Awkward Christian Soldiers

How a Bay Area sect with an occult tinge went national, transformed itself into an odd brotherhood -- and now is gaining acceptance from the ultratraditional Orthodox Church

Clad in a white robe, Blighton acted as director general of the order's "esoteric council," guiding members at various levels, from those who had known Blighton since the early '60s to whoever had strolled into 20 Steiner that day. Schedules for daily services were kept, sacraments were performed, and priests were ordained. The order had an official symbol: a cross within a triangle within a circle within a square. Even if the order had little or no relation to any mainstream, conventional faith -- indeed, if it seemed to operate at times as an occult cabal -- it did function as an organized religious group, and found success on that path. By 1969, the Holy Order of MANS had grown from a handful of members to over 200. Three years later, the number had more than doubled.

Timothy Harris first became familiar with the group in 1967. After leaving the Navy, he went to college in Colorado and later moved to San Francisco. In a Sixth Street hotel run by the Science of Man Church, he became a follower of Blighton's teachings and would stay with the order until 1972, leaving because Blighton instituted a policy of separating married couples who joined the order. "When I first met him, he was like a nice old man," says Harris, who is currently a member of the Gnostic Order of Christ, a San Jose-based church that preserves many of the teachings of the Holy Order of MANS. "Over time, I think he got stressed out and became rather authoritarian. He had a sign on his desk: 'Be Reasonable -- Do It My Way.' I think that really hits it on the head."

Blighton's change from well-meaning follower of esoteric faith to autocratic spiritual leader might be attributed to the rapid growth of the order: By 1970, it had missionaries in 29 cities across the country, from Maui to Massachusetts, focusing on college towns. The order ran as a commune, and members were asked to turn over their earthly possessions and give any money they received from employment to a central fund; by 1972, the group had over $2 million in assets. The order was also performing charitable work, operating a small chain of restaurants called Brother Juniper's, one of which was located at Raphael House, founded in 1977. By the mid-'70s, the Holy Order of MANS reportedly had 3,000 members and missionaries (though others place the figure at no higher than 600), located in every state in America, with a few in Europe.

Blighton wouldn't live to see the success of what he wrought. On April 11, 1974 -- the day before Good Friday -- Blighton retreated to a Pacifica motel with a handful of followers; he died there of natural causes. According to a 1990 report written by a former Holy Order of MANS member, his disciples were in no hurry to inform the authorities. They waited to see if Blighton would rise from the dead after three days.

The next 14 years would mark a power struggle within the order. By 1978, Vincent Rossi, a longtime member of the order, had begun to take control of a religious group that was dealing with both a dwindling membership and a society that was growing increasingly leery of cults, particularly in the Bay Area. The horrifying Nov. 18, 1978, mass suicide of members of Jim Jones' People's Temple turned eyes to nonsectarian religious groups, and regardless of whether the Holy Order of MANS identified itself as a cult, it fell under hard scrutiny about its activities, what with the "life vows" members were required to take and a leadership board that was called an esoteric council.

"MANS" is an acronym, and under Blighton's rule as director general, its definition was a closely guarded secret. In one move partly designed to improve public relations, Rossi offered a definition in December 1978, writing that it comes from four Greek words: mysterion (divine mystery), agape(divine love), nous (divine mind), and sophia (wisdom). And even while the order kept much of its eccentric, multidenominational character, its public face was one of studied, organized Christianity. In 1979, one San Francisco Examinerreporter enthused that the order "has marvelously adopted the monastic practices of pre-Vatican II Catholicism to the modern world," and appealed to the Catholic Church to learn from its activities.

By the early '80s, however, Rossi's spiritual pursuits were focused not on Catholicism, but the older Orthodox Church. At that time, when the order was hemorrhaging old members and taking in few new ones, Rossi was reading The Orthodox Word, a journal focused on Russian Orthodoxy published by the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, an order that operated out of a retreat in Platina, Calif., near Redding. One of St. Herman's head monks, Gleb Podmoshensky, also known as Abbot Herman, was an Orthodox priest, and by 1983, Rossi and Podmoshensky were in regular contact. Podmoshensky's approach to Orthodoxy was a severe one -- it advocated a separation from the modern world, and took an apocalyptic view of the modern age -- but Podmoshensky was sanctioned by a legitimate and official Orthodox Church. His teachings appealed to Rossi, who was slowly beginning to shift the Holy Order of MANS's members toward Orthodox teachings. Podmoshensky would speak often at the order's retreat in Forestville, near Santa Rosa, and he was increasingly taking command of the spiritual direction of the order.

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