The Adopted Son of a Peace Mission Leader Returns to Gladwyne
Following the passing of his adoptive mother, Tommy Garcia attempted to fulfill his role as estate administrator, but was met with resistance.
Mother and Father Divine.
Tommy Garcia’s dream has never changed. With suitcase and electric guitar in hand, he returns to Woodmont, announcing, “I’m home.”
For now, though, he’s at a Chili’s in King of Prussia, reliving his initial trip to the area. It was 55 years ago, around Father’s Day, after a cross-country caravan in June 1962 from Los Angeles to Gladwyne’s Woodmont estate, home to the Rev. M.J. Divine’s private inner sanctum. Woodmont was also the headquarters of the International Peace Mission Movement.
A young Tommy Garcia.
Upon arrival, Garcia was delivered a decree that no 8 year old would ever understand. He was told that his real mother and father didn’t want him — only Father Divine did. Within two hours, he was separated from his birth mother and 3-year-old sister. Then, Garcia was chauffeured by follower Happy Love to King of Prussia to buy clothes for that night’s ritualistic banquet. He’d remain on the estate until 1968. In those years, says Garcia — now 63 — followers were instructed to have him formally adopted.
This past March saw the passing of 91-year-old Mother Divine — or Sweet Angel Divine — Father’s second wife. Now, Garcia has been granted status as administrator of her estate. The day after the county’s decision, he attempted to serve those papers at Divine’s estate. He was unsuccessful.
Garcia last visited in 1989, and followers hadn’t permitted him to speak to Mother in almost a decade—though outsiders told him she always asked for him.
But will the modern-day Peace Mission want him?
“Based on sufficient collateral evidence, the county considers Tommy to be the Divines’ child, with the legal role of marshaling assets and making distribution of assets to people who may be entitled to them,” says Garcia’s Philadelphia-based attorney, Joel S. Luber. “The clerk didn’t blink an eye.”
And that’s without any known formal adoption papers—or a will. “They lived in a bubble behind closed gates and did what they wanted,” Luber says of the Divines.
Now, the challenge is determining what belonged to Mother Divine. Garcia’s efforts could uncover that the 74-acre property and estate belong to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a charitable or “shell” organization, or even the few followers the Peace Mission has left. “The answers are behind those iron gates and castle walls,” says Luber.
Lower Merion Township Police Capt. Frank Thomas confirmed that the Garcias’ requested police presence in June, when they tried to serve the administration papers with Luber and two of Tommy’s boyhood friends from Gladwyne Elementary School. “The two parties didn’t come together,” he says, adding that the movement deferred to its Philadelphia attorneys at Blank Rome.
“We were on a peace mission,” says Garcia. “But where has the peace gone? Father always used to say, ‘Peace, peace.’ Why are these people so angry? Back then, I asked him, and he said that they didn’t get it. He told me he wasn’t God, but that I had to keep that secret because it was all [the followers] had to keep them going. He talked to me like a dad.”
Garcia and his wife, Lori, realize the complexity of the task ahead. Luber’s initial phone call to Woodmont was met with a direct response from follower/spokesperson Yvette Calm: “We’re not interested. We’ll have him arrested.”
Then she hung up.
Luber fully expects the Peace Mission’s attorneys to challenge the register of wills’ decision, along with petitions to delay or prevent the investigation. He spent “a very unusual” three months waiting for Mother Divine’s death certificate—the one document required for the administrator application when there’s no known will. Ciavarelli Family Funeral Homes in Conshohocken refused to provide it, but it came from the state eventually.
At press time, Luber was filing for the ability to serve papers with a sheriff present—even though he appears to be wavering on whether he’ll continue to represent Garcia. “There has to be a proper accounting, and the Garcias are at least entitled to the truth,” says Luber, who lives in the shadows of Woodmont.
Garcia will let an attorney (whomever that might be) worry about searching for financials. He’s after the journals of 13 of Father Divine’s “secretaries.” Computer hard drives are also eligible evidence.
Among followers, the question has always been why Father Divine—who died in 1965—doted on Garcia. “Even then, the thought was that the movement was dying,” Garcia says. “Everyone constantly asked me, ‘Why are you here? You don’t even follow all the rules.’ But Father grew to really care about me.”
Concerned about Mother Divine’s fading health, the Garcias began requesting wellness checks through the Philadelphia Police Department and Lower Merion Township. Each report indicated that she was fine, even three weeks before her passing. The certificate lists her cause of death as Alzheimer’s disease.
Through his business, Cabo Magic Sportfishing, Garcia has raised the level of life for interested local Mexicans in a fishing fleet he’s gradually sold off in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. “I’d give up everything and move back to Philadelphia in a millisecond,” he says. “If I could come back home, I will have come full circle.”
With Woodmont and the remaining assets of the Peace Movement, Garcia says he wants bridge the nation’s racial divide, nurture lost children, and apply Father Divine’s ideals to elevate the lives of blacks. “I can’t proselytize him as God, but I can use the millions to help people,” he says.
“And not just the (estimated) six people left at Woodmont.”
You can read J.F. Pirro’s 2010 series on the Peace Mission here.