Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on the Temple of the People in Halcyon. The first, “Halcyon’s homily,” ran on Sept. 7.
Halcyon resident Damian Rollison knew the Temple of the People as his sole faith growing up. Flip through the Images of America book about the tiny community between Oceano and Arroyo Grande, and you’ll see Rollison smiling out from one of its pages as a cheerful baby in 1970.
“My parents were married in the temple, and I was their first child,” he said. “I moved away for a little while, but I did grow up here and came back as an adult.”
Fourth Guardian-in-Chief Harold Forgostein conducted his Naming Ceremony (similar to a christening); Rollison actively participated in the Temple Builders group as both a child and teenager; fifth Guardian-in-Chief Eleanor Shumway married him and his wife at the temple; his own kids took part in Naming Ceremonies; and his mother conducted Temple Builder classes while his kids were around.
Since 1924, the Temple of the People has been the quiet meeting place of the Theosophical Society, with 35 members in SLO County and 300 worldwide.
“The Halcyon community is very unusual in its ability to hold onto that old-time sense of small community where everyone supports each other, cares about each other,” he said.
As a kid belonging to the Temple Builders group, similar to Sunday school, Rollison recalled lessons that focused on humanity’s inherent connection to nature and the importance of tapping into it.
The camaraderie Rollison felt with fellow temple kids didn’t always extend beyond the close-knit boundaries of Halcyon. In high school, for example, one classmate scoffed at his address during P.E. class.
“When I said I lived in Halcyon, he said they’re all devil worshippers,” Rollison said. “I was like, ‘I think I would know that, I actually live there,’ and he was unwilling to be convinced otherwise because somebody told him, and that was the truth for him.”
He added that anybody who actually comes to a temple service or class or meets Halcyon residents would quickly see otherwise.
“I don’t think anybody could maintain that misconception for five minutes if they actually got that exposure,” he said.
The temple’s progressive values appealed to Rollison once he entered adulthood, including its view of marriage—namely the removal of the “till death do us part” phrase.
“They have a phrasing instead where the couple promises to stay together until their love shall last,” he said. “That, to me, is an interesting acknowledgement that sometimes people change, and there’s a provision for that.”
Rollison returned to Halcyon after his last marriage ended. He lived all around the country as an adult but missed his hometown’s sense of community. He had studied other religions and even analyzed atheism, but throughout those explorations, theosophy’s aim of finding what unites all religions rang true for him. As did the temple’s motto: “Creeds disappear, hearts remain.”
Layers of faith
Temple treasurer Marti Fast’s eyes widened when she first stepped foot into the Temple of the People almost 50 years ago. It was the summer of 1975, she was 23 and had made her way to Halcyon after a performance at the Great American Melodrama in Oceano. A lover of architecture, Fast was immediately enthralled.
“I remember my eyes just lifting up to the band of windows,” she said on July 27. “I just thought, ‘Wow!’ It was such a sacred space, but it was so unusual, and it captured me.”
The distinctive temple architecture still piques interest to this day. It’s a site of hallowed mathematics. A wraparound porch hugs the Blue Star Temple with 36 pillars—12 on each of the three sides of the convex equilateral triangle. They represent souls who arrived at spiritual truth that lays hidden within the temple, according to a pamphlet about the temple’s symbology.
The windows that caught Fast’s attention each have eight panes, which represent the union of Heaven and Earth. They’re placed high to symbolize the divine light that comes from above. Notably, the windows are glazed with a special opalescent glass that diffuses the sunlight into a more golden glow.
Fast, Allan Hancock College’s longtime art gallery director and fine arts instructor, felt right at home. So much so that she’s served as the temple treasurer for 25 years and continues to assist with the services.
Raised Episcopalian, Fast quickly found similarities between her faith and the principles of theosophy. She grew up learning about karma and reincarnation from her grandmother and mother.
“Reincarnation is hope in a way and stands for a chance to do things again. As human beings, we grow and learn from our mistakes. They both helped me practice the Golden Rule as a daily practice,” she said, referencing theosophy’s main principle: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
The first person who introduced her to the temple was Arroyo Grande High School teacher Frances Campbell. Fast had made the move from her hometown, Santa Maria, and belonged to the founding company of the Great American Melodrama of Oceano. Francie, as she called her, became the “door opener” for Fast. It helped that she was also her first landlady.
“The first time we met, we spoke for three hours about the temple and spirituality,” Fast said. “She was my mentor.”
Fast still considers herself to be Episcopalian as well. One faith informs and supplements the other. The link between the two is acts of service.
“I still have rootedness there [in Episcopalianism] that I don’t think will ever go away,” she said. “But the temple enhances every spiritual thing I have in my life. It validates that past, and no one has to give up the journey that brought them here.”
Some members arrived at the temple through journeys that spanned multiple countries. Rita Moiseyeva traveled to Halcyon in 1998 from New Jersey, but she first came to the East Coast in 1994 from Ukraine because of a Russian book that spoke about a theosophical community in the U.S.—Two Lives by Russian singer and theosophist writer Concordia Antarova. Moiseyeva and her husband, Sergey Moiseyav, sought out the Temple of the People once they got to the East Coast. A visit to the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York brought them face to face with its director, and soon the conversation turned to the Temple of the People.
“He just pulled out of his pocket the phone number of the office in Halcyon! It was a miracle, and we had lost hope by then,” Moiseyeva said.
Moiseyav, her husband, called and spoke with then Guardian-in-Chief Shumway who encouraged them to visit in 1998. The family eventually became permanent Halcyon residents in 2000.
The biggest gift the temple’s given to her is unity. She felt it most deeply after her husband passed away a few years ago in an accident, and the Halcyon community banded together to uplift her. Just before he passed, her husband was in the middle of a construction project in the family yard. Moiseyeva was at a loss for what to do.
“I was a wreck; I asked Eleanor [Shumway], ‘What do I do with this now?’” she recalled. “It happened on a Wednesday. That Saturday … all the neighbors came and put everything to order and fixed and cleaned everything.”
Moiseyeva told the Sun that she never felt alone thanks to the Halcyon residents. She’s now the inner guard of the temple and helps London manage the services. Her daughter is also a member.
“I don’t know in what other geographical location would I have made it through,” she said. “It’s absolutely amazing that we are still here because those who came before us made it happen. They preserved it, kept it alive, and it still exists with the same intention.”
Service in the community
The Halcyon community may be quiet, but it’s not underground.
At the local level, residents advocate for resources from the Oceano Community Services District (OCSD). Current Temple Guardian-in-Chief Rick London serves as Halcyon’s de facto mayor of sorts through interactions with the OCSD and other governing bodies like the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board
“When Eleanor let me know I’d be following her, I had been mostly connected with the spiritual side of the temple, not the residential side of the temple,” London said. “I ended up going up and representing her at the local regional water board meetings.”
London started attending these meetings a year before he became guardian-in-chief. The prime reason is to find an alternate source of potable water for residents. The original source—the Halcyon well operating since 1903—has been increasingly contaminated over the years by rising manganese levels.
“Then other chemicals started appearing, mostly from the area becoming more and more populated,” London said. “The Temple of the People owned the Halcyon well, and we were distributing the well water to about 67 homes.”
The temple needed a permit to do that, and keeping that permit active required periodic water testing by the county.
A state-funded feasibility study found alternate solutions, but most of them were too costly for Halcyon. An affordable solution was to get water from the OCSD and retain the well water for irrigation. Currently, Halcyon residents fill up water from a reverse osmosis system that’s under lock and key. They pay a small monthly fee for that water connection.
“I’ve filled many a jug there,” London said with a laugh. “I expect us to be receiving [OCSD] water by probably 2025 as a way to bring potable water directly to households.”
The temple has also made itself known at the state and federal levels. Thanks to the petitioning efforts of Shumway and Halcyon resident Karen White, it became a historic district in 2017 after being nominated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places by the California State Office of Historic Preservation.
In mid-August, a week after London attended the annual Temple Convention, he expressed satisfaction as he looked forward to the temple’s 100th anniversary.
“People had shared their thoughts on the convention theme: There is no going back,” he told the Sun. “You can’t go back to the way things were. But you can always return to the principles, the higher aspects of how we relate to one another.”
Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal, from the Sun’s sister paper, New Times, at [email protected].