CUT at 50: Hoping to move into the mainstream
My story hit the AP wire today.
CORWIN SPRINGS –The Church Universal and Triumphant has
completed a $2.2 million chapel and an 18,000 square-foot office
complex on its Corwin Springs property north of Gardiner, in time for
its 50th anniversary celebration held early in July.
After years of controversy and preparation for a nuclear
apocalypse that never materialized, weapons charges and environmental
lawsuits, the New Age organization has been out of the news in recent
Former leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet has been in a Bozeman assisted care arrangement with Alzheimer's disease since 2000, but her message
"We've had some sensationalist press coverage over the
years," said church Co-President Rev. Lois Drake. "We want to be
Mark L. Prophet founded the organization as The Summit
Lighthouse in 1958. His wife, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, a New Jersey
native and Boston University graduate in political science,
established The Church Universal and Triumphant in 1974. She
permanently moved its headquarters from Southern California to
Paradise Valley in 1987 to a property purchased in 1981 from the late
Malcom Forbes. Today, the property is known as the Royal Teton Ranch.
"We have local chapters in over 250 communities worldwide," Drake said.
The New Age organization is seeking to change its image from
a bunker-dwelling doomsday cult to a mainstream religious
organization, CUT observers have said.
The new chapel is serving as inspiration for that
worldwide membership, Drake said.
King Arthur's Court
According to CUT's Web site, the new complex, called "King
Arthur's Court," will "beautify this place prepared by the Ascended
Masters for millions of seekers - the place where the messenger
Elizabeth Clare Prophet stood and delivered the Word for the Aquarian
"We completed the main office building in 2006," said Drake,
a pleasant, tall, Southern California native during a visit last
week. It houses the offices of the presidents, Summit University and
The Summit University Press, which produces and distributes materials
The reception foyer is in the center of the room, accoutered
with fine furniture. On one wall, a portrait of Mark Prophet faces
another of his wife across the room.
"This is the great room," Drake said of the two-story wall of
windows that open to a grassy courtyard facing the new chapel topped
with a golden-peaked lighthouse tower.
"It's important to have a beautiful environment and to blend
with Montana," Drake said, "and for visitors to have a nice place to
gather when they come here from all over the world."
The whole property was lined with large tent structures
currently being torn down by crews of teens.
"The young people like to help set up and take down the tents
for the conference," she said of the event held July 1-8. "We had
2,000 people here at the anniversary conference."
Inside the chapel foyer, another portrait of Elizabeth Clare
Prophet, smiling, watches over the entrance.
"We haven't got the door handles installed yet," Drake said
of the brown, double-arched doors. Inside, was an arched, tiled
ceiling and rows of seats leading to an altar framed with a portrait
of Christ on one side and Ascended Master St. Germain.
The new chapel, formerly a barn, cost 2.2 million dollars, Drake said.
"It's paid for, but we're collecting funds through donations
to recover that amount," she said. "Construction began in May 2007."
The chapel project includes: Lighthouse Tower; two rooms for
classrooms and fellowship; a small chapel for weddings, non-English
services and other events; and a room for families with viewing
window. In the family room, Drake pointed to a purple glass light
"This chandelier was in our Malibu, California headquarters,
so there's history here as well as the new," she said.
The bookstore in the complex sells numerous copies of the
organization's publications, which are translated into several
foreign languages. There were many Buddha's and Shiva statues for
sale, reflecting the church's embrace of Far Eastern religions.
"We sold out of many items during the conference," Drake said.
There were bins of buttons with likenesses on them, including
that of Mark and Elizabeth Prophet, for sale.
Faith and taxes
According to the doctrine of the church, Ascended Masters
"are enlightened spiritual beings who once lived on the Earth, and
over the course of many lifetimes of devotion and striving, they
fulfilled their mission for being - their divine plan - and ascended
back to their divine source, reuniting with Spirit."
Followers believe these beings are the spiritual guides and
the teachers of mankind, who instruct spiritual evolution of all
those who desire to unite with divine consciousness, or God,
according to the church's website.
"The essence is unity with God," Drake said.
The church recently retained a partial tax-exempt status from
the Montana Department of Revenue for its main bomb shelter, built to
house hundreds, because it is used it for religious purposes as
storage facilities for religious material, according to state records.
"The underground structure is being assessed at 50 percent of
the value," said Mark J. Olson, area manager for Park, Meagher,
Broadwater and Madison counties for the Montana Department of
Revenue, in a recent e-mail. "All remaining structures are being
assessed at 100 percent of their value. However the Chapel, Old
Montessori School, and three log cabins are exempt."
Drake commented on the controversial shelter phase of CUT's
history of 1989-1990, when Prophet predicted a nuclear holocaust
commanded members into the underground shelter in March 1990.
"It was a long time ago," she said. "We're moving forward
based on universal and time-tested tenants, helping our congregants
achieve their spiritual path."
Sean Prophet comments
Mark and Elizabeth Prophet's son Sean, 36, sees the CUT and
its new chapel in a different light.
Sean Prophet, 36, now a film editor in Los Angeles who left
the church in 1993, was present and helped build the 756-person
underground structure during the shelter phase.
He writes on his Web site, www.blacksunjournal.com, "Church
Universal and Triumphant is a cult that has now survived past its
founding generation. Though the organization faltered for a few
years, it now seems to have stabilized and shows no signs of
disintegrating. As long as there are people who need the particular
brand of Ascended Masters teachings my parents offered, their
successors will continue to propagate their messianic zeal."
In a telephone interview last week, Prophet said the church
is putting the best face it can on a failed prophecy.
"It's bad fruit from a bad tree," he said. "The (new chapel)
is a meeting house for the community to give them a place to go. They
raised $2 million for that, but that doesn't hide the fact they spent
$20 million on shelters for nothing. They ruined a lot of peoples'
The time after the shelter event was a turning point for Sean
Prophet, who began to question the teachings he'd grown up with. He
walked away from a powerful position as a minister of the church
and denounced its beliefs.
"They made it all up," he said. "These religious ideas have
been handed down from one person to another throughout the centuries,
drawing from earlier fictional accounts, such as the books of Guy and
Edna Ballard, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, and others, and my parents
just picked ideas they agreed with.
"In the end," he said, "It's all about the money, buildings
and who gains the most."
Prophet said he knew the new chapel building well.
"There's an underground shelter under there, too," he said.
"There are steel trap doors in the floor near the altar. They may
have covered it up."
The main bomb shelter Sean Prophet helped build, which he and
members entered to escape a feared holocaust, is located in a high
meadow at the end of Mol Heron Creek Road, five miles above the main
compound behind a big log gate on which is a sign, "RTR," for Royal
A no-trespassing sign is posted on the gate.
"That's where they hold their retreats," Prophet said.
"It's our Heart," Drake said. "The spiritual center of the
ranch. We take the young people on wildlife hikes up there. The bears
and mountain lions are doing very well, so we keep everyone together."
Near the end of Mol Heron Creek Road sits a collection of
more white tent structures atop an embankment with railroad tie
steps. A short way beyond, the county road ends at the closed gate to the big meadow.
"The bones of a failed prophecy," Prophet said, "are buried
up in Mol Heron Canyon."
Mark A. York