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East Lyme - A woman in a lime-green tank top and floral skirt sat across from National Spiritualist Church of Norwich Pastor Jaquelyn Randall Saturday, holding Randall's hands as the pastor uttered beneath her breath an invocation.
Randall let go of the woman's hands and began to gesture as she relayed messages from a spirit she described as being about 5 feet, 6 inches tall, a grandmotherly figure.
The woman receiving the reading - Brenda Sullivan of Essex - nodded knowingly and said the woman must be her grandmother.
Ending the session, Sullivan asked jokingly, "Oh, is there a guide on the other side that will help me decorate my house?"
The channeling session was one of a handful taking place simultaneously in the temple located at the Pine Grove Spiritualist Camp in Niantic, as part of the camp's first summer fair. The fair included divination and healing sessions by appointment, sessions with mediums such as Randall, and vendors selling wares ranging from pendulums to organic vegetables.
Camp secretary Maureen Caswell said the purpose of organizing the fair this year was to bring together members of the six spiritualist churches scattered throughout the state. Spiritualist churches meet in Norwich, New London, Mystic, Willimantic, Newington and Old Greenwich, according to Randall, who is also secretary of the Connecticut State Spiritualist Association and first became involved in spiritualism 14 years ago while working in the mental health field.
Spiritualism is a religion centered on the belief that the departed live on as spirits who can communicate with and guide the living. Spiritualists founded Pine Grove in 1882 on a peninsula bordered by the Niantic River and Smith Cove.
The community contains 155 homes that dot a tangle of streets barely wide enough for two-way traffic. The homes are now privately owned and not associated with the Spiritualist movement, leaving the temple and cottage as the sole buildings that make up the spiritualist camp. The camp is seasonal and open from June to August.
At the cottage on Saturday, visitors from throughout the state sat on cushioned couches and seats in a covered porch awaiting readings with a well-known medium from Norwich, Verline Eldridge, who Caswell said has been practicing for more than 40 years.
Eldridge said that as a policy, she doesn't allow anyone to document her sessions. People will encounter her on their own if they're meant to, she said by way of explanation. Those in line at the time declined to allow a reporter to sit in on their session. Too private, they said. One frequenter of the camp later compared watching a session to sitting in on someone's appointment with a psychologist.
Between sessions, she spoke briefly about how she works a private meeting. Private sessions at the camp usually last about 20 minutes and cost money, while spontaneous readings during regular temple services are free.
Eldridge starts her sessions by just talking, sometimes with her eyes closed, she explained. She said that spirits "step in sometimes and literally utilize your body." She described once how she had found herself getting into a woman's face and speaking in the manner of the woman's deceased relative.
Eldridge participated in a service Thursday evening at the temple as a visiting medium. Three services are held each week at the temple throughout the summer, similar in style to services at a mainstream church or synagogue. A pastor addresses the group and leads them in hymns.
Midway through the service Thursday, Eldridge began relaying messages to the attendees. She flitted through the room, sometimes with her eyes closed, fluttering her fingers and at times pointing. Over there, she would say. And she would pass on comments and words of wisdom from deceased loved ones and other spirits.
As she wove through the crowd of 20 churchgoers, recipients of messages smiled and wept into tissues pulled from several tissue boxes being passed around the room.
Eldridge said after the service that spiritualism is more common in New England than in some other parts of the country due to how it gained popularity during the Civil War. Being further removed from the front than people in other regions, New Englanders turned to mediums to find out the fate of friends and family who were off fighting, Eldridge explained.
She said that spiritualism had strong ties to the women's suffrage movement, in part because the religion allowed women to speak publicly at a time when women were rarely permitted to stand at a pulpit.
Appointments with mediums were apparently the biggest draw Saturday. Caswell could be heard from the entrance of the temple explaining to attendees as they arrived that Eldridge was fully booked and running behind schedule. She eventually enlisted Randall to conduct sessions.
"I think they want some reassurance that there's something after," said Caswell, who works during the year as an event planner for a private firm, of those waiting to see a medium. "There's something after - after this."
Randall pointed out that mediumship and psychic work are not one and the same. Mediums contact spirits, while psychics connect with the energy of the living, she said. The camp welcomes psychics and healers, she said, but noted that their work is not necessarily associated with the spiritualist religion.
Caswell estimated that 30 to 40 visitors had come through by 3:30 p.m. Saturday. She said she would have liked to have seen more people and commented that the community of spiritualists is shrinking in Connecticut. She attributed the shrinkage to a general decline in interest in organized religion.