By ZACHARY HALASCHAK
Daily News Staff Writer
Seventy of the Church of Scientology’s largest benefactors flew in from all over the world to attend an awards banquet held in Ketchikan this past weekend.
The unpublicized ceremony took place at the Cape Fox Lodge, and, according to one of the organizers Lauri Webster, was held to honor those who have donated significant sums of money to construct “L. Ron Hubbard Hall,” a 4,000-seat auditorium in Clearwater, Florida — the spiritual headquarters of the religion.
Scientology was founded by L. Ron Hubbard, a man who prior to forming Scientology served in the U.S. Navy, wrote fantasy and science-fiction novels and was part of The Explorer’s Club — an international organization focused on field study and scientific exploration.
It was through The Explorer’s Club that Hubbard first came to Ketchikan in 1940 as part of what he called the “Alaskan Radio-Experimental Expedition.”
“The founder of Scientology, Mr. L. Ron Hubbard, actually came here in August of 1940, before he developed Dianetics and scientology,” Webster told the Daily News. “… He came here for two reasons — he was actually navigating the waters from Seattle to Ketchikan — and his purpose was to test a new radio directional navigational device. … He also came up to study the Tlingit Indian tribes, and send back a finding of the research of the tribes and the ethnological factors of the Indians here.”
Webster said that most of the group of 70 arrived on Thursday and were scheduled to depart Sunday. She said that, while here, they toured many of the places that LRH (as he is referred to by adherents) visited during his stay in Ketchikan.
She described the choice of location in terms of a pilgrimage of sorts.
“We go to locations where L. Ron Hubbard lived, worked, developed, adventured — and he came here,” Webster said referring to Ketchikan.
She said that the group visited KTKN, the radio station where Hubbard broadcast from while living here, as well as toured Misty Fiords and saw Thomas Basin where Hubbard’s ship, Magician, was anchored.
On Saturday, the attendees — many dressed to the nines — received awards for their donations.
Webster, a 41-year adherent of the Scientology and a member of the Sea Organization, described her title as “executive over the building of L. Ron Hubbard Hall,”
In addition to the large auditorium, Webster said the Hall would include other features.
“It will house a museum as well on the life of L. Ron Hubbard, and it will be the center-point where all the parishioners can converge on that building,” Webster said. “And it will also satellite relay into to all the churches across the planet live as we hold our international events covering the humanitarian activities of L. Ron Hubbard.”
She said that although neither Tom Cruise or John Travolta — two famous adherents to the faith — were in attendance, those at Saturday’s awards banquet were well-known in the church.
“There’s no major names except within the religion — people know who these people are because they’re major contributors to many activities in the church,” Webster said. “The church flourishes and prospers on their support. They’re heavy production as workers, and they’re very giving people, and this is a special thing to them to give back to L. Ron Hubbard, his own building — and it will include a park in his name.”
“They’re from Moscow, they’re from Italy — they’ve flown in from Italy — they’re from the East Coast, the West Coast of America, they’re from Florida, they’re from all over,” Webster said.
When the Daily News asked how much funding some of the 70 benefactors in the room had donated, Webster wouldn’t give an exact number.
“Many, many millions — I’d rather not say,” Webster noted. “We’re in the extreme millions of — they’re very generous people.”
When the Daily News asked about the criticism of the group, with some labeling it as a cult, Webster said people should do their own research.
“Churches all down through the ages that have a different message can get criticized,” Webster said. “We’re no different than anyone else.”
“The truth is they just don’t know what it is. So they get a false idea because they haven’t found out for themselves,” she added.
Webster said the benefactors enjoyed their visit to Southeast Alaska and said they felt welcomed.
“And just so you know, they love Ketchikan, and they love the people that are here,” she said, “and they’re very intrigued about the nations and all the different clans, and they’re very educated people, they’re thriving to be — they’re humanitarians. They’re helping to change the world.”
The Internal Revenue Service formally recognized the Church of Scientology as a religion in 1993, granting it tax-exempt status.