Séances & Sunburns
For 128 years, a rustic oceanfront resort in Northport has served as a spiritual retreat for summer folk, living and dead.
- By: Charlotte Albright
- Photography by: Herb Swanson
Many coastal communities see their population swell after Memorial Day. But Temple Heights Spiritualist Camp, overlooking Penobscot Bay, just outside of Northport, is different. A fair number of the summer people who show up there are dead. Apparently, that doesn’t stop them from attending church on Sundays, which is where photographer Herb Swanson and I were heading on a rainy morning last summer.
First, we dropped into the spartan white wooden lodge to meet a few Temple Heights campers, sipping coffee at a long kitchen table. A tall, outgoing guy stood up to greet us with a vigorous handshake. “Too bad you weren’t here last night,” the Reverend John Lilek said, handing me a business card that read Ordained Minister, Certified Medium & Teacher. “We saw Abraham Lincoln.”
I have never been sure how a reporter should cover events some would call paranormal. Curious participant? Or skeptical bystander?
“His huge hands showed up red on the digital camera,” Lilek assured me.
But the amateur photographer of the séance was nowhere to be found. “Red-handed Lincoln?” I wrote in my notebook.
Lilek and his wife, Kathleen Hoffman, whose card reads Spiritual Empowerment Services, had spent a week leading worship services and channeling the departed at Temple Heights, an affiliate of the National Spiritualist Association of Churches whose members believe that spirits of the dead reside in the spirit world and can be contacted by mediums. Each week features a different itinerant pastor, many of whom also offer psychic readings, table tippings, and séances. Prices range from eighty dollars for an hour-long private reading to fifteen dollars per person for a table-tipping séance, in which spirits communicate by tilting a table. Each of the eight rooms in the lodge can be rented for about forty dollars a night.
On this day, a new medium has arrived. An attractive blonde nurse from Orlando, Florida, named Sharon Watson swept into the kitchen wearing an off-white suit and a radiant smile. A church bell rang. Pastor Watson led her charges to the chapel, where they joined a few others scattered in wooden pews. Eight congregants sang the opening hymn in quavery voices barely audible over the antique pump organ in the back. Then they read the precepts of Spiritualism found in the large red leather book at the end of every pew. But most of them didn’t need to look at the book.
“We affirm that the existence and personal identity of the individual continues after the change called death,” they chanted. “We affirm that the precepts of prophesy and healing are divine attributes proven through mediumship.”
The rain stopped and shafts of sun pierced lace curtains, rustling gently. Her blonde hair backlit, Pastor Watson looked beatific on stage. A few church officials — all middle-aged women — surrounded her in comfortable armchairs.
After the precepts came the healing session. Two of the women stepped cautiously off the stage and stood behind wooden chairs in front of the pews. One by one, people left pews to sit in the chairs and drop their heads as the healers laid hands on their shoulders. The organist played softly, a hymn I vaguely remembered from my Episcopalian childhood.
This sort of thing has been happening here for 128 summers. Temple Heights Spiritual Camp was founded on this spectacular waterfront spot by Dr. Benjamin Colson, a herbalist and healer believed to have cured the sick daughter of then-governor of Maine, Frederick Robie. The grateful governor gave Colson four thousand dollars and one hundred acres to start the camp where Spiritualists could go on vacation while sharing — and eventually selling — clairvoyance.
Temple Heights and two other summer camps in Maine, at Etna and Madison, were riding a Spiritualist wave that crested in Rochester, New York, in 1848. That’s when two teenagers named Kate and Maggie Fox claimed they heard the spirit of a dead peddler rapping on their bedroom wall. One of the girls later recanted the whole story, but then recanted her recanting. Meanwhile, Spiritualists multiplied throughout the Northeast — especially in Maine. In addition to the summer camps, there are four year-round churches: in Northport (the services move from Temple Heights to the Masonic Hall after Labor Day), Augusta, Bangor, and Westbrook.
All are founded on the notion that the dead can communicate with the living. As a Spiritualist might typically ask a skeptical Catholic, “So you only talk to people you can see? What about Jesus? And Mary? And God?”
Pastor Watson gave an upbeat sermon you could hear in almost any church on a sunny Sunday. But then the service took an otherworldly turn.
“Lady in front? In purple?” Pastor Watson asked. The woman nodded her head.
“I have a couple here,” Watson said in a throaty voice, raising her hands, palms open, eyes closed. “They were husband and wife but they passed separately. I mean, I feel like they were — not getting along.” Pause. “Now they are.” The woman in purple nodded and grinned. “They know you’re in the middle of taking three very specific steps. It’s a process. Don’t rush it.” Pastor Watson lowered her hands and peered at the woman in purple. “Does that make any sense?” she asked, as if she had been speaking a different language.
“Yes,” the woman replied. “Definitely.”
Pastor Watson conveyed similarly encouraging messages to other worshippers, mostly from loving relatives identified by a single, striking visual trait. Some spirits were unusually tall. One was grandmotherly, with a “solid” build. Another had lips that “start moving before he actually talks.” Working her way to the back of the chapel, Pastor Watson looked straight at me. “Does the reporter want a message?”
I looked up from my notebook.
She took that as a yes.
“I have a gentleman here who is six feet tall,” she began. “He had a disease, but his transition was presented in a way that wasn’t really true.” I shifted in the pew, not wanting to remember my former father-in-law taking his last breaths in a hospital room. I found out later he had died not from a heart attack or stroke as I had thought, but from leukemia. “He says you’ll be doing something on television in two years and this time, you should do it your way.”
Punning aside, television is not my favorite medium. I marked the notebook page and resolved to check this fact in 2012.
Pastor Watson next glanced at Herb Swanson (who happens to be my husband). Behind his camera, he shook his head no. She channeled a few more souls for other people and then asked him again. He looked at me and shrugged.
“I see a grandmother,” Pastor Watson told him, “and she has with her a photographer. He’s got one of those old cameras on a tripod, with a cloth over his head. He’s not related to you. He says you’ve been missing a step in your process, somehow.”
She paused for about fifteen seconds, like a computer that has to buffer too much data. “You’ve lost something but you’re looking in the wrong place for it. It’s in a house, in a box about this big.” She stretched her arms wide enough to carry a microwave oven.
For years now Herb has been looking in vain for a bunch of valuable slides that he thought he had stored in a box about that size. He was unusually close to his grandmother. “Margaret,” he mouthed, but I couldn’t tell if he was feeling visited or duped.
The tiny congregation left their pews, formed a circle, and asked spirits to join them in a final benediction.
Then came a potluck in the kitchen, where Temple Heights regulars reminisced about how they came, sometimes reluctantly, to Spiritualism.
“I landed here not knowing much about it,” Jeanne Bower told us as she tossed a big salad. “I was thirty-nine, divorced, seven kids. I hadn’t gotten out very much.”
That was in 1974. She had been brought to Temple Heights as a baby in the 1930s, because both her father and her father’s mother had been Spiritualists. “Plenty of people had séances back then,” she said, “but they didn’t talk about it.”
But as soon as she arrived at Temple Heights for the second time, her late father “spoke” to her. “He kind of shook my arm,” she recalled, and he said, “ ‘So happy you’re here. They’ve been waiting.’ ”
Other members of her family, including her late sister, were skeptical about all this. “She had cancer last fall,” Bower said of her sister. “I was with her. I’d whisper, ‘Let go.’ She died two days before Christmas, and the first thing she told me after she passed over was ‘I hate to be wrong, but everything you told me about the other side is right.’ ”
Bower, who retires as summer lodge-keeper this year, is one of the oldest members of the Temple Heights community, and she remembers some dark hours. In the mid-1990s, the camp’s manager, Valerie van Winkle, was charged with witchcraft and expelled by the National Spiritualist Association of Churches. Van Winkle denied casting spells on a former town clerk of Northport, but she lost her position.
At the time, said current president Ernie Van Den Bossche, “There was more money going out than coming in. The buildings were in really bad shape.”
But there’s been a big turnaround. “Last year was the most prosperous we have ever had,” Van Den Bossche told me after the potluck. He doesn’t want to tote up for publication the number of visitors or dollars, but he will say revenues from readings, séances, mediumship classes, and healing sessions were ample enough to give visiting psychics and healers 50 percent, and still have more than twenty thousand dollars left for badly needed maintenance. Like all the board members, Van Den Bossche volunteers his time. He and his life partner, fellow medium Bonnie Lee, are renovating one of the gingerbread cottages in the Heights — the last to be inhabited by Spiritualists. The others have been sold off to secular summer people.
Van Den Bossche is a Reiki master and hypnotherapist who’s trying to bring more of these alternative therapies to the spiritualist diet at Temple Heights. He also wants to offer more “mediumship education.” “People want what we have to offer,” he told me. “It all used to be taboo. But now it’s mainstream, not ‘woo-woo’ stuff.”
Influenced by the writings of the twentieth-century clairvoyant and healer Edgar Cayce, Van Den Bossche takes a quasi-scientific approach to the connection between body and spirit. “Spirit taps in through senses and memories. It’s a state of mind that everyone goes into every day — like a kind of hypnosis,” he told me.
There was no table tipping on the day we visited, so I asked Ernie to describe it.
“It’s the physical phenomena of spirit,” he answered after a long pause. “The table works like a big Ouija board, without letters. Instead, it answers ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions by tipping, sometimes all the way to the floor — and sometimes people have to kind of dance with it, chasing it around the room.”
“Does it always work?” I asked.
“If there’s a good facilitator,” he said.
He could probably sense my skepticism, but didn’t try to quell it.
“When I first came here, a couple of ladies kind of accosted me on the porch and started telling me what spirits wanted me to hear. I felt pounced on. I don’t want to be like that,” he said.
He doesn’t want to dampen curiosity, either. On the night of our visit he invited us to the evening Medium Development circle, led in the lodge by Pastor Watson. Herb declined and waited in the kitchen, his coat in his lap. This time I wanted to remain completely aloof, so I took a chair outside the circle, near the door.
There would be no séance. “I don’t do transfiguration,” the pastor explained.
“I do guided meditation.” Six participants closed their eyes as she asked them to imagine a gazebo in a field, and then let their imaginations take over. After about twenty minutes, she asked for reports.
“I met a new spirit guide,” one happily volunteered.
“I ended up in a desert,” said another. “I saw a large bird. A feather fell off. I picked it up. The scene went away, and I got three numbers — 114.”
“I’m thinking mega-bucks,” said another meditator. Raucous laughter. Then she looked across the twilit room at me.
“I sense you don’t want a message,” she said, “but I hope you don’t mind if I give it to you anyway because I saw a man who very much wants to talk to you. He’s fatherly, and his head has a perfect bald circle in the back.”
My father, who died when I was thirteen, did look like Friar Tuck in my Robin Hood book.
“He says he’s proud of you, that you have taken off a mask, that you will have great success, that you are going some place far away — a one-way ticket. He’s laughing. ‘Bon voyage,’ he’s telling you.”
My father said that a lot.
“And he’s saying you shouldn’t worry about the money.”
He would say that, too.
“Egypt,” the medium added. “You’re going to Egypt.”
Not likely. Still. That perfect bald circle. I can’t get it out of my mind.
As for Herb’s lost slides — the ones the grandmotherly spirit told him he was searching for in the wrong place — they haven’t turned up.
He’s still looking, though.
- By: Charlotte Albright
- Photography by: Herb Swanson