Take It On Faith: Aimee Semple McPherson and Romani “Gypsies” at Angelus Temple, Los Angeles, 1923

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A recent post on this blog featuring a 1924 issue of the Los Angeles magazine, Saturday Night, included mention of a short editorial piece in the Samuel T. Clover-edited journal concerning the evangelist and faith healer, Aimee Semple McPherson, and her relationship with Romani “gypsies” as part of her increasing popular work in Los Angeles, which began in 1918.

This included the official dedication on New Year’s Day 1923 of her Foursquare Church’s Angelus Temple, the substantial circular place of worship on Sunset Boulevard in the Echo Park neighborhood of the Angel City that would be filled by thousands of worshippers on Sundays as “Sister Aimee” employed her considerable powers of speech and persuasion in multiple services that included music, faith healing, and spellbinding sermons.

Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 4 November 1921.

Among those present at the opening of the church were a large and colorful contingent of gypsies, who’d become followers of McPherson when she was on one of her national evangelical tours. For example, she was in Rochester, New York in early November 1921, conducting services at the city’s Convention Hall, when, as reported by the Democrat and Chronicle of 4 November,

At the close of the service . . . a picturesque group of gypsies mounted the platform to be prayed for by Mrs. McPherson in an attempt to rid them of diseases and afflictions . . . In the group were twenty-six members of three families living in Maryland, Massachusetts and Colorado. They were attracted to Mrs. McPherson’s revival in this city through the fact that one of their tribe of Serbian gypsies was apparently cured of [a] tumor by Mrs. McPherson at Davenport, Iowa.

The article went on to observe that “the men were dressed well in American fashion, but the women were brilliant in bright cerise and colored silk scarfs and kerchiefs.” It continued by noting that a man was said to have been healed by Sister Aimee, in resplendent white costume, of rheumatism, while the evangelist anointed the forehead of a baby, who reportedly had some unstated “internal disease,” and prayed fervently over the child.

Democrat and Chronicle, 20 November 1921.

A chief’s son with ear trouble returned to his seat in great joy over being able to hear properly again, while other gypsies with gall stones, appendicitis, muscular troubles and other maladies, while the chief with rheumatism danced happily, about 300 of them were said to have converted to Christianity, and, naturally, “they left with her gold coins from all countries and $10 and $20 bills.” Sister Aimee informed the gypsies that “this money . . . would be applied toward the building of a tabernacle near Los Angeles.”

In May 1922, Sister Aimee evangelized at the Forum in Wichita, Kansas, and that city’s Beacon newspaper, in its edition of the 19th, quoted Frank Mitchell, said to be a gypsy leader from St. Louis, but who purported “was trained in the Los Angeles schools, as well as on the Mexican border,” as proclaiming, “Gypsies love Jesus. I think they love him more than other people [do].” The gypsy contingent was camped five miles north of the city and Mitchell stated there were about 350 of them from all over the country.

Democrat and Chronicle, 21 November 1921.

The article noted that the nomads were summoned to the Kansas city by Mitchell and Dewey Marks, a chief from New York state, and it added, “when the revival is over here, many of the families plan to meet Mrs. McPherson again in Denver” while “some of them will go to Los Angeles where they will enroll in her Bible school.” The piece concluded with the report that “several tribes, among them the Marks, Miller and Mitchell, have dedicated money to buy stained glass windows for the tabernacle which Mrs. McPherson is building in Los Angeles.”

In its coverage of the dedication of the Angelus Temple, the Los Angeles Times of 2 January 1923 noted that, as many thousands thronged to the house of worship and McPherson conducted an outdoor service to attend to the enormous crowd,

The 140 gypsies who were present at yesterday’s service have driven here from points as far distant as New York and Florida. They have come to hear the message of the woman who has made their wellfare [sic] her own. They are a people who have no Bible in their own language, and whom no one ever had endeavored to teach them the principles of the Christian religion. Mrs. McPherson has devoted a great deal of her time to their instruction . . . They have accepted her teachings and are flocking to hear her sermons.

In his lengthy coverage of the opening, Don Ryan of the Los Angeles Record, also from the 2nd, colorfully concluded that if Sister Aimee was not an evangelist, “she could have been a queen of musical comedy” and added that “she has magnetism such as few women since Cleopatra have possessed.” Notably, he felt that McPherson didn’t even understand “the secret of this power” which drew so many thousands to her Four-Square Gospel services.

Wichita Beacon, 19 May 1922.

Ryan continued that the evangelist “clover her way from the center of a band of gypsies packed about her on a hilltop near Elysian park” to greet him as “her swart[hy] followers fell back respectfully.” He added that “the leaders of the gypsy tribes had been conferring with the white sister about seating arrangements for the nomads at the revival meetings” at the temple and that “a section has been reserved for them.”

The reporter quoted Sister Aimee as saying, “the gypsies are just like children. Their faith is so simple” noting that she was the first to minister to them about Christ and that she would get a phonetic translation of the Bible for them. She concluded to Ryan that “we send missionaries to India and Africa, while here is a whole unconverted nation within our gates.”

Beacon, 21 May 1922.

Ryan then reported that “Mrs. Papa Lee,” in a “picturesque costume” and felt slippers, sitting on a car cushion, was summoned by McPherson and walked with a bit of a limp. The minister told the reporter that “she couldn’t walk when she came here this morning. I prayed for her and Jesus saw fit to let her walk again.” Dewey Marks then came up and related how his mother was suffering from multiple maladies before the ministrations of Sister Aimee, before she introduced “Steve Uwaniwich,” head of the tribe of that name and addressed him with “tell what Jesus did for you, Steve.”

With squatting gypsy women “chanting softly in wild, plaintive voices” a Christian hymn taught them by McPherson, Ryan quoted the gypsy chieftain as saying

I hada lumbago. Rheumatism. Kidney trouble. I hada fourteen, fifteen year. Hardly walk. Ev’ coupla or t’ree week I wear out a cane. Sister McPherson pray for me an’ today I gotta new life. Praise da Lor’!

Descending down the hill to her new place of worship, Sister Aimee told the journalist, “I wanted it like God’s own outdoors. So the gypsies and people of that sort would feel more at home. The churches seem to have lost the intimacy we get in theaters. I tried to get that intimacy here.” Noting the colors, the dome’s sky arch, the foyers and the theater-like seating, Ryan added “the only churchly touch is in the windows, depicting the life of Christ” and noted “the gypsies donated the Cavalry window.”

Los Angeles Times, 2 January 1923.

In his column of the 15th, Ryan returned to the Temple’s services and observed “what strange sight is this? Why it’s a gypsy family going up for prayers. Two gypsy women in those barbaric covered silks. Flaming red turbans on their heads.” With young boys going coatless, he inquired whether this was sacrilegious in a house of worship, but answered with “it’s all right. The Lord said, ‘Let all nations come!'”

The journalist then noted, “Sister Aimee is actually kissing one of the gypsy women! Her fair white face pressed against the copper cheek of the sick woman. The latter’s face lights up. She bends the knee and quickly, furtively, kisses the hand of the healer.” Ryan’s report ended with the statement, “Amen! Oh, Lord, give us more faith. Faith like that of a little child!” Again, the gypsies were, just as the clothing was always seen as relics of barbarism, viewed emotionally and intellectually as children, while their darker southern European features and skin color were contrasted with the pure whiteness of McPherson.

Los Angeles Record, 2 January 1923.

At the end of March, the Record had a brief report on the search by a thousand persons for two boys from San Bernardino who disappeared from their homes, calling the effort the largest such ever in regional history. As was the case with a heart-rendering situation involving two sisters who vanished in Los Angeles in September 1924, Sister Aimee organized her own part of searchers, while a spiritualist from Colton failed to find any trace of the youngsters as she guided volunteers in Lytle and Waterman canyons.

The paper recorded that the minister of the Angelus Temple, “where many gypsies go for prayer, has asked her friends to aid in the search,” while it added that authorities had considered the possibility the boys were abducted “by a band of roving gypsies,” but abandoned that theory “as all the gypsy camps throughout Southern California have been inspected.”

Record, 15 January 1923.

In the 20 May edition of the Times, reader A.J. Clark wrote to testify to the good news from McPherson’s ministry at the Temple, suggesting that business leaders and politicians could erase debt in the Angel City if it applied the approaches of Sister Aimee in her work and adding that Mayor George Cryer “admitted that it was the greatest power for good in the city” and that City Hall “had already begun to feel the effects of it.” Clark added that the gypsies were among radicals, criminals, boxers and gamblers who were converted by her work and ended by exhorting locals to donate to the church so that the furnishings could be completed.

A few weeks later, the paper’s columnist Alma Whitaker wrote of Sister Aimee’s efforts “to raise and train two future ‘Gypsy” Smiths for posterity’s salvation” with a three-year old and a baby who were the sons of George and Rosie “Wywoniwitch” and nephew of Princess Mary of the tribe of that name. The youngsters were rechristened Robert and John Stephen and the ceremony of accepting them for their future work included “a gaily clad, queer-looking throng of gypsies” at the service.

Record, 6 April 1923.

A few days prior, Whitaker continued, a very busy McPherson “managed to take in a complimentary gypsy picnic . . . when she was the honor[ed] guest of the Wywoniwitch tribe in the San Fernando Valley.” The columnist then stated that

There are numerous interesting things about the gypsies—especially this tribe, which is wealthy. For one thing they declare they never lose their teeth. All that gold they parade in their mouths is there purely for style, because they can afford it and that is a good way to safekeep one’s gold . . . It must be confessed that the gypsies, even the rich ones, don’t seem to specialize in modern hygiene . . . but they have a splendid contempt for sickness.

Whitaker concluded that “Papa George and Mama Rosie have undertaken to rear” their sons “in the healthy gypsy fashion, under the guidance of Miss [Mrs.] McPherson, so they are not to be contaminated with the ills of civilization” and she offered that it would not be the fault of the evangelist “if Robert and John Stephen do not arise in their might to save the sinners of 1950.”

Times, 20 May 1923

The next major matter related to Sister Aimee and the gypsies was the planned “coronation” of Stephan Yovanovich, as the previous spellings were now rendered, as king of his subjects at an Angelus Temple service on 23 September 1923. The Times reported that the potentate, who was said to be residing in Alhambra, was to be anointed as monarch at a mid-afternoon service.

It was further noted that “for several days gypsies have been gathering for the event and many are camped in Compton.” Some came from the Atlantic states, with many in cars, but others “in the old picturesque wagons with pictures on the sides,” while the previous evening a contingent came in from Chicago by train. A wedding was also planned for the following day and “gifts were presented to Aimee Semple McPherson in observance of the wedding custom, last night.”

Times, 14 June 1923.

The account noted that the evangelist “has been taken to the heart of the gypsies of America who look to her as their spiritual head” and repeated the account that she healed a baby in Rochester.” It added that “recently some of the gypsies selected a lot in the suburbs which they presented to her, telling her that there she should build a home; a place to come to rest away from her work.” Another account stated that gypsies bought and gave McPherson land near the Temple along the Elysian Hills.

The report ended with

To her they tell their tribal traditions and secrets. She is not a boyer (outsider) to the gypsies; she is one of them. She will wear the traditional gypsy costume at the coronation ceremonies today.

Yet, the next day, the Times ran a lengthy report under the headline “King Steve’s Crown Slips,” in which it was reported that Stephan, “the nominal head of a roving band of gypsies camped near Compton” and who “ruled his tribe wisely and well,” was not to be invested with the monarchical title at the appointed hour after all.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 24 September 1923.

After McPherson released a statement of the cancellation of the ceremony and media queries were submitted, the answer was that “the gypsies are waiting on some of the chieftains from New York to be present and vote on the new king.” Not only this, but it was added that the decision to crown Stephan was premature and that another candidate might be on his way from the Empire State to claim the royal privilege.

An Angelus Temple official, who went unidentified, but who was said to be in charge of publicity for the coronation, was asked about any dissension among the gypsies over the elevation of the presumed monarch and the reluctant reply was “yes, I believe there seems to be a little hesitancy in electing him king.” He insisted, however, that the next Sunday “we expect there will be 500 gypsies from all over the United States present for the coronation” including chiefs from thirty tribes to cast their ballots.

Los Angeles Express, 22 September 1923.

Moreover, it was speculated that the assemblage might even choose to forego the selection of a king, so, meanwhile, “King Stephan, also known as Steve, sits on a tottering throne,” though it was asserted that, even if he was denied the crown, “he will retain his place as head of his tribe.” His mother, Maria, would remain as queen and his sister Rosie Haribo as princess and the two women were, at the aborted ceremony, “attired in the gaudy-colored shawls, long earrings, and picturesque garments of the nomads.” Even as the ceremony was scuttled, 100 gypsies attended the service in a reserved section and Sister Aimee spent a half-hour lauding them for “their character and changed attitude toward the Christian religion.”

When the next weekend arrived, however, it was decided that the presumptive monarch chose to abdicate, as the Long Beach Press put it, the switch “turned the coronation ceremonies . . . into a ceremony declaring fealty to the God of the Christian religion.” This was done both in the language of the gypsies and in English. The paper added that the intended accession to the throne was the result of the death, two months prior on 27 August, at the Compton camp of George Thompson, denoted as “the leader and founder of the gypsy league,” but Stephan Yovanovich was to “remain nominal head of the gypsy tribe in America.”

Times, 24 September 1923.

The Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News of 1 October reported that Steve briefly told the crowd at the Temple, “We will accept Jesus Christ as our King. Uncle Sam is to be our leader. Sister Aimee Semple McPherson [is] our best friend.” The article, though, stated that the faith healer worked her wonders on a baby at the Compton camp along the Los Angeles River and this was why the Temple was regularly visited by gypsies. The Record stated there were 150 gypsies at the conversion ceremony, but that there were some 300,000 of them in the United States.

In its account, the Times, also of the 1st, quoted Steve as saying “we have a President in Washington. We have the Lord, who is King of kings. We have decided we do not need a king of the gypsies.” With that brief announcement, the conversion began and the paper added that the ceremony included the sight that

The red, green, and other bright colors of the women’s dresses, the shiny gold coins dangling from their ears and the solemn faces merged in a combination of tones that contrasted with the white dresses of the temple workers.

How the compromise was negotiated between Yovanovich, other gypsy tribal leaders, and Sister Aimee and others at the Angelus Temple would certainly be interesting to know, as would more details about the nature of the relationship between the evangelist and the gypsies who evidently contributed substantial sums towards the construction of the house of worship including its stained glass windows.

Long Beach Press, 1 October 1923.

About a year later, the Romani were the subject of significant local media attention as a conflict arose involved a purported kidnapping of one of the Mitchell clan, a topic covered in a prior post here. The story of the connections of McPherson and the Roma people of greater Los Angeles, however, is a very interesting one, including the early days of the Angelus Temple as partially related in this post.

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