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Sunday, March 14, 2004

Swedenborgian mobster?

Want your church in the news? The Swedenborgian Church on Beacon Hill shows you how to arouse the interest of investigative reporters on the front page of this morning's Boston Globe: There's schism, full college tuition for members, lawsuits, racketeering charges, a sudden spike in membership, a convicted swindler as treasurer, a minister who excommunicates his in-laws, dreams of new church programs, and millions and millions of dollars!

Edward J. MacKenzie Jr. is a man of parts — many parts. A convicted drug dealer, he is the author of a maim-and-tell memoir about his years as a legbreaker for South Boston gangland leader Whitey Bulger.

He has been, as he describes himself, a man almost irresistibly drawn to cons and scams. He recently admitted to filing phony worker's compensation claims and is awaiting trial on charges of swindling $200,000 from an elderly woman. And he faces charges in another court that he threatened to kill his ex-wife by chaining a cinderblock to her leg and throwing her off a bridge.

He is, in short, a busy man.

But he finds time for church. Indeed, within months of joining, be became part of a new leadership circle that is shaking the rafters at Boston's Swedenborgian church — and raising doubts among some about how the church's wealth is being spent.

Upfront about his prolific rap sheet, MacKenzie has won an ally in the church's longtime pastor, the Rev. G. Steven Ellis, who sees him as a man who turned his back on crime, a sinner seeking spiritual sanctuary. Ellis, a Bible scholar who has been pastor of the Boston church for 22 years, has sided with MacKenzie against church elders, who are skeptical of MacKenzie's conversion and worried about his motives. Ellis did more than take MacKenzie's side. He nominated him for church treasurer, pushing aside his own mother-in-law.

And so in September, MacKenzie took office. It seemed like a very auspicious move.

For while the Bowdoin Street church is poor in numbers, it is rich by any other measure — and may soon become much richer. The church owns an 18-story apartment building above its chapel that churns out more than $1 million a year in clear profit, according to an October audit by the church's accountant. And a plan has been floated in Boston real estate circles to convert the building to condominiums, a move that the church estimates could yield as much as $75 million.

Oh, there's so much more! Not only did the church secede from the tiny Swedenborgian denomination, it revised its bylaws in astonishing ways:

Under a new set of church bylaws drawn up in November, it became much easier, and much faster, for new members to join. Ellis was given complete discretion in deciding who would be confirmed and how. Newcomers can now be admitted by a simple majority vote of existing church members; before, a two-thirds vote was required. Required doctrinal training, emphasizing Swedenborg's writings, was eliminated.

Gone, too, was a provision that any sale of church property be approved by two-thirds of members, and one that barred individuals from enriching themselves with church assets. A new provision calls for the expulsion of members deemed unworthy by a simple majority.

Wow. Excommunication by majority vote! Swedenborg must be rolling in his grave.

("A tiny church, a pot of gold, an ex-con spark a bitter feud," Kevin Cullen, Boston Globe 3.14.04)

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 14 March 2004 at 10:12 PM

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June 15, 2004 09:18 AM | Permalink for this comment

A follow-up: Today's Boston Globe reports:

Under pressure from the attorney general's office, a small, wealthy Beacon Hill church has agreed to submit its finances to government scrutiny and to control ''excessive spending" by new church leaders, including a self-described former con man, who have been accused in a lawsuit by disgruntled coreligionists of trying to loot one of the richest, if one of the more obscure, congregations in the city. . . .

Under the agreement, which could be approved by a Superior Court judge as soon as tomorrow, the church will hire an independent chief financial officer; submit any expense or sale of church property worth more than $10,000 to the attorney general for review; and convey assets worth more than $10,000 only if two-thirds of church members agree.

("Tiny congregation agrees to scrutiny of church finances," Kevin Cullen, Boston Globe 6.15.04)

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