Plan to sell Adams Street mansion to Christian 'mystics' causes a stir

Wicket Local, Quincy Massachusetts/March 11, 2009

An organization of Christian mystics planning to buy a $1.7 million mansion on Adams Street promise their sunrise meditations and Sunday prayer services will not disrupt the neighborhood.

But traffic or no traffic, The Centers of Light's stigma as a "religious cult" is causing a stir.

Tuesday night, more than 100 residents from the upscale Hospital Hill neighborhood turned out for a zoning board of appeals hearing at city hall to oppose the group's plans of converting the five-bedroom home into an Order House with a 50-seat chapel.

Most cited traffic concerns and the predominately residential character of the neighborhood as their chief objections.

"There are ambulances going up to the hospital adding a tremendous amount of traffic to the area," said resident Paul Bonoli, who added that adding more cars to the area would be what he called a "traffic nightmare."

About 20 people, many identifying themselves as members of the group, spoke in favor.

But the four zoning board members present said that had a vote been taken Tuesday night, they would have rejected the proposal, which was sent back for site plan review.

In an interview beforehand, the Rev. Mary Francis Drake, a member, dismissed what she termed "cult baloney" as misguided fear over the group's non-traditional beliefs.

For example, the Order of Christ/Sophia - as it is formally known - preaches that Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are co-redeemers of equal stature. And members, who wear traditional robes, seek divine experience with God through daily meditation.

"We're not looking to proselytize the neighborhood or recruit people," Drake said. "And we have the right to be there."

Founded in Milwaukee and Boston in 1999, the order today has chapters in 14 states. Locally, about 30 members attend its prayer services and Bible study at an eight-room rented house in Jamaica Plain.

Rick Ross, an anti-cult consultant in New Jersey, said parents of a dozen members have contacted him with complaints about activities that he said border on brainwashing.

In one instance, Ross said, a Boston-area family paid him to "deprogram" their daughter.

Followers live a "Spartan existence," Ross said, often cutting themselves off from their families while paying fees and rent to the order's "messianic" co-founder, Father Peter Bowes.

Ross points to Wisconsin Psychology Examining Board records that show Bowes relinquished his license to practice psychology in 2001 after three female patients claimed he led them into the religious group while he was their therapist.

James R. Lewis, a professor at The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, spent two years researching the order for his book "Children of Jesus and Mary," which he said Oxford University Press will publish in October.

The cult label is often applied to non-mainstream religious groups, Lewis said, especially when followers' intense involvement creates tension with family members. He criticized Ross' assessment, saying he has "zero professional training" and a financial interest in being hired for so-called deprogramming exercises.

"They're very quiet," Lewis said of the mystics. "The only thing that sets them apart is they go around dressed in clerical uniform."

For Hospital Hill neighbors, the zoning board meeting had a feeling of déjà vu. A similar neighborhood campaign led the William B. Rice Eventide Home to back off plans in 2007 to expand its Adams Street nursing home. And a Montessori School was allowed last year to move into a colonial mansion on the street only after filing a lawsuit against the city.

Ward 5 City Councilor Douglas Gutro said the neighborhood - as in those instances - is "adamantly and unequivocally" opposed to a change in zoning.

Drake said the order has a purchase-and-sale agreement to buy 301 Adams St. Joseph L. Buiel of Duxbury, a Rockland police officer, bought the property from the United States government for $1 million in May of 2007, property records show.

Federal authorities had seized the house and arrested its occupants - Tina Le, Steven Nguyen and Mercedes Acar - after uncovering a tax fraud scheme at a manual labor staffing agency they ran. The three were sentenced in 2007 to a combined 21 years in prison for the scheme, in which they underreported the company's payroll by some $30 million.

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