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Museum group, Stanford seek further information on bequest

STANFORD -- Museum Associates, a non-profit group supporting the Los Angeles County Museum, and Stanford University asked a court Friday, Feb. 7, to await further information before ruling on two multimillion- dollar bequests.

The Los Angeles Superior Court is considering trusts, valued at $97 million, set up by the late Eloise M. Knapp and her sister, the late Bella Mabury. In their wills, the women stated that if specific conditions were met, the trusts should benefit the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston - known as the Mother Church. If the conditions were not met, the women wished the trusts to be equally split between Museum Associates and Stanford. Mabury attended Stanford in 1891 as a member of the first undergraduate class. Their brother Paul was a student in 1892; and another sister, Eugenia, graduated in the class of '94.

In a petition filed in December, the trustees of the two women's estates asked the court to declare that the church had met all the requirements of the wills, and to distribute the estates to the church. In their petition, the estate trustees valued Knapp's estate at about $22 million and Mabury's at about $75 million.

In their response to that petition Friday, the museum organization and the university asked the court for a 90-day delay to seek further information on whether the conditions of the wills had been met.

The conditions center on The Destiny of the Mother Church, a book by Knapp's husband, Bliss, about Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science Church. According to a New York Times report, the book "effectively raises Eddy to a divinity, which was an elevation she had discouraged before her death in 1910."

After the book was privately published in 1947, the Times reported, "it was ruled unacceptable by the board of directors [of the church] and effectively branded as heresy." And in 1948, the church sent Bliss Knapp a letter pointing out doctrinal flaws in the book.

The Knapp and Mabury wills required that the church publish the book as "authorized literature of the Mother Church" - without including any of the views in the 1948 letter - and prominently display and sell the book in "substantially all" Christian Science reading rooms as long as there is any demand for it whatsoever.

The Christian Science Publishing Society published the book late last year, but without the "authorized literature" imprimatur, and with what amounted to disclaimers about the content, the museum and university told the court. And, they said, there is some information to indicate that a significant number of Christian Science reading rooms have declined to display or sell the book.

The New York Times said that Harvey W. Wood, chairman of the church's board of directors, said the book "was merely part of a series of historical profiles of Eddy, not an official embrace of Mr. Knapp's conclusions." Nonetheless, the newspaper reported, the publication had opened "a fierce dispute" within the church, with accusations that the church's leaders were "propagating heresy to secure the bequest."

Normal probate procedure provides beneficiaries of estates and trusts an opportunity to respond to petitions for distribution. The court then holds a hearing on evidence presented by the parties and makes a decision.

If the court ruled that the provisions of the wills had been met, it then could distribute the trusts to the church. If it ruled that they had not been met, the assets would remain in trust until the conditions were met or the trust expired.

Knapp's trust expires May 20, 1993 - 20 years after her death. Mabury, who died in 1964, set up her trust so that it can continue until 21 years after the death of its still-living trustee.




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