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NORTHPORT, Maine — Last Sunday, the minister wore pumps and pearls — and waited patiently at the podium of Temple Heights Spiritual Camp for messages to come to her from the spirit world.
Vicky Glass of Belfast nodded in understanding as the Rev. Sharon Watson took a few minutes to speak directly to her. Behind the church members, the piercing eyes of Nickawa, an American Indian members believe served as a spiritual guide to the camp’s 19th century founder, seemed to leap from a portrait that hangs on the wood-paneled meeting room’s walls.
“I have a lady’s vibration who steps forward,” Watson told Glass. “She had quick wit. She’s saying to you that she’s trying to give you that wittiness and lighten you up. She says it’s time to reel it in. It’s time.”
Glass was one of a couple dozen people who attended the regular Sunday Spiritualist Church Services at Temple Heights, which has been a gathering place for like-minded people on the shores of Penobscot Bay since 1882. Many in the room were women sporting dangling crystal pendants and tribal tattoos. All present were taking the messages — and the messenger — very seriously.
“I was taking notes on it,” Glass said later about receiving the message, which she believes came from an aunt. “I just sold my house. Got rid of mostly everything. It’s like I’m starting over again. Maybe that’s what she’s saying — it’s time to get busy and start moving forward.”
Messages from the world beyond are a way of life for spiritualists, who adhere to a belief system that reached its peak popularity in the United States from the 1840s to the 1920s. Its members believe that the spirits of the dead can communicate with the living through mediums, and in the late 1800s, there were as many as several million spiritualists in America.
Some of those would travel from New York, Boston and surrounding communities by steamship to Northport, where the summer camp featured mediums, seances, messages from the afterlife, faith healers and much more. They would travel alongside Methodists heading for Bayside, a community a couple miles farther north that was founded in 1849 by the Methodist Episcopal Church of Maine.
After docking, the adherents of the two religions went very separate ways, separate not just by a few miles but also by widely divergent tenets.
“In church, we have healing, the laying on of hands,” Jean Bower, treasurer of the Temple Heights Spiritual Camp Association and president of the church, said recently. “We have short greetings from spirit, where the medium proves to us the continuity of life. There is no death and there are no dead. That’s what makes our service different from others.”
The 78-year-old Belfast woman, who worked as the breakfast manager of the local McDonald’s for nearly a quarter of a century, said that spiritualism to her is a way of life. Even if some co-workers and community members didn’t understand her religion, it didn’t faze her.
“We have 10 principles we live by. The most important to me is the Golden Rule and personal responsibility. In this world today, people are not taught personal responsibility,” she said. “I was taught that I was personally responsible for anything I do. We don’t believe that Jesus is our savior. But we believe he is the greatest medium and healer that ever lived — and he is our brother.”
Bower said that there are more spiritualist churches in Maine than in any other state in the country, with nine that belong to the National Spiritualist Association of Churches. And Temple Heights, she said, is special.
“The peaceful feeling when I get in here, when I walk through the doors, to me it feels like I’m coming home,” she said. “I can feel the love. If you’re feeling bad, it can make you feel peaceful. It has that wonderful healing power. Especially for people who have someone who has just passed on, they leave with a peaceful feeling. To me, that’s important.”
She estimated that, over the course of a summer at the camp, as many as a thousand people take part in the readings, message circles and church services presided over by mediums who come from all around the country, just as they did a century ago. In the next couple of weeks, the curious or the believers can take part in table tipping, attend a workshop to develop their tools as a medium, psychic or clairvoyant, learn about herbalism and more. Some sleep there, too, with rooms available at the rate of $45 a night.
The occasional nighttime supernatural visits are free, according to guests such as the Rev. Pat Beers of Morgantown, W.Va.
“This is a good, loving, happy energy,” the medium said recently after describing waking up last year to two spirit ladies in her bedroom in the middle of the night.
Bonnie Lateiner of Belfast, who runs a business called The Intuitive Path out of her home, said after the church service that Temple Heights is a boon to the Maine community of healers and psychics.
“It’s unusual to have this kind of thing dealt with in an organized way,” she said.