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Leader of controversial church group dies

Bozeman Daily Chronicle/October 17, 2009

By Amanda Ricker and Karin Ronnow

Elizabeth Clare Prophet, longtime spiritual leader of the controversial Church Universal and Triumphant, died Thursday evening at her apartment in Bozeman. She was 70.

She suffered from advanced Alzheimer's disease and died with her daughter, Moira, and granddaughter by her side, her daughter, Erin Prophet, said Friday.

The longtime spiritual leader of the controversial church died Thursday evening at her apartment in Bozeman. She was 70. As the charismatic leader of the New Age sect that many considered cult-like, Prophet led her followers along a path that over the years included apocalyptic predictions, run-ins with local environmental groups, legal trouble and even a late-in-life "miracle" pregnancy that resulted in the birth of her fifth child when she was 55 years old.

Prophet retired from the church in 1999, but her followers still call her "Mother" and listen faithfully to the dictations she recorded while channeling messages from the "Ascended Masters" over the years. A much smaller CUT than the one Prophet moved from California to Montana in the mid-1980s continues to operate from its headquarters on the Royal Teton Ranch in Corwin Springs.

Although Prophet led a private life, largely away from the church, for the past decade due to her illness, CUT President Valerie McBride said Friday that the woman who led the church for 25 years will be greatly missed.

"She has uplifted millions with her message of spiritual liberation and we're very excited about carrying that message forward," McBride said.

Murray Steinman, former CUT spokesman who, along with Erin Prophet, served as Elizabeth's legal guardian for the past decade, said despite how the media painted Prophet, she had a brilliant mind and cared about people.

"She made a real contribution to not just religious and spiritual thought, but to try to help people lead better lives," Steinman said.

The church hasn't been generated much in the way of news since Prophet retired, noted Carlo Cieri, a Park County commissioner from 1985 to 1995, the years when the CUT was making a lot of headlines..

"Now, they're kind of a real low profile," Cieri said.

Early years

Prophet, born in Red Bank, N.J. and also known as Guru Ma, became the church's leader after her second husband and founder of the group, Mark Prophet, died in 1973. Mark Prophet had founded the group in 1958 under the name The Summit Lighthouse. Mark and Elizabeth had four children together.

After Mark's death, Elizabeth Clare took over the teachings, which involved an eclectic mix of karma and reincarnations, belief in celestial beings that spoke through her, and bits and pieces of Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, astrology and Confucianism.

Prophet was said to have extraordinary abilities, capable of serving as an earthly conduit for the "Ascended Masters."

Even those who weren't followers noticed her ability to mesmerize a crowd.

"She charmed lots of people," said Bob Raney, who was Livingston's representative to the Montana Legislature from 1985 to 2000. "When you went in a room and she was there, you understood it. She had quite an aura, no doubt about it."

The church moved several times in the early years, finding a home in Colorado, California, and, in 1986, on the Royal Teton Ranch, a 12,000-acre spread on the Yellowstone River Prophet had bought from publisher Malcolm Forbes for $7 million in 1981.

She intended to create an exclusive, self-reliant community on the ranch just north of Yellowstone National Park. Church members and their leaders considered the ranch their promised land, and moved n some from as far away as Europe and South America n to Park County in numbers that caught locals off guard.

"They came here in swarms and they had some real smart people who had doctorates and other big degrees," Cieri said.

But many locals had a hard time with the New Age theology Prophet was preaching, including the CUT's emphasis on dictations from religious and historical figures that ranged from Jesus Christ to an obscure French count, St. Germain, who in past lives was believed to be Jesus' father Joseph, from Merlin the Magician to Christopher Columbus.

Prophet also believed in reincarnation and told followers that in past lives she had been Marie Antoinette, King Arthur's Queen Guinevere and the Biblical figure Martha.

Shelter years

After moving the organization to Royal Teton Ranch, Prophet put her staff and members to work building the largest private underground bomb shelter in the United States. CUT leaders were also quietly amassing an arsenal of weapons and armored vehicles, led in part by Prophet's fourth husband, Ed Francis.

All of this revolved around Prophet's prediction that the end of the world was imminent and that her followers needed to be prepared.

Construction of the 756-person bomb shelter, however, brought the CUT a lot of unwanted attention. It was built up Mol Heron Creek, in an alpine meadow called "The Heart of the Inner Retreat." Environmentalists, already worried that the mushrooming community threatened the ecological balance of Yellowstone National Park, complained loudly that the state needed to intervene and insure water quality and wildlife in the area were protected.

The state stepped in and did an environmental review, ultimately giving the CUT the go-ahead for the shelter.

Less than a year later, word got out that Prophet was predicting the world would end in March 1990.

"That's when it really got strange," Raney said. "There was a frenzy about getting ready for the end."

Members had also been instructed to build similar shelters in Glastonbury, a Paradise Valley subdivision then limited to members of the sect.

On the night of March 15, 1990, hundreds if not thousands of CUT members entered the bomb shelters. Some had quit jobs and run up big debt, anticipating the apocalypse.

"There was car after car heading up the valley," Cieri said. "Some of them were crying because they didn't think they'd get in (a shelter) before the world ended."

But nothing happened.

Church officials maintained the next day the whole thing had been a drill.


In its heyday, the church had 600 employees at Corwin Springs and many hundreds of followers in Park and Gallatin counties. It operated construction, engineering, food process and printing businesses.

The church owned between 30,000 and 40,000 acres of land in Park County. Only the federal government and Burlington Northern railroad owned more.

But after the apocalypse never came, the church began to shrink.

Prophet announced she was pregnant in 1994, when she was 55 years old. She declined to discuss details. She gave birth to a son, Seth, who lives with his father, Ed Francis.

Four years later, Prophet announced she had Alzheimer's disease. She retired the following year.

By that time, the group had laid off 90 percent of its employees at Corwin Springs, closing most of its business operations. That same year, the church sold a swath of land to the federal government for a conservation easement. The deal put wildlife habitat in public hands and eased tensions between the church and community.

Today, CUT President McBride said there are thousands of members who belong to 250 chapters across the globe and hundreds who attend the church-owned ranch in Corwin Springs. Church literature is printed in 29 different languages.

Prophet has lived in Bozeman since her retirement. Her legal guardians limited visitation beginning in 2003 due to her illness.

Some CUT members who knew she was in her final days last week filed papers in Gallatin County District Court asking a judge to force Prophet's guardians to put her on a feeding tube to keep her alive.

Prophet had lost the ability to swallow, as is common with dementia patients.

But Erin Prophet said Friday that feeding her mother intravenously would have caused other complications and would not have prolonged her life.

Amanda Ricker can be reached at aricker@dailychronicle.com or 582-2628.

A public visitation for Prophet is planned for 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Dahl Funeral Chapel. A private memorial ceremony will be held later in the week and may be broadcast on the Internet, though details were not available Friday.

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