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July 13, 2015

Scientology's Camden roots

City served as the church's eastern headquarters for several years

Created in Camden: the USS Indianapolis, the Navy ship sunk soon after delivering the uranium for Little Boy, the first deployed atomic bomb; Campbell’s condensed soup; the Victrola phonograph; and later, RCA.

Oh, and one more: Scientology.

Yup, the faith associated with flashy Hollywood — Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Elizabeth Moss, Jenna Elfman, Laura Prepon and recruitment at “Celebrity Centres” — has its roots in blue-collar Camden.

On Dec. 18, 1953, the church’s founder, science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard Sr., and four others, met on the second floor of the Smith-Austermuhl Building at 5th and Market streets in Camden’s downtown with lawyer William C. Gotshalk. The two-story brick and marble building, which still exists, housed insurance companies, financial institutions, and several law offices, including Gotshalk’s.

Built in 1920, the building sits catty-corner from City Hall and just down the street from the Federal Court House, amid the once-bustling hub of commercial Camden.

In the legal papers signed that day, Hubbard is identified as a resident of Medford Lakes, a secluded borough about 20 miles east of Camden. Hubbard lived in a rented home there for about four months, an odd location for a man whose homes tended toward grandiose. All of the homes in Medford Lakes look as if they are part of a summer camp, with small log cabins ringing shallow lakes. Records show the community had just 434 homes and 1,704 resident in 1953.

Hubbard’s son of the same name, and the son’s wife, Henrietta, are both listed on the legal documents as Camden residents.

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Beginning in 1953, the Journal of Scientology was published from Camden every two weeks by the Hubbard Association of Scientologists. Click for the full issue (pdf).

Hubbard’s right-hand man, John Galusha, who helped spread Dianetics, the self-help precursor to Scientology, was on hand. Dianetics was founded in New Jersey a few years earlier when Hubbard lived in Bay Head at the Jersey Shore. But financial issues and charges brought by the state medical board for practicing medicine without a license clouded Dianetics' future back then. Galusha eventually broke with Hubbard and created Idenics, also a self-help alternative to therapy, but he was with Hubbard when Scientology was incorporated in Camden.

Two local women, Verna Greenough of Bellmawr, Camden County, and Philadelphian Barbara Bryan, also signed three sets of incorporation papers filed with the Camden County clerk, all identical, except for the names.

One read: Church of American Science.

Another: Church of Spiritual Engineering.

The third, the name that stuck: Church of Scientology.

For a brief time, Scientology had quite a presence in Camden.

A building at 527 Cooper St. served in 1953 as Scientology’s first eastern headquarters. (There were also Scientology offices in Phoenix and London.) The Journal of Scientology was published from there every two weeks beginning in 1953 by the Hubbard Association of Scientologists. The building’s current owner, lawyer Thomas DeMarco, was unaware of its ties to Scientology.

Other Camden addresses used during the 1950s by the early Scientologists were 726 Cooper St., where Hubbard gave 70 lectures from Oct. 6 through Nov. 13, 1953, says Karin Pouw, the chief spokeswoman for Scientology. And from Nov. 17 through Dec. 22 of that year, Hubbard gave 57 additional lectures at 507 Market St., adds Pouw.

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Raymond Lamboy, president and CEO of the Latin American Economic Development Association, stands in front of the building at 5th and Market streets where the Church of Scientology was legally incorporated in 1953. The group owns the building. (Thom Carroll / PhillyVoice)

And yet, there is scant detail information and no official acknowledgment locally of the role played by Camden in the founding of Scientology from the Camden County Historical Society or the city of Camden.

The owner of the Smith-Austermuhl building was also unaware of the building’s ties to Scientology until approached by PhillyVoice.

“No one has ever inquired,” says Ray Lamboy, CEO of the Latin American Economic Development Association, the organization that owns the building and is headquartered there.

The building, like so many in Camden, was abandoned and empty in 1996 when LAEDA acquired it and spent $1.3 million to rehab the 18,000-square-foot building, which now includes a Bank of America branch. But there is no recognition of its role in the founding of Scientology.

“It’s a great little tidbit of trivia, but that won’t change anything,” Lamboy says.

One person who knows parts of Scientology’s Camden story is Bill Runyon, the caretaker of the home at 666 East Ave., Bay Head, where Hubbard wrote “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.”

The Bay Head home was bought and renovated by a Scientology-affiliated group as a Hubbard “heritage site.”

Runyon would like to see more of Hubbard’s presence in New Jersey fleshed out. But he knows some of that history from reading and talking with other Scientologists.

Hubbard first came to New Jersey toward the end of World War II, studying at a military government school while a Naval officer, not long before his discharge, Runyon points out.

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Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, left, chats with his friend, New York editor John W. Campbell Jr., in front of his Bay Head home in Ocean County. (Credit: www.lronhubbard.org)

After travels to places that included Los Angeles, Spain and London, Runyon says Hubbard returned to New Jersey, “to one of those log cabins” in Medford Lakes, “where he apparently knew someone” who rented a home to him.

The homeowners group, Medford Lakes Colony, has no record of where Hubbard might have lived, but that’s not surprising since he was a short-term renter, says Judy Smith, a resident for the past two decades.

From his Medford Lakes base, Hubbard gave lectures in Philadelphia in September, notes Runyon. The Camden talks began in October 1953.

“I think the area was a central point for printing and some of the groups,” interested in Dianetics and Scientology, says Runyon. “And he found buildings available for his lectures. It was a matter of convenience.”

By Christmas, Hubbard and his family had left the Camden area, apparently to never return. Scientology’s presence in downtown Camden lasted until sometime in 1955. The Founding Church of Scientology in Washington, D.C., opened in July and operations shifted there, says Pouw.

But the Philadelphia region has continuing strong ties to the religion through the church’s current leader, David Miscavige, who was born in Bucks County, but grew up in South Jersey’s Willingboro, and then Broomall, Delaware County.

His father, Ronald Miscavige Sr., who has lived in Upper Darby, and is estranged from both his son and the church, has recently signed a deal to write a tell-all memoir.

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