audit by the church’s accountant. And a plan has been floated in Boston real estate circles to convert the building to condominiums, a move that the church estimates could yield as much as $75 million.

The new leaders say they are trying to reenergize a moribund institution, to recruit new members and more aggressively manage church assets. There are already indications, beyond the possible conversion of the building, of a more freewheeling approach to church finances.

The church trustees recently voted to make a $350,000 loan to one of the new church leaders — a loan authorized but apparently not used. A lump sum of $850,000 has been transferred to a real estate company in which MacKenzie and another church leader were founding officers. And church bylaws have been changed to make it easier to sell church property and to remove a ban on church leaders’ profiting from such sales.

They are the kinds of changes that deeply unsettle some longtime church members, changes that led the national church to file a civil racketeering lawsuit against the new leadership March 2 in US District Court.

The suit claims the new leaders “have utilized a pattern of racketeering activity to wrongfully take control of a 185-year-old church to obtain dominion over its $30 million apartment house, which now generates more than $1.2 million in annual income.” The suit seeks to void the memberships of more than 40 people who joined the church in the last two years, and to transfer the church’s assets to the national organization.

“MacKenzie is a criminal,” the suit alleges. “He has infiltrated the Church only to access its resources for his own personal benefit.”

Chapin, one of the plaintiffs, said many of the new members were rushed into the church, without proper training in Swedenborgianism, to rubberstamp the self-serving agenda of the new leadership.

“A lot of these people can’t even spell Swedenborgian, let alone know what it means,” he said.

Christine Laitner, the vice president of the national Swedenborgian organization, says her group authorized the Boston law firm of Holland & Knight to file the suit “to protect not just the assets of the Boston church, but the history and the legacy and the purpose behind the establishment of this church.”

“What’s happened in Boston is a shame,” she said.

The Boston church’s lawyer, Gerald P. Hendrick of Edwards & Angell, calls the lawsuit meritless, while MacKenzie and other church leaders dismiss it as sour grapes.

“Some of these older members appear to have an ax to grind,” Hendrick said.

Word that a man of MacKenzie’s reputation would have a hand in deciding how the church spends its wealth has also filtered to the office of Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly. And almost as soon as Reilly’s investigators began snooping around the church last November, demanding its financial records, MacKenzie stepped down as treasurer. He is now the church’s chief of operations.

With his hangdog eyes and what-me-worry disposition, 45-year-old Eddie MacKenzie seems serene as he contemplates the maelstrom he helped create. He says he’ll beat the rap in his upcoming trials. His accusers are lying, he says, and besides, he’s got religion. When he was a young thug, selling coke on street corners and roughing up rivals, his horizon stretched no farther than Winter Hill in Somerville, where Irish plug-uglies plotted mayhem and formed a gang named after the hill, a gang whose boss was Whitey Bulger. Now MacKenzie sits in a church on Beacon Hill, a new man.

“I love this church,” he says. “I’ve kind of found my niche.”

The Church on the Hill

Boston’s Swedenborgian church, known legally as the Boston Society of the New Jerusalem, known colloquially as the Church on the Hill, is named for the 18th-century Swedish scientist and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, who believed that Jesus Christ has already made a second coming, in spirit rather than in person.

Swedenborg’s unorthodox analysis of the Bible was denounced as heresy by some mainstream Christians, but it quickly won adherents. Among the tenets of Swedenborgianism is that believers, not God, decide their own afterlife.

“The church is within man,” he wrote.

Swedenborg died in 1772, at the age of 84, and the first group of Swedenborgians organized themselves in London 15 years later. By the early 1800s, churches were sprouting up in the United States.

The church spread rapidly in an era of spiritual and intellectual awakening. It was at the forefront of what today would be called progressive thinking. In the mid-19th century, the church advocated for coeducation. In the 1920s, one of its most prominent members, Helen Keller, led the fight for rights for the disabled. Today, the movement is greatly diminished, though there are affiliated churches in more than 30 countries. There are five Swedenborgian congregations in Massachusetts. Officials at the national office in Newton say there are about 1,500 active Swedenborgians nationwide, down from 2,600 a decade ago.

The Boston congregation, founded in 1818 by a group of Harvard students and alumni, is the fourth oldest, and became what Marguerite Block, a church historian, called “the real center of the New Church” in America. New England has long occupied a special place in the church’s history, in part because some of the region’s leading intellectuals, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Henry James, were influenced by Swedenborg’s writings. Among the region’s most famous Swedenborgians were the poet Robert Frost and a Leominister native named John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed.

The Swedenborgians’ first church in Boston, a Gothic cathedral built in 1844 on Bowdoin Street, adjacent to the State House, had seating for more than 1,000. But as the years passed on, so did many of the Brahmins who made up much of the congregation. With numbers down and the oversize church crumbling, the congregation decided in 1966 to tear the edifice down and replace it with an apartment building that housed a small church. The ground-floor chapel has room for about 100; the 145 apartments above would yield, they hoped, sufficient income to sustain the local disciples of Swedenborg for generations to come.

And, as it had for generations, the church on Beacon Hill dispensed its version of Christianity and did its good works in relative obscurity. Whatever was left over from paying for upkeep of the apartment building was used to pay for college educations for members’ children and, occasionally, a deserving charity case. But it has the means to do much more. With about 100 members, and a mortgage-free building that real estate appraisers say is worth at least $30 million, the church is surely, per capita, among the wealthiest to be found.

A time of turmoil And so it was, almost two years ago, that Eddie MacKenzie arrived at the Boston church at a time of extraordinary economic opportunity. But it was also a time of unprecedented turmoil, a feud in the church’s leading family, in fact.

Ellis, the pastor, had had a bitter falling out with his wife’s parents, Bobby and Joan Buchanan, who for more than a decade had been officers in the church. Joan Buchanan was treasurer, and she was generally given high marks by the membership for managing its finances. But in recent years, Ellis and the Buchanans have clashed with increasing frequency over church matters. At the church’s annual membership meeting last May, Ellis handed out a flier with the names of church officers he planned to vote for. His in-laws were not on the list, but Eddie MacKenzie was. Later, the Buchanans were expelled from the church.

The Buchanans declined to be interviewed by the Globe. But Ellis said they took their concerns to the church’s state and national organizations, saying they worried about his mental stability.

Would any man of good judgment, they wondered, have so swiftly turned the church’s leadership over to MacKenzie? Or to Thomas J. Kennedy, a former MBTA auditor who, while never accused of wrongdoing like MacKenzie, was one of MacKenzie’s early supporters and became, within a year of joining, the church president?

Some longtime members, like Thomas Peebles, whose family has been in the church since its founding, were similarly distraught at the change in leadership and direction.

“Many of us,” said Peebles, a physician and former head of the Harvard Community Health Plan, “are understandably distressed at the hostile takeover by a newly elected and closely knit group of friends and relatives, which include an admittedly criminal element among its leaders.”

Last August, the national organization’s Misconduct Determination Board took up the Buchanans’ cause and sent Ellis a letter saying it was “very concerned about the physical, mental, and spiritual health of Steve Ellis.” The board proposed appointing a consultant “from outside the Swedenborgian Church” who could work with Ellis in, among other things, “assuring fiscal propriety.”

Ellis, whose three decades in Boston have done little to diminish a downhome drawl from his native Kentucky, looks something like Friar Tuck, with his beard and ample girth. But his demeanor took on a furious edge after he learned that his in-laws and the national and state associations had joined forces against him.

“My integrity and service to the Church has been defamed,” Ellis wrote in his letter of resignation to the national group. “I have been treated worse than a criminal.”

At Ellis’s prompting, and with MacKenzie’s and Kennedy’s active lobbying of church members, the church abruptly severed ties with the national organization to which it had been bound since its founding, and quit the state association with which it had been affiliated since 1835.

MacKenzie says the critics of the new church leadership badly miscalculated the membership’s loyalty to Ellis.

“They attacked Steve’s integrity when they should have attacked me and Tom Kennedy,” MacKenzie said. “No one complained when I came into the church and was just serving food or cleaning up. Once they found out I was running for treasurer, I became a legbreaker. It’s OK to throw someone like me a bone, but not with any meat on it.”

Liberated from the oversight of the national and state associations, Ellis, Kennedy, and MacKenzie set about insulating their church from what Ellis described in an interview as “outside enemies.”

Under a new set of church bylaws drawn up in November, it became much easier, and much faster, for new members to join. Ellis was given complete discretion in deciding who would be confirmed and how. Newcomers can now be admitted by a simple majority vote of existing church members; before, a two-thirds vote was required. Required doctrinal training, emphasizing Swedenborg’s writings, was eliminated.

Gone, too, was a provision that any sale of church property be approved by two-thirds of members, and one that barred individuals from enriching themselves with church assets. A new provision calls for the expulsion of members deemed unworthy by a simple majority.

There is one other new mandate. Any changes to church property must now “be directed by a Director of Operations.”

That would be Eddie MacKenzie.

He says he knows very well what his critics think: that he and a band of cronies are pocketing cash, spending it freely, squirreling it away in new accounts. It is baseless and insulting talk, he says.

“You can’t take money here. There are systems in place. I couldn’t steal money here even if I wanted to,” he says, hesitating slightly before adding, “and I don’t want to.”

`He preys on people’ So how did the New Church and MacKenzie, Swedenborg’s and Southie’s own, come together?

MacKenzie says he was first attracted to the church when a friend told him that one of its traditions was to pay college tuition for members’ children. But he says his goal now is to put the church’s wealth to work for the disadvantaged, not himself. He said he is doing so well financially, between book sales and what he said is a soon-to-be-finalized movie deal, that he may not even need to ask the church to pay for the college educations of his five daughters.

MacKenzie says he has not read much of Swedenborg but had read enough to appreciate his “genius.” He says it was Ellis’s charismatic sermons that captured his imagination.

“It was more about him talking about Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett than Emanuel Swedenborg,” he said of Ellis’s proselytizing.

Ellis says his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was a close friend of Boone’s.

MacKenzie says he did not hide his past from Ellis or anyone else he met at the church.

Ellis bought 50 copies of his book and gave them to church members.

The book, “Street Soldier: My Life as an Enforcer for Whitey Bulger and the Boston Irish Mob,” is an account of MacKenzie’s disadvantaged childhood and life of crime. In it, he gleefully describes the pleasure he took in mayhem, including swallowing a finger he bit off an adversary. Some critics have called the book a wildly embellished tale of his role in Whitey’s world.

MacKenzie’s book is also frank about how hard he has found it to leave behind his criminal life.

“Crime is a way of life, an addiction,” he writes.

In the final chapter, he observes: “Every day I face a choice: continue to change or fall back to the comfortable, darker ways of my predator side. Too often I retreat to scams and doing `collections’ for people. The money is good and easy, and the accompanying rush of adrenaline is probably close to what one gets in closing a legitimate business deal.”

When asked whether she believes her former husband has changed his ways, Carla MacKenzie laughs ruefully before answering.

“There is no redemption in this story,” she says. “I don’t think Eddie could change even if he wanted to. . . . He preys on people with good hearts and takes them for what they are worth. I went through seven years of hell and therapy. I feel sorry for those people at that church.”

In a criminal complaint for which Eddie MacKenzie is awaiting trial in Boston Municipal Court, Carla said that on Dec. 23, 2002, a month after he was accepted as a member of the church, Eddie called her after finding out she was a witness against him in a worker’s compensation fraud case. According to the complaint, she told police that he “swore on his kids’ life that he would kill her if she ever testified against him.” Specifically, she said, he would have her “legs chained to a cinderblock and have her thrown over a bridge.”

MacKenzie says that his former wife is lying, and that she has a pathological desire to destroy him.

Though he vigorously defends his honor in the pending cases, MacKenzie says he understands why some people would think ill of him.

“For some people, I’m always going to be a scumbag,” he says. “There’s nothing I can do about that.”

Ellis, for his part, sees MacKenzie as bringing just the sort of new blood the church needs. Unlike some of those now complaining about the new direction of the church, he said, MacKenzie has not missed a service since joining.

“The disgruntled people said: `We need doctors and lawyers and professionals. We don’t need bums.’ Well, I found that under the bum stuff were some brilliant people,” Ellis says.

MacKenzie also sees snobbery behind the opposition.

“There are about six or seven families who are complaining,” he says. “This church was the best kept secret on Beacon Hill. These people were taking care of their families and their relatives, not the church. . . . We’ve opened up the church, and we’re going to continue to open it up.”

Certainly, the new regime has brought many new members in. Church records show that at least 45 of its 105 members joined the church over the past two years, 28 of those in just the past year. MacKenzie said he’s brought in about 10 friends and relatives.

Ellis says that shows an open-door policy. Disgruntled members say the new regime stocked the pond with loyalists.

Ellis, meanwhile, says he is not troubled by MacKenzie’s notorious past.

“Paul,” the minister said, “was a murderer” before he became a saint.

Other Swedenborgians are more skeptical. The Rev. Lee Woofenden, pastor of a Swedenborgian church in Bridgewater, says he read MacKenzie’s book and was disturbed.

“I’m a minister, and I believe in redemption,” Woofenden says. “I believe people can reform. But I’m also a pragmatic person, and I don’t believe that you take people who have been convicted of wrongdoing and put them in charge of your church. I think the Boston church has acted irresponsibly by putting a convicted felon in such a position of authority.”

Financial maneuvers Whether it is bold leadership, or, as the lawsuit alleges, some sort of self-serving conspiracy, the new power brokers at the church have been hard at work.

Late last year, John B. Burke, who replaced MacKenzie as treasurer Dec. 6, just a month after becoming a church member, began approaching property developers, asking if they were interested in converting the apartment building into condominiums.

Burke is the former co-owner of a South Boston nightclub who now works at a real estate firm on Cape Cod. In the early 1990s, he unsuccessfully tried to open an upscale strip club in the Combat Zone.

A Boston College graduate, he was an enthusiastic convert to Swedenborgianism. Upon being accepted as a member of the church in November he asked to be baptized in the Charles River.

And he is bringing his business smarts to bear on church finances. One property developer who saw the church’s proposal Burke was circulating among potential investors, and who asked not to be identified, told the Globe, “They are looking for the capital and the ability to convert it.”

The developer said the church’s proposal estimated that, depending on the quality of the converted condos, the project could fetch up to $75 million — proceeds that, if properly invested, the church could live off of perpetually. Former leaders of the church said they, too, had considered selling off the building but decided that funding the church with steady rents was a better option than cashing out.

Filings in the secretary of state’s office, meanwhile, show that MacKenzie and Burke formed a private real estate company, Harborview Real Estate Corp., on Nov. 12. It was, as it happens, one day before the attorney general wrote to the church, demanding its records.

Burke says the idea of converting the apartments to condos is just one of several options the new leadership is considering. “These are very informal discussions,” he says.

Burke says that Harborview is owned by the church, that it was created as “an investment vehicle” in which church leaders could have access to church funds that were previously tied up with the company that manages the apartment building. He says $850,000 was deposited into Harborview, with “a lot of money in annuities,” and that the new corporation provides “normal diversified” flexibility.

Hendrick, the church’s lawyer, says MacKenzie was recently removed as an officer of Harborview, which he described as being wholly owned by Bostonview, the corporation that owns the apartment building, which is wholly owned by the church.

If Harborview was created legally, it was also created quietly. Several church members told the Globe they’ve never heard of it.

The Globe obtained an internal church document showing that church trustees and directors on Nov. 12 authorized Kennedy to borrow $350,000 from the church to buy a $423,500 home in Plainville. Kennedy said he subsequently turned down the loan.

“I declined it because of everything that was going on,” he says. “The timing was wrong.”

John Perry, who was baptized in the Boston church in 1929 and who was voted off the board of trustees last year, says the sudden, wholesale change in leadership, and the moving of large sums of money, was rash.

“It makes no sense, but it makes cents, as in dollars and cents,” says Perry, who is suspicious of the new leaders.

The future The attorney general is looking over their shoulder. Their erstwhile co-religionists have sued them. But the new leaders say they are undaunted as they reconfigure their obscure church into what they hope is a bigger presence in the city.

On Feb. 8, about 50 people gathered at the church for the 316th birthday of Emanuel Swedenborg. They listened as a Croatian minister for a different Swedenborg sect described how when he took over a church in Pennsylvania years ago, the congregation was fighting among itself. The older members thought they had the right to dictate to the younger ones. Sitting in a chair behind the visiting preacher, Steve Ellis closed his eyes and nodded.

“Praise God,” Ellis said.

After the service, the congregation, many of them elderly, a few of them children, moved upstairs and took their seats on long tables with paper tablecloths and plastic cups of juice and soda to watch a play about Swedenborg’s correspondence with the Queen of Sweden. Two actors in period costumes traded bon mots, a performance that was greeted with a mixture of smiles and seeming bewilderment from the audience.

“Most of these people are poor,” Eddie MacKenzie said, surveying the room from the back, his arms folded.

He says these people are getting better food, better treatment, more respect, than they did under the old regime. There are more field trips. He’s started a senior luncheon.

MacKenzie’s got plans, big plans. He envisions the church putting on more theatrical performances for a wider public. He likes the idea of the church sponsoring youth athletic teams.

“Why not a team from Southie and a team from Roxbury, wearing uniforms with the church’s name on them?” he asks.

All this costs money, but as Eddie MacKenzie says, “We’ve got the money.”

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