Growing up in the 'Holy Family'

The Toronto Sun/October 1, 2006
By Michele Mandel

As a child growing up behind the high walls of a gothic English mansion, Kate Barlow had no idea she was a descendant of the "Holy Family" living in the midst of a dying religious cult.

After her parents' marriage ended when she was 6, Barlow and her mother and sisters went to live with her grandmother and a bevy of aging women on a rambling estate in the English countryside known as Agapemone, Greek for the Abode of Love.

The tales of sex and scandal that surrounded her odd family remained a mystery until Barlow was 14 at boarding school.

"Did you know," a classmate asked her, "that your grandfather thought he was Jesus Christ?"

Barlow, 65, relates the memory with a bemused smile as she sits in her pretty Oakville home overlooking the lake. "I didn't know the words 'cult' and 'sect,'" she recalls. "It was quite a shock. You don't want to be any different than anyone else at that age and I was finding out that our family was considerably different."

From that point on, Barlow began a journey to unravel the bizarre tale of her extraordinary family history. The result is Abode of Love, a memoir just published in Canada by Goose Lane, after earlier printings in Britain and Australia.

"After I learned about my grandfather I thought that was the end of it. But things got weirder and weirder," she says. "I learned that my family was known as the Holy Family and that my mother and her brothers were known as Glory, Power and Life.

"Nobody would tell me the whole story. My mother desperately wanted us to have a normal life."

We tend to think of cults as modern inventions, but the Agapemone was an apocalyptic messianic sect founded back in the 19th century by Henry Prince, a defrocked Anglican clergyman who claimed to be the Holy Spirit. Using the vast resources of hundreds of wealthy believers, Prince built the Abode of Love, a 20-bedroom estate for those who would turn over their money in return for a promise that they would be saved from Armageddon.

It was the harbinger of everything we now associate with cults: Charges of financial and sexual improprieties, brainwashing, lawsuits, staged rescues by desperate family members and outrage in the press. Newspapers at the time were scandalized by the secret goings-on behind the high walls, including legend that Brother Prince was helping himself to numerous "soul brides," with one of the marriages consummated publicly on a scarlet-covered table serving as an altar.

By secretly hunting though old bureaus and diaries, Barlow discovered that her maternal grandfather, John Hugh Smyth-Pigott, was Prince's protege, recruited to proselytize from the movement's extravagant new London church, the "Ark of the Covenant" -- a building still owned by her family to this day. After Prince's shocking death in 1899 -- after all, he had declared himself immortal -- Barlow's charismatic grandfather took over the cult that now had followers throughout Europe and America.

In 1902, the new leader would make an audacious claim that would lead to virtual riots outside his church. Barlow's grandfather took to his pulpit in north London and declared himself the Messiah on his Second Coming. Jostled by angry mobs, Smyth-Pigott retreated behind the high walls of the Agapemone where he was known to all as "Dear Beloved."

But there was more, Barlow would discover.

By piecing together clues from old letters and conversations with the old ladies, she was shocked to learn that her grandmother had never been legally married to the cult leader. Instead, "Sister Ruth" had been his "spiritual bride" and, with their three children, lived under the same roof with Dear Beloved's real wife.

Smyth-Pigott, it seems, was a busy man. She found that he also had many affairs with his enamoured harem of believers -- including trysts with both a mother and her daughter.

He died before she was born -- and most of his Agapemonites soon drifted away. By the time Barlow came to live at the commune, only his spiritual bride and many of his aging consorts remained -- with their secrets intact.

After its long history of scandal, the estate was sold in 1962. "My mother kept it going until the last old lady had died."

Not a religious woman herself, Barlow finds it hard to understand how so many were swept along by her grandfather. "Cults can certainly be dangerous," admits the author, who came to Canada in 1980. "He did ruin some lives. He did make things very difficult for his children and to some extent, his grandchildren."

Still, Barlow is loath to condemn this powerful man she believes became trapped by his claims of divinity. "I think he would have been very hard to dislike," she says.

Over the years, the former Hamilton Spectator reporter got used to the raised eyebrows she gets when trying to explain her strange past. "Skeletons in the family cupboard are one thing," she writes in her book. "Messiahs quite another."

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