The Words of the Deedy Family

The Unification Church and the City of Gloucester

John Deedy
January 1981
Theology Today
Vol 37, No. 4

Theology Today, a quarterly ecumenical journal of Christian theology, publishes articles on a wide range of classical and contemporary issues in Christian theology by many of the finest theologians working today. Theology Today is published by Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, NJ.

IN CERTAIN RESPECTS, Gloucester, Massachusetts, is a world unto itself. Most of the city sits on a cape that juts eight miles into the Atlantic between Ipswich Bay to the north and Massachusetts Bay to the south. It is a lonesome place geographically, and wild when the weather is from the northeast. The Annisquam River divides a section of the city from the larger part, making the latter something of an island. The city dominates Cape Ann, Massachusetts' smaller cape and some would say the state's best-kept secret. For three months of the year, Gloucester is a vacation paradise. For all twelve months, it is a rugged, colorful seaport.

Indeed, Gloucester-population 27,140-is the sixth busiest fishing port in the United States, with a haul of some two hundred million pounds of fish a year. Cod is the big catch, with whiting, mackerel, and blues when they are running. Haddock is hard to come by, being dangerously fished out. Of course, there's a lot of flounder along the bottom. On windless days, a heavy and some would say offensive smell can hang over the city. The smell is to Gloucester what smoke once was to Pittsburgh. It is a clue that times are good. The odor is from Gorton's and other fish-processing plants along the main drag and harbor loop. Gloucester lives by fish and tales of men who have gone down to the sea in ships.

The people of Gloucester see all that threatened now-their city, their fish, their cherished memories. It adds up to a fascinating story in the world of religion, certainly the most fascinating ever to hit these parts.


It all began-or began in earnest, at least-on June 9, 1980, when the Daughters of Mary of the Immaculate Conception, an order of nuns with mother-house in New Britain, Connecticut, sold their property in Gloucester, known as "Cardinal Cushing Villa," a handsome waterfront estate on Western Avenue that resembles a place where Jay Gatsby might have gamboled. The sisters had been looking to unload the property. It had been used as a nursing home, a program that was folded by public safety regulations which made use of the villa impossible, and it was used for a time as a retreat house, except that Catholics have given up making retreats in the numbers they once did. In the end, just a couple of sisters rattled around in the huge mansion. It was your classical institutional white elephant.

If the sisters were desperate to sell, I suspect it was also true that the Archdiocese of Boston, within whose ecclesiastical jurisdiction Gloucester is located, was just as anxious to see the place disposed of. The villa had to be an embarrassment-standing there idle and useless, month, after month, after month. It was too painful a reminder of the downhill track of the old religion in the years since Vatican II. Better to get Cushing's name off the gates and forget the place. If nothing else, this would help quash those silly stories about the villa being Cushing's vacation home. Cushing was not given to vacations or to vacation homes. It must have been difficult enough for him to live in the house that O'Connell built on Commonwealth Avenue in Brighton. O'Connell was his predecessor-William Henry Cardinal O'Connell, proud, powerful, pretentious.

Cardinal Cushing Villa was sold-for $1.1-million-to a New Hampshire businessman named Myron Block, and within twenty-four hours the worst fears of the people of Gloucester were realized.

Block was a "straw." He turned the property over to the Unification Church of the Korean evangelist Sun Myung Moon, pocketed a tidy profit of $127,600, and went back to North Salem across, the state line. The sisters went south to Connecticut, innocent as lambs and making no outcry about having been duped or misled into selling to someone other than whom they thought they were selling.

In point of fact, it could have been no surprise to the sisters that Block might have been a "straw" and that the real purchaser was in fact the Unification Church. Reports were rampant that the Unification Church was interested in the property. The Church had come to Gloucester four years before and established ten to fifteen church members in a small lobstering business.

Moon himself had been in the area, renting quarters in 1977 in Magnolia, a swish area of the city. Gloucester, by all reports, was to his liking and that of other Unification Church officials. In April, 1978, the church purchased three acres of Freshwater Cove waterfront land, and word was out that the Church, intending to broaden its business base, was looking for a large and permanent community residence. Cardinal Cushing Villa was so ideal in terms of the Church's reputed plans that only the most naive could believe that Moon eyes were not upon it.

The property was perfect: eleven acres of land; lovely Tudor-style main building already equipped for group residence; auxiliary structures; ideal location. The property in fact had everything going for it except the prayers of Catholics of the area. Public prayers were being said at Masses that the villa would not end in the hands of the Unification Church. Unification Church objectives were that readable. Obviously, the prayers went unanswered-or were they prayed into a neutral state by seller and buyer?


All of this could be prelude to an essay on the ethics of selling and buying property. But it won't be. I don't get too excited about "straws." "Straw" purchasers are common in real-estate transactions, including those of religious organizations. I worked as a diocesan newspaper editor for fifteen years in Worcester and in Pittsburgh, and I know of few properties that were not purchased by either diocese during those years except through a "straw." In fact, I can remember none. "Straws" were a way of keeping the price down, and keeping off your back people who might have objected to your buying. Some purchases infuriated people. I remember particularly the purchase of land for a Catholic church in Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Gad, were people mad! But the deed was done, and folks adjusted. The point is that if church groups are going to work one side of the street, there should be no wonder that they're going to work the other as well when it suits them. The Daughters of Mary of the Immaculate Conception apparently did, and maybe they prayed all the way to the bank.

The intent of this essay, rather, is to dwell on community reaction to the purchase, a reaction which I found scary and perhaps a clue to how religious, political, or social persecution may be born.

In the early stage of community reaction, concern ostensibly focused on the children. The Unification Church admittedly is a controversial sect. It recruits and uses young people in a variety of enterprises, some religious, some income-producing. It is said to "brainwash" its members and put them under a charge of recruiting new members. Although Church officials steadfastly maintained that they did not intend to recruit in Gloucester, the city's residents conjured up pictures of young Gloucester boys and girls being drawn into a web from which there would be no extricating themselves. They saw the cream of the city's youth being siphoned off from family, culture, and traditional religions. Mayor Leo Alper put it for the city's citizens: "I'll tell you what I don't like about the Unification Church: they use kids and they're not going to do it in Gloucester." Beyond the children, there were additional nightmares of the Unification Church swallowing up the waterfront and becoming the dominant force in the city's fishing industry. Better, it seemed, empty piers than competition from the so-called "Moonies."

The city tacked several courses. Alper first cabled the Vatican, to Pope John Paul II himself, asking him to exert effort "to reverse the sale" by the sisters to the "straw." At the same time, Alper sought a meeting with Humberto Cardinal Medeiros of Boston to see what he could do.

Neither course led anywhere. A telegram arrived from the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes saying the sale had been investigated and there was no way the Pope could invalidate it. "We regret this unfortunate occurrence and hope that as little harm as possible will be done to the population, especially the youth of Gloucester," said the message.

Cardinal Medeiros could do little more than express his distress to Alper over the sale.

Meanwhile, the Gloucester City Council went into session, and by a vote of 6-1, it approved a resolution (some would call it inflammatory) asking residents to refuse to sell property to the Unification Church, and asking them to help the mayor and the Council maintain the waterfront, "thereby protecting the future of our children from encroachment by the Rev. Moon and his followers in trying to control Gloucester's waterfront property, which would prevent the situation which happened in the state of California." (The last was a not so subtle allusion to the Jones sect and the subsequent mass suicide by hundreds of its members at Jonestown, Guyana.

Not surprising, that allusion. By now there was galloping fear that the Unification Church was going to buy up the whole town and turn it into a Moon-land.) Only one councilor, Abdullah Khambaty, raised his voice against the resolution, arguing that it was unconstitutional and would only breed hatred and discrimination. Khambaty, who was in India during its struggle for independence from Britain, asked: "Have you ever seen one million people being killed within a three-month period because their beliefs were different from others? Have you read about Northern Ireland? India and Pakistan? The Crusades and the Holy War? If this order is approved, what will happen to the city? Today it is the 'Moonies.' Tomorrow it will be something else."


The council resolution set off a furor. A Unification Church official charged that a "Hitlerian scenario" was being created "in which one group of people, because of their business, religion, or identity" could be attacked in an open society. Letters flooded into the Gloucester Daily Times, most favoring the resolution, but a few soberly warning that Gloucester was flirting with direct discrimination and outright persecution. "I have only one fundamental question for our City Council and mayor," said Rev. J. Vance Williams, an American Baptist minister: "What crime have the 'Moonies' committed?" Williams went on to make a point which, when it finally gained currency, helped turn some tides of emotionalism. He wrote: "The theology of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who seems to believe he has been appointed to complete the redemptive work that Christ left undone by his untimely crucifixion, is not a position to which I can subscribe, nor do I agree with his apparent policy of redemptive change through the power of economics. But I feel secure enough about my own faith and the ability of the truth to prevail that I am prepared to let the Unification Church find its law-abiding place in our pluralistic society."

Other cooling factors came into play. First, councilor Richard Porter recanted his vote on the anti-Moon resolution, saying that the Council vote "subverted our democratic principles" and smacked of "fascist procedures." "I apologize to those on the Council I may have influenced by my debate," he continued, "and to the citizens of Gloucester for this breach of the public trust." Then City Solicitor Janet Myers went before the City Council and said its resolution was very likely a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as of the State constitution. "You as an individual are free to ask whatever you like," she said. "As a council you have constitutional limitations, and with this order you have come close enough to transgressing them that I recommend you rescind it." The Council followed her advice, voting 8-1 on July 15, 1980, to repeal the motion it had passed on July 2. Only the sponsor of the original resolution voted against repeal.

That action closed off legal complications. Others remained, however. Passions had been fueled, and they remained fueled by a series of happenings. There were the mayor's repeated agitated appearances on television, local and national. There was the report in the Gloucester Daily Times, subsequently corrected, that implied all Unification Church property in the city was off the tax register. All was not. Many caught the allegation and missed the correction. There was the decision by the publisher of the Gloucester Daily Times not to accept advertisements from any businesses related to the Unification Church. There was the linking of a novena, prelude to a gala parish fiesta, to prayers for the city's youths that they be spared the "threat" of the Unification Church. It was as if the flames of passion were being deliberately kept fanned.

To complicate the situation, a defunct restaurant and marina came up for public action, and it was snapped up by the Unification Church's Uni-World Sea Enterprises, Inc., for $650,000. The mayor exploded. "Nobody comes in and purchases what they're purchasing without a plan," he declared. "I think the public should know what the plan is. We're a city, and I'm beginning to feel like we're being invaded."

Inevitably there was some violence, although not nearly so much as some feared might occur.

Minor assaults were reported, along with harrassments and threats. "Moonie" was suddenly the dirtiest word in town. Two men attempted to crash a house party, and when the host phoned police to have them ejected, the men responded by calling him a "Moonie." Automobile horns honked around the clock on the road outside the former Cardinal Cushing Villa, obscenities were shouted, and cars sped in and out the driveway of the grounds. To keep intruders away, Unification Church people erected a high, heavy-duty cyclone fence at the main entrance, and circled the grounds with wire fencing. The ubiquitous T-shirt came into play to separate the "good guys" from the "bad guys." There is a young woman who sells flowers weekends along a road off Grant Circle. She had been selling flowers for years at the spot, but obviously not everyone noticed her. They did now. She was accused of being a "Moonie" by passerby after passerby, and one person went so far as to threaten to bash her head in. She donned a T-shirt reading, "No, I'm not a Moonie." It didn't work completely. She continued to get threats. And she continued to sell flowers. She told the press her family was Catholic.


As this is written, the controversy goes on in Gloucester. The Unification Church has expanded from lobstering to bottom fishing, and its members have moved to open the defunct restaurant, selling food, wine, and beer. (The church does not believe in hard liquor.) The alarmists thus see their worst fears coming true, and they continue to label the Moon people as individuals not to be trusted; they are out to master the city, they charge. The Unificationists, for their part, seem to thrive under insult and threat. They held an open-house of a Sunday morning and invited the community in to observe them at worship and meet them close-up; probably more media people showed than bona fide visitors. They also sponsored a tuna tourney, partly as a sports attraction, partly for business purposes (tuna brings big money), and partly to dramatize Rev. Moon's theory that tuna fishery should be stimulated as a source of world protein. The tourney was not a success as a propaganda vehicle. It was widely regarded as an attempt by the Church to take over the tuna industry in one spectacular swoop. Accordingly it was picketed and boycotted.

Passions thus refused to calm down. They're not calmed yet.

The role of the churches in all of this would seem to be the preaching of tolerance and reason, but church-goers appear to be getting this in measured doses, including in Catholic churches -- a crucial point, as Gloucester is a strongly Catholic city. The Catholic role has seemed to be a holding operation: defensively explaining why nothing could be done by authorities to prevent the sale of Cardinal Cushing Villa, and anxiously praying that the Moon people won't get their hands on Catholic kids. There has been no Catholic voice comparable to that of Williams. Or for that matter comparable to Rev. Gordon Hungerberger's of Lanesville Orthodox Congregational Church, who commented that he was "not sure 'Moonies' pose any more serious threat to Christianity than does humanism. I would not single them out as enemies to the religious community." Rabbi Myron Geller of Temple Ahavath Achim on Middle Street spoke out to say that civility is a basic responsibility of a church's presence in a community. It was a cogent observation, although it seemed directed more at the Unification Church as a reminder of its responsibilities in Gloucester, than to the established churches and their duty to promote civility among parishioners. Church leaders, in sum, have not particularly distinguished themselves as moral leaders in the Gloucester contention.


It is impossible, of course, to predict when this controversy is going to end. The Unification Church is obviously in Gloucester to stay, and Gloucester chafes more and more under that realization. The Church claims it is buying "distressed businesses" and trying to bring them back to life; much of the city remains convinced that the Unification Church is out to take over the waterfront and some of its children in the process. Officials deny that there is a religious bias in their attitudes. "Listen, I'm Jewish," says Mayor Alper. "How can I be against religious freedom? We have experienced our own religious persecution through the years."

Protestations notwithstanding, it is clear that a serious prejudice, if not a persecutorial attitude, exists in Gloucester toward the Unification Church. The Gloucester Daily Times was concerned enough to editorialize last August 28 against the possibility of violence breaking out in the city. "Increasing incidents of trespassing and name-calling outside the Western Avenue estate of the Unification Church do not bode well for Gloucester," it said. "Should that trend continue, there may well be the violence that the city has feared would erupt around the expansion of the Church and the affiliated businesses of Korean evangelist Sun Myung Moon." The editorial said the trouble-makers should receive the community-wide "ridicule" (rebuke would have been the better word) that they deserve. One mindless act of violence "can brand us all as bigots," the editorial continued, and defeat the efforts of those who are carrying out "the anti-Moonie fight" in legal ways. There was no censure of those who may have helped whip trouble-makers into their state of mind.

My own feeling is that a nervous calm will prevail, that cool heads will win out, and that the followers of Rev. Moon will one day be accepted in Gloucester. I believe further that on the business level their presence will actually be good for the city in the long run. Right now, however, economic considerations are less important than the city's retaining its cool and, what Rabbi Geller called, its civility. I believe it will and that present events will prove little more than parody, a variation of sorts on the movie, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. Parodies, alas, sometimes end in tragedy, although the movie did not. It ended on mixed notes of happiness and embarrassment. I expect that will be Gloucester's experience, although the Moon-people will not be sailing in the sunset as the Russians did in the movie script.

Jim Munn, a columnist for the Gloucester Daily Times, spoke up for the city and its people recently, and I feel his view will be history's record: "Over the years this city has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to accommodate a wide range of people, including those who dare to be different or simply come here that way. Gloucester has greeted the arrival of the Unification Church perhaps more rudely than one might have expected.

I doubt, however, that this community will turn its back on its own rich heritage.

"Gloucester has survived too many storms to feel threatened by those who are misguided enough to seriously suggest that within twenty years everyone here will be speaking Korean. Hell, most of us are still having a hard enough time just trying to get a handle on the King's English."

That is a light, sensible note for the scenario's end. May it hold up against further developments.

John Deedy is an editor and consultant for Claretian Publications and serves on the Editorial Council of Theology Today. He lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts and recently completed an interim biography of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., to be published by Fides/ Claretian. 

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