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Religion: Passion in Ashes

2 minute read

At the beginning of last week Wilbur Glenn Voliva, General Overseer of the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church in Zion, Ill., felt comparatively agreeable. The Passion Play with which he hoped to make Zion the U. S. Oberammergau (TIME, March 29) was doing well. In an approaching municipal election Mr. Voliva believed his adherents would be victorious, thus restoring him to complete power over Zion. Then, one morning, Overseer Voliva directed his chauffeur to drive him past Shiloh Tabernacle, the rambling frame structure built by Zion’s Founder John Alexander Dowie, in which the Passion Play was being performed every Sunday. To his horror, black smoke “in five different and widely separated places” was billowing out of the Tabernacle and Overseer Voliva later said he heard 15 explosions. Zion’s head theocrat frantically summoned firemen. Le Roy Peacy, the salesman who was Christus in the Passion Play, rescued his costume, but the building burned quickly, set fire to the Church’s adjacent broadcasting station, lay in ruins before Zion and Waukegan firemen could do much about it.

Overseer Voliva estimated the loss at $600,000, said he had $23,000 insurance, declared that the fire was incendiary, set by enemies of the Passion Play which, he said, “aroused terrific opposition among an element of this community which I have fought for 30 years.” An anti-Volivan named Rev. Theodore Pfeiffer denied that the fire was set but admitted there had been opposition. “The fire,” he said, “was a judgment of God against the turning of the Tabernacle into a theatre.” This week a Zionite named Thomas Griffith, 19, confessed to setting the fire, with kerosene, “to get even with Overseer Voliva for failing to provide funds last summer to bury Griffith’s foster-mother.”

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