LENOX, Mass. (AP) _ The evangelical Bible Speaks church will disappear from the state by Friday because of a court order to put a trustee in charge until the church repays an heiress $6.6 million in donations, a pastor said Monday.
″We have been driven out by the federal government,″ said the Rev. Thomas Schaller. ″The trustee appointment is intolerable, unacceptable.″
The church lost a lawsuit in U.S. Bankruptcy Court last month to a wealthy former parishioner who said she was hoodwinked into giving millions of dollars in stock and other gifts.
Judge James F. Queenan Jr. on Friday ordered the U.S. attorney general’s office to appoint a trustee to run the church until the money is repaid to Elizabeth Dovydenas.
Schaller said the church would disband before paying the money owed Mrs. Dovydenas, whose father was a founder of the chain store empire Dayton-Hudson Corp. of Minneapolis.
Schaller said the last service at the Lenox headquarters was held Sunday before 1,400 people and all pastors had resigned by Monday.
Rev. Carl H. Stevens Jr., the charismatic founder of the fundamentalist church, resigned last week and left for Baltimore, vowing not to return until the ruling was overturned, his attorney said. Schaller said a few pastors had followed Stevens.
Friday will be the final day of classes for the bible school’s 400 students, Schaller said. He said the staff at Stevens School of the Bible may set up another school, but under a different name and outside Massachusetts.
″At the moment 350 people are without homes and jobs. The last day of work is tomorrow,″ he said. ″Some may stay, some may go on missions ... but a substantial number are leaving Berkshire County.″
Mrs. Dovydenas’ lawyer called the move ″the final act of bad faith,″ but said he could do nothing to stop pastors from disbanding the church.
″They can preach anywhere they want to. That is perfectly legal,″ said attorney Gordon Walker. ″Our concern at this point is that the assets not be transferred wrongfully.″
Mrs. Dovydenas’ husband, Jonas, said he believed the church intended to set up its headquarters under another name to avoid paying the claim.
″I’m not worried about what they do,″ he said. ″What’s upsetting to think about is that there will be a lot of future victims from all this, a lot of people pressured to go along who will be suddenly uprooted.″
Mrs. Dovydenas had testified at the trial that she was led to believe her gifts would cause such miracles as curing the migraines of a pastor’s fiancee and freeing another pastor she was told was being tortured in Romania.
The lawsuit was filed in Berkshire Superior Court but was switched to U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Worcester at the church’s request. Queenan granted the church protection from creditors in October 1986 and ruled in March that Stevens had duped Mrs. Dovydenas.
Queenan said his order to appoint a trustee was due in part to a sudden exodus of church leaders last week. The resignations of pastors from their managerial posts had left inexperienced church members to run the organization, the judge said.
Bible Speaks claims it has 16,700 members in 45 churches in the United States and in 33 foreign countries.