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The legacy of Elizabeth Clare Prophet

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle/August 29, 2011

By Carly Flandro

By all accounts, Elizabeth Clare Prophet was a controversial figure.

The longtime spiritual leader of the Church Universal and Triumphant, she often made headlines while directing the New Age sect that many considered cult-like. In Montana, she and the church are perhaps most known for building underground bomb shelters that Prophet predicted would be needed as the world was stricken with war and natural disasters.

But Prophet’s legacy in Montana and across the globe extends beyond that, as the church she helped form continues to grow.

The church and its members first came to Montana in 1986 after buying a $7 million, 12,000-acre spread on the Yellowstone River from publisher Malcolm Forbes. They dubbed the property the Royal Teton Ranch, where the church would make its headquarters.

Today, church followers from around the world make pilgrimages to Corwin Springs, where the ranch is located, to visit what they revere as holy land.

Prophet, born in Red Bank, N.J., as Elizabeth Clare Wulf, came to Montana after the death of her second husband, Mark Prophet. He founded the Church Universal and Triumphant under its original name, The Summit Lighthouse. Before dying, he told his wife to bring the movement to Montana.

Neroli Duffy, a current minister at the church, said Prophet felt she’d been divinely guided to the Royal Teton Ranch lands.

The church had moved several times before settling in Montana, where Prophet intended to create an exclusive, self-reliant community on the ranch just north of Yellowstone National Park.

At first, locals had a hard time with the New Age theology being preached, including the church’s emphasis on dictations from religious and historical figures, ranging from Merlin the Magician and Chistopher Columbus to Jesus Christ and an obscure French count, St. Germain, who in past lives was believed to be Jesus’ father, Joseph.

Valerie McBride, the church’s current president, now describes its philosophy as “the best of seven world religions.”

“If you were to come here, you would see us give Hail Marys to the Virgin Mary in the same way we give a Buddhist chant,” she said. “We believe in the science of the spoken word.” Shelter years

The church likely gained the most national recognition in 1989 and 1990, when its staff and members were working to build the largest private underground bomb shelter in the United States. Church leaders were also quietly amassing an arsenal of weapons and armored vehicles, led in part by Prophet’s fourth husband, Ed Francis.

The 756-person shelter, located up Mol Heron Creek in an alpine meadow called “The Heart of the Inner Retreat,” spurred complaints from environmentalists, who worried that the church community would threaten the ecological balance of Yellowstone National Park. The state eventually intervened, conducting an environmental review before giving the church permission to build the shelter.

Similar underground shelters were built in Glastonbury, a Paradise Valley subdivision then limited to members of the sect.

The Chronicle reported that Prophet had predicted the world would end in March 1990. On March 15 of that year, hundreds, if not thousands, of church members entered the bomb shelters. Some had reportedly quit jobs and run up big debt, anticipating the apocalypse.

But nothing happened, and church officials maintained the next day that it had been a drill.

Duffy was there that day and said the event was clearly and “definitely a drill.”

“As always, the shelters are just preparedness in case of need,” she said.

Duffy also said Prophet had never predicted the world would end.

“She said world circumstances were very perilous,” Duffy said. “Why would you build a shelter if the world were going to end? You build it so that in dire times you can have shelter.” Praying against the fire

The church also drew media attention in 1988 when a 16,000-acre fire was spreading outward from Yellowstone National Park. About 250 church followers gathered in a meadow to deliver high-speed spoken prayers known as decrees.

“Reverse the tide, roll them back, set all free,” members chanted with arms outstretched.

The fire stopped at the church border. Slurry bombers had attacked the blaze, but Prophet credited the prayers.

Prophet’s illness and death

At one point, the church had 600 employees at Corwin Springs and hundreds of followers in Park and Gallatin counties. It operated construction, engineering, food processing 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 failed to come, church membership began to dwindle.

In 1998, Prophet announced she had Alzheimer’s disease. She retired the next year and moved to Bozeman, where she lived the rest of her life. She died in 2009 at the age of 70.

At her memorial reception, there was standing room only. Prophet’s children

Prophet had five children — Erin, Sean, Moira, Tatiana and Seth.

Erin Prophet, who wrote an autobiographical book called “Prophet’s Daughter: My Life with Elizabeth Clare Prophet Inside the Church Universal and Triumphant,” emailed the Chronicle with reflections on her mother.

She noted that here, Prophet is first remembered for her prophecies of war and for her followers’ construction of shelters. Erin said she hopes her mother can also be remembered for “bringing cultural diversity and a financial boost at a time when the economy was struggling.”

“I would also acknowledge her work in religion and spirituality, and the fact that she brought meaning to the lives of people all over the world. She was a person who tried to learn from her mistakes, and I would like to have seen her thought continue to evolve if she hadn’t become ill,” she wrote. “I miss her even today.” The future

McBride, the church’s current president, said she was in her 20s in San Francisco when she met Prophet.

“I immediately recognized her as someone that was very different from other leaders,” she said. “To me I look at her as someone very special and very unique with just an incredible amount of wisdom that we could all gain from.”

Today, McBride works to share the messages Prophet left behind with at least 50 books that have been translated into 23 languages. The church has also been airing a radio show that she said 800,000 people have listened to. People from around the world are members of the church, which is growing especially in Russia and South America.

In Montana, the church is in North and South Glastonbury, Emigrant, Bozeman, Livingston and Billings. Across the country, it is located in every major city.

Church leaders said membership is growing.

And when asked whether they consider the church a cult, as it often has been called, they said no.

“A cult is a group of people that’s very controlled,” Duffy said. “Our members are very independent thinking.”

She added that the church has evolved from Prophet’s time, when church followers were focused on being self-sufficient, to becoming more involved with nearby communities.

They also said the tension between church members and surrounding communities has faded as they’ve become more integrated. They attribute that partly to the group’s improved relationship with the park.

For example, the church struck a $3.3 million deal with the government to use part of its ranch land as a wildlife corridor for bison coming out of Yellowstone National Park.

The church has adopted a low profile since Prophet retired, which Duffy said just worked out that way.

“When she retired, people were looking for news and not finding it,” Duffy said. “It was not a conscious choice.”

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