BENTON HARBOR, Mich. (WOOD) — In its heyday, Mary’s City of David was a bustling religious commune nestled in a quiet neighborhood in Benton Harbor that hosted thousands of vacationers from Chicago. Now, its sole member is working to preserve its story.
“Our roots go back theologically to the 1650s in England,” Ron Taylor, a third-generation member of Mary’s City of David who joined in the 1970s, said. “A lady by the name of Jane Lead was a prophetess and a great writer. Her 60 Propositions, which outline the manner of the second coming, is something that we still follow.”
At the turn of the 20th century, the group came to America and made its way to Benton Harbor in 1903, establishing the Israelite House of David.
“Of the seven messengers that there were coming from England to America, the three most prominent of those messengers are women,” Taylor said.
According to the community’s website, the group believes that “abstinence and celibacy are necessary for the purification of the body to become the temple of the Holy Ghost.” The legitimacy of this belief and the community was challenged when allegations arose that founder Benjamin Purnell sexually abused two sisters who were former community members.
“(They) claim that they had been debauched by him,” a lawsuit filed Jan. 13, 1923, reads.
When police looked for Purnell, he went into hiding. Criminal warrants were issued in April 1923, charging him with statutory rape. According to the lawsuit, on Nov. 17, 1926, Purnell was arrested by state police. He was also charged with a similar offense against a third woman.
The Michigan attorney general alleged Purnell’s commune was a public nuisance, saying his religious practices were fraudulent and gave him an opportunity to abuse members. The state also said members were taught to lie to investigators to protect the commune and conspired to help Purnell avoid police.
The 51-day trial began on May 16, 1927. A judge found the Israelite House of David guilty and placed the colony in receivership. Purnell died in December 1927, but a legal back and forth continued.
After the trial, during the height of the Great Depression, the community split into two groups: the Israelite House of David and the newly established Mary’s City of David, founded by the late group leader’s wife Mary Purnell.
Mary’s City of David didn’t move far, establishing itself on 11 acres across the street from the Israelite House of David. It eventually grew to 141 acres with 81 buildings.
“They built it all themselves, basically,” Taylor said.
The community included a candy store, a laundromat, a printing shop, a carpenter shop, an auto repair shop, a blacksmith, a medical facility, a dental office, a bakery, a sawmill, a shoe repair shop, a public restaurant and more.
In the early 1930s, a resort was built on the property that became popular with the Orthodox Jewish community in Chicago, with over 300 people making the trip each summer.
“There were a number of Jewish resorts in Chicago and so Mary Purnell decided to take advantage of that and offered the Jewish people another accommodation. They built cottages all the way into the late 1930s…” Taylor said.
Taylor explained that this worked well with Mary Purnell’s community because its members are “Old Testament as well as New Testament people and regard the Jewish people as part of the salvation of Christ’s plan.”
Over the years, the relationship between the Mary’s City of David community and the Jewish community grew so much that the commune built a synagogue and residence for the visiting rabbi on its property.
“On Sundays, (Mary), according to the people I’ve talked to, would preach and the Jewish people had a section (in the auditorium)… and they would listen to her. And I asked these people, ‘Did the Jewish people continue to visit her and listen to her?’ And they said, ‘Oh yes. They loved Mary,'” Taylor said.
In the mid-1990s, after a decline in membership, Mary’ City of David opened a summertime museum at the request of the Berrien County Historical Association.
“We spent two years going through all the different places in the community and digging out little artifacts and little things we could find,” Taylor said.
The museum is currently in the auditorium of the community where Mary Purnell preached to her followers.
“There’s the place where Mary preached up on the stage,” Taylor said. “…There’s the original benches where people sat on.”
One section of the museum is dedicated to the Jewish communities that used to visit. Another is the sporting history of the community.
“Basketball and baseball are the big topics. Mary’s organization had the basketball team in the ’30s and ’40s,” Taylor said.
He explained that the basketball team traveled with the Harlem Globetrotters across the United States and traveled to Europe in the winter of 1954.
“The Globetrotters had kind of a peppered game act with their basketball. Well, the House of David and Mary’s City of David did the same thing with basketball and baseball,” he said.
In addition to being known for their long hair and beards, the baseball team was ahead of its time in many ways.
“One of the popular things about us was that we integrated baseball. We had the first female professional athlete, a pitcher, in 1933. Jackie Mitchell came out of the Chattanooga Ladies League and pitched for us. She made herself famous by striking out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig,” Taylor said. “…We went to St. Louis and played the St. Louis Cardinals and she beat them.”
With a wide range of skills among members, Mary’s House of David also got involved in the automotive industry.
“We got involved with an automobile that never got off the ground. It was called the Tucker Automobile built in 1948,” Taylor explained.
He said the vehicle “threatened the whole automobile industry.”
“Unfortunately it came into legal problems and Tucker lost out in the courtroom so they only made 50 of these cars,” Taylor said.
Several of the vehicles are now owned by the Gilmore Car Museum in Barry Township.
The community also produced its own food to support its vegan and vegetarian population.
“We had large tracks of land in the fruit industry as well as vegetable,” Taylor said.
The community also had a public restaurant that offered items like soups, vegetables, potatoes, eggs, pancakes, cereals, salads and more.
Outside the museum building, there are two gift shops: the museum gift shop and an arts and objects gift shop. The museum gift shop is in the former bakery. It offers reproduction pieces, photographs, books and more. The arts and objects gift shop is in the old vegetarian restaurant. It offers mementos and souvenirs from the community like old tools, old literature, things built by community members and more.
“(The idea) is having something on the property that people could take back, memories, mementos and so forth, and that’s what it’s geared for. It’s something that you can get here that you won’t find anywhere else,” Taylor said.
The museum is open during the summer on Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 and free for children 10 and younger. For more information on Mary’s City of David and the museum, visit the museum’s website.