Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Remained to Pray

May 18, 2024 by Marlene Wagman-Geller



“I am not a healer. Jesus is the healer. I am only the office girl

who opens the door and says, ‘Come in.’”

–Aimee Semple McPherson  


Foursquare Heritage Center-The Parsonage of Aimee Semple McPherson (opened 2006)

Los Angeles, California


A daunting endeavor for Canadians is achieving acclaim in the United States, but a few have made their mark. One of the successful was Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy from Ingersoll, Ontario, who transformed into America’s evangelist. Her spirit resides in the Parsonage of Aimee Semple McPherson.


The most colorful and controversial of evangelists was Sister Aimee, born in 1890, the only offspring of Methodist James Kennedy; he wed Mildred, (Minnie), when he was fifty, and his bride was fifteen. A prodigy at prayer, at age four, Aimee could recite all the Books of the Bible, taught her dog, Jip, about the Lord, and preached to the barnyard animals. The twelve-year-old’s oratory mesmerized a crowd of 15,000 in her province’s fabled Albert Hall.


Aimee attended a revival conducted by an Irish immigrant Pentecostal preacher, Robert Semple, who she married just before her eighteenth birthday. The Semples headed to China as missionaries; in Hong Kong, Robert died from malaria leaving his widow in Asia, without money, pregnant with daughter, Roberta Star.


Mother and baby headed for New York where Minnie, (Ma), had moved. After Aimee wed Harold McPherson, they held tent revivals on the East Coast. The life of itinerant preachers proved daunting as they washed diapers in streams and spent nights in tents fighting off mosquitoes. Harold abandoned his wife and their son, Rolf, and returned to his grocery business. At the wheel of her jalopy, Aimee drove throughout the country preaching fundamentalist salvation that she christened the Four-Square Gospel. The name alluded to the four cornerstones: regeneration, baptism in the Spirit, divine healing, and the Second Coming.


The nomadic life ended when Aimee received a divine message “that bade me build a house unto the Lord.”  She arrived in Los Angeles with $10.00 and her tambourine; with donations from the faithful, she purchased a property that faced Echo Park. On the premise, she founded the Evangelistic and Missionary Training Institute that attracted fifty students on its first day. Too small for a school, Aimee transformed the parsonage to her home where she lived for the next fourteen years. In the lot next door, she founded the 5,300-seat Angelus Temple that included a landmark dome, crystal doors, and a rooftop lighted cross visible from fifty miles away. The Angelus Temple housed the KFSG (Kall Foursquare Gospel), one of the first religious radio stations that delivered “the word” from Australia to Africa. Upon paying off the $1, 500,000 mortgage, on New Year’s Eve Sister Aimee burned the document in a huge urn on the temple’s dome. Klieg lights spotlighted the evangelist as she lighted a match while 15,000 onlookers cheered as white-clad clergy with white cloth wings danced on the dome.


With Bible under one arm and red roses in the other, Sister Aimee promised salvation. Amongst the congregation were thousands of the ill, the crippled, all begging to be healed. With a flair to the theatrical, dressed as a policewoman, she rode a motorcycle across her stage and cried out, “Stop! You’re speeding to Hell!” Actresses Clara Bow and Jean Harlow studied her performances. Allegedly, Aimee inspired Cole Porter’s song aptly named “Anything Goes.” Roberta and Rolf rode horses at actor Tom Mix’s stable while Aimee drove a black sedan painted with white letters: Jesus is Coming Soon Get Ready. Aimee visited leper colonies and provided succor to the women in the floating brothels on the Cantonese River. In an era rife with discrimination, Aimee held an egalitarian philosophy. Actor Anthony Quinn said that without the church’s intervention, the Mexican community would have starved during the Depression. While her fellow fundamentalist white Protestants maintained racial segregation, Aimee welcomed black preachers to her pulpit. A proponent of gender equality, she ordained female ministers.


Sister Aimee’s life was a nod to the Byronic “stranger than fiction” and whose popularity surpassed P. T. Barnum, Harry Houdini, and President Teddy Roosevelt. In 1926, upon returning from a trip to Palestine, Aimee was at Ocean Park Beach, California, where the evangelist in the green bathing suit swam past the pier. Afterwards, news of her death dominated the headlines; the Angelus Church Temple’s faithful held a month-long beachside vigil. Thirty-six days later, Sister Aimee reappeared in Agua Prieta, Mexico, across the border from Douglas, Arizona, explaining desperadoes had abducted her for a $500,000 ransom. Escape from an isolated shack came from cutting through her restraints with the jagged edge of a syrup can and walking for seventeen hours. News of her resurrection led to a media frenzy. Her flock was ecstatic, her critics, skeptical. The police questioned her abduction as her dress and shoes were pristine; she was neither sunburned nor dehydrated. Rumor held that the celebrity evangelist had been on a romantic tryst in a Carmel cottage with the married Kenneth Gladstone Ormiston, a KFSG engineer, who was AWOL at the same time. Aimee told reporters, “That’s my story, boys, and I’m sticking with it.” The Los Angeles district attorney ordered Aimee’s arrest on charges of “corruption of public morals, and obstruction of justice.” A judge eventually dropped the charges.


From that point on, Sister Aimee spent time battling in court, battling the court of public opinion, and battling her mother. Minnie and Aimee fought over the management of the temple; in one argument, Minnie claimed her daughter punched her in the nose. Ma retaliated by dishing dirt on Aimee’s finances. In a 1930 reconciliation, the two travelled abroad where Aimee preached beside the Sea of Galilee, visited Parisienne nightclubs, and had a facelift. The next year, Aimee eloped to Yuma, Arizona, where she married choir singer David Hutton. Post nuptial, David and Aimee cooed over the radio from the bridal boudoir in the evangelist’s home and signed off with a wet smack. The following day, Myrtle Joan Hazel St. Pierre sued the “Big Boy” (David topped 300 pounds) for breach of promise. As to another foray into matrimony, Aimee declared, “Jamais encore” which translates to “Never again.” Roberta brought a suit for slander against her mother that ended with a $2,000 judgment. One afternoon, Aimee appeared in three different courtrooms for which she wore three different suits. A news photograph covered the event with the caption, “Her Life’s Just One Suit After Another.” Throughout her travails, Aimee, head held high, stated, “I only remember the hours when the sun shines.” Ignoring hostility, she added a branch of Foursquare in the Amazon.


For the woman who led a storied life–the chatelaine of a Temecula Castle, hobnobbing with the famous, fabulous fortune–her final days were a denouement. She was in Oakland, California, where she had ridden in a horse-drawn buggy to an auditorium to conduct a revival sermon, the last time she shouted out “Hallelujah!” At age fifty-three, Sister Aimee passed away, likely from an accidental overdose of barbiturates, in the arms of her son, Rolf. She left him her church–which now claims ten million followers, in 150 countries, and property valued at 1.3 billion. To Ma, she left $10.00.


Foursquare Heritage Center-The Parsonage of Aimee Semple McPherson: The Oscar for best home-parsonage would surely go to the Aimee Semple McPherson Parsonage in the aptly named Echo Park as it retains echoes of the era the evangelist ruled from the pulpit. If the walls could talk, the living room would whisper about celebrities such as neighbor Charlie Chaplin. A 1927 Fisher player piano–via an iPad–plays Aimee’s original songs. A case holds her tambourine; on its back is her name and her self-designed coat-of-arms that bears the Latin “Res Non Verba” which means “Do it, don’t just say it.” In a corner resides Aimee’s white-covered Bible and a 1924 Rose Bowl Trophy garnered from the occasion the Angelus Temple float won first prize. The fireplace mantle displays a photograph of Robert; by the door is one of Aimee and Ma.


The dresser in Aimee’s bedroom retains a handkerchief sprayed with her signature scent, Quelques Fleurs. A Corona typewriter with a paper with words to a sermon rests on her bed. Her painting is on the wall, alongside purple drapes.


The staircase’s handrail has a ball that contains a streetcar token; a nod to the time parishioners needed carfare. Leading up the stairs are photographs of Aimee in various countries, as well as mementoes of her international ministries such as tribal masks from the Belgium Congo in Africa, worn by men who had killed an enemy tribal member. Another area showcases photographs of the famous whose path had crossed Aimee’s such as: Mahatma Gandhi, President Reagan, and Clark Gable. Souvenirs from those Aimee saved are in a display case that holds crutches, casts, and braces. A silver tray showcases donations from the faithful; objects such as silverware, jewelry, gold teeth, wedding rings, bridgework, and a pistol.  


Although there is debate whether Sister Aimee was a saint or sinner, during her ministry Los Angeles was closer to its Spanish name, (“the Angels”). The eighteenth-century Irish poet Oliver Goldsmith’s words proved prescient. Those “who came to scoff, remained to pray.” 


The Window of Her World: From her second story window, Aimee could view the Echo Park Lake and could well have wondered about the extraordinary fate that took her from a farm in Canada to an empire in Los Angeles.