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Father Divine founded the Peace Mission, an interracial and celibate community, in Harlem in the 1919 as a response to the racism, as well as spiritual and economic poverty, that had followed African Americans since the Civil War.Central to Father Divine's popularity and his growing community of followers was his economic success during the era of the Great Depression. The weekly Holy Communion Banquet Service, a ritual feast with lavish multi-course meals, singing, dancing, and spirited sermons, must have appeared miraculous in contrast to the surrounding poverty.Through a communal economic plan, Father Divine and his followers had amassed great wealth by the 1940s. They owned income-producing real estate and businesses in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, as well as in rural communities along the Hudson River. This economic power enabled the Peace Mission to confront racism. Peace Mission co-workers were employed in collectively owned hotels, shops, garages, domestic services, farms and cafeterias. These businesses served members of all races and religions without question, offering African Americans quality accommodations and services several decades before the American Civil Rights Movement.
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In 1942, Father Divine left New York City due to legal difficulties involving a monetary judgment won in a lawsuit by a former member (See New York Times 4 January 1940:44; 11 December 1947:27). He settled permanently in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (New York Times 20 July 1942:15), beyond the judicial reach of New York State authorities. Several years after his first wife died, he took a second wife, a young "light-complected" Canadian, who had worked as one of his personal secretaries. She came to be known within the movement as Sweet Angel or Mother Divine (See Primiano 1998). Their marriage in 1946 (New York Times 8 August 1946:20), although declared spiritual and celibate, provoked fear and anger within the racist climate of post-World War II America and even surprise within the Movement itself.
Father Divine died in 1965, what Peace Mission members understand as the physical departure of God from this plane of existence to remain in the spiritual plane.The second Mother Divine or "Mother in the Second Body," as referenced by followers who believe in the possibility of soul transference and reincarnation, was left as the visible leader of the Movement. In 1964, a year before Father Divine died, the New York Times again highlighted the Movement noting how Father Divine had amassed an estimated real estate portfolio worth $20 million (13 September 1964:53). Almost forty years later, the Peace Mission continues to exist mainly in the city of Philadelphia, living in community, though reduced in membership, and still maintaining a significant number of real estate holdings.
When Father Divine moved his congregation to Philadelphia from Harlem in the early 1940s, the Peace Mission began to sell off its New York City properties and purchase a series of commercial and residential buildings in the Moverment's new center of activity. Always a wise real estate investor and innovative entrepreneur, the Mission's physical presence in Philadelphia expanded over the next twenty years to include three hotels in the city (as well as two hotels in northern New Jersey) and many other properties financed by the followers and classified by the Peace Mission into "Churches," "hotels catering to the general public," "hotels exclusively for followers," and "homes and businesses" (Properties listed in Mother Divine 1995; Reprinted 1999:22).
Father Divine's vernacular architecture of intention as well as what could be called his theology of historic preservation is most prominent in the restoration, preservation, and re-use of Woodmont, a Victorian Manor House found in the exclusive Main Line suburb of Gladwyne, just outside of Philadelphia. Designed by the Quaker architect William L. Price and completed in 1894 for the industrialist Alan Wood at an estimated cost of $1,000,000, Woodmont is located at the highest point along the West bank of the Schuylkill River. Architectural historian, George E. Thomas in his volume on Price notes:
The house was constructed of the local stone trimmed with limestone and finished on the interior by many of Philadelphia's principal decorative artists. The estate included its own power plant as well as stables, barns, and extensive gardens.