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Guru Ma Nettles Montana Town : Residents Fear Takeover if Calabasas Sect Emigrates to 33,000 Acres Near Yellowstone

March 30, 1986|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer and

She has money of her own. She has purchased a lot and is building a house in a community for church members only called Glastonbury that the sect is developing near the ranch. That community is named for the British monastery where the Holy Grail is said to have come to rest. A recent issue of the Coming Revolution, the sect's glossy magazine, included speculation that the young Christ visited Glastonbury. The article bore the headline, "Did Jesus Go to High School in Britain?"

Keathley said no guns are stockpiled on the ranch, as some locals fear and ex-church members maintain. "And it's not true we have stashes of gold," she added. "I wish it were true."

Goal of Self-Sufficiency

Instead, Royal Teton has sheep, cattle and a greenhouse in which the church tries to beat the odds against raising tomatoes in Montana. As Keathley explained, the church is enthusiastically pursuing the goal of becoming self-sufficient here. Ranch-raised lamb is a specialty of the church-owned restaurant in Corwin Springs. And the church has successfully raised carrots and a few other hardy vegetables during a growing season of only 90 days.

"We've shipped thousands of pounds of carrots and potatoes all over the country," she said. "That's our only commercial crop so far."

But even in the sect's upbeat Royal Teton Ranch News, edited by one of Prophet's daughters, self-sufficiency is always described in the future tense.

Keathley said that most church members would rather be in Montana than in Camelot. "They complain about having to stay down there," she said. "We don't like the pollution down in Los Angeles. It's hard to raise children down there with TV and newspapers, and all the crud they put in them."

Although Keathley and other enthusiasts praise the full complement of seasons Montanans enjoy, the fierce winters may explain why the ambitious project centered on Royal Teton Ranch hasn't moved forward faster. "It's Not That Cold," was the headline of an article in a recent issue of the Royal Teton Ranch News. The piece included one believer's contention that Montana is warmer than California.

According to Keathley, about 100 church members now live or work at the ranch through the winter. As for herself, Keathley, who once lived in Hawaii, said she doesn't want to be anywhere else.

"It's beautiful country up here," she said. "It's God's country."

The thing Marie Mar feared the most hasn't happened. Church Universal and Triumphant hasn't recruited local youngsters, although she has heard that college students are being drawn into its study groups in Bozeman and Billings.

Mar, 39, is Livingston's most vigilant church-watcher. Those who manage the Royal Teton Ranch attend no public meeting, file no legal document, without word getting back to Marie Mar.

Five years ago Mar had never heard of the church. Today she knows more about it than some of the initiated.

Her kitchen bookshelves are cluttered with the collected works of Elizabeth Clare Prophet. Her files spill over with letters, newspaper clippings, videotapes and documents. She is happy to share her collection with anyone trying to make a coherent whole out of contradictory fragments of information about the church.

A soft-spoken woman with a sharp wit, Mar believes Church Universal and Triumphant has little genuine interest in the community at large.

"It's not that we're adverse to people moving in," she said. "We're people-loving people. But we feel that our life style here is threatened by a large influx of church members."

Worsening Economy

Mar said she once thought that Elizabeth Clare Prophet would never be able to get her people here from California. Now she is not so sure. Last fall Burlington Northern Railroad, the company that built Livingston and once its major employer, announced it was pulling out. In February the railroad folded its last local operation, a maintenance and repair shop.

Three hundred and sixty jobs were lost, including that of Mar's husband, Ben, a crane operator. She estimates that 2,000 people were affected and says that many of them are moving to other states. As the Livingston area becomes poorer and less populous, she says, the power of Church Universal and Triumphant could grow. She can imagine the church snapping up houses thrown on the market. She fears that church votes will become a larger force in local elections.

Another resident suspicious of the church is Tim Cahill, one of Livingston's disproportionate number of successful writers. Cahill, who covered the Jonestown massacre for Rolling Stone, said of Prophet's church, "We would be fools not to keep our eyes on these guys, and we'd be fools to ignore the potential for violence that exists in all totalitarian societies."

Mar rarely mentions it, but she is personally offended by the teachings of Guru Ma. Mar is a convert to Roman Catholicism. In contrast with the dozens of pictures of Prophet in her files, the picture of the Virgin Mary hangs on her kitchen wall.

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