The alternative suburbanite Legacy: In 1971, Catherine Sungenis abandoned the suburbs and embraced the '60s. Moonridge, her 11-acre retreat for New Agers, is now for sale.

November 20, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

BELTSVILLE -- She was the belle of Buena Vista, N.J., a beauty queen who married a boy from the neighborhood. She mastered the piano, became a nurse. She was "Supermom" -- baker of cookies and casseroles.

She also tie-dyed ahead of her time.

"Probably before Jerry Garcia was even born," says her daughter, Leah. Maybe that was a signal of things to come. For in 1971, with her two girls raised, a new Catherine Sungenis emerged from the chrysalis of the Washington suburbs.

No more pot roasts for her. She went vegetarian and divorced her husband. She moved to California. She got Rolfed. She embraced the Gestalt. She seized the Zeitgeist of the New Age, even as it was getting a little long in the tooth.

When she returned some years later she built Moonridge -- a holistic retreat and wildlife sanctuary on 11 hilly acres a couple of miles off Route 198. Catherine Sungenis, friend of firewalkers and maypole dancers, enjoyed 11 years there. She died June 9 at age 66, of brain tumors.

Now Moonridge is for sale. In addition to the land, there are two geodesic domes connected by a deck, all approached over a wooden foot bridge. There is a hot tub to simmer in, a sweat lodge to sweat in. There is a vegetable garden, a compost pile and woods full of deer, the full hallucination of nature.

For $360,000 it could be yours -- but only if you promise to use the place for a purpose amenable to the "holistic community."

Daughter Leah, 40, set the terms of sale. She wants someone to "carry on mom's work." That was to curate a center where New Age people could come and be comfortable, hold conferences, consume fibrous foods and herbal teas, chant mantras, light candles, burn incense.

She already has feelers from acupuncturists and Buddhists, she says.

All sorts did come to Moonridge over the years. They held relationship workshops, feelings workshops, energy workshops. There were naturists and, of course, the firewalkers. Not to mention the witches.

Phoebe Reeve, an Annandale, Va., herbalist, says she led 25 to 30 firewalks at Moonridge. "There was a time when they were quite -- excuse the expression -- hot," she says.

That was in the 1980s. Since then, she reports, enthusiasm has cooled.

"We'd burn about 60 pieces of oak down to red coals, rake it out and dance on it."


"It just feels like walking on gravel."

The key, she explained, is to work yourself up into a theta state of active meditation by chanting and singing and beating on drums. A lot of chanting and beating on drums.

Lord Orion, of the Foxwood witches coven, Celtic Original rite, is glum. He remembers Catherine as "a vivacious woman, outspoken in what she thought was right and not right."

He and his coven, and another one led by Lady Meredith, held their ceremonies at Moonridge at the changing of the seasons. They danced around maypoles. They also fixed the pot-holed driveway and helped keep the place up. They will sorely miss Catherine Sungenis.

Leah, a calligraphy artist, lives nearby in Adelphi. Though a non-Aquarian herself, she reveres her mother. And misses her. She spent a lot of time at Moonridge. When she came she always slept in the large bedroom under the second, smaller dome.

Leah is unpacking a cardboard box with old photographs of her mother. Some go all the way back to New Jersey. There's Catherine in her caterpillar days: She is sitting by a piano in a white, low-cut gown, her hair tightly curled. She has her large teeth displayed in a stiff, saccharine smile.

Leah points to the picture. "She's wearing her falsies," she laughs.

Then there is a later picture. It is Catherine the butterfly: a long-limbed and mild-faced woman in a loose dress and flowing strawberry blond hair, and a smile that doesn't try so hard. Finally, a picture taken not long before her death. Catherine, white-haired, is being embraced by a young man, laughing at the camera. "Good-looking guy," notes Leah.

Daughter Leah saw Catherine as a pioneer, and a woman of formidable charm. The domes, for instance. They were an idea of the 1960s whose time had not yet arrived in the rural precincts of Beltsville even by the 1980s. They were unconventional structures. Unsuburban. There was no zoning provision for them.

Catherine Sungenis, by deploying that charm before the zoning board, got one anyway. She sent away for two dome kits from California (where else?) and Moonridge became a fact.

The dome she lived in was startlingly simple and airy, though a little dark. It is 38 feet in diameter. A wood-burning stove is positioned off to the side. It sends its black chimney straight up through the ceiling, which at its center is 26 feet above the floor. A Steinway baby grand stands near a high floating stairway.

There is a shoe rack by the entrance; one didn't wear shoes in Catherine Sungenis' house.

"She wasn't trying to live some weird, anti-techno way," says Leah. "By God, she had cable TV in here. She wanted to live lightly. She was against waste. She made candles. There was nothing she couldn't do."

According to Leah, her mother dated "some semi-famous people," but the daughter will name no names. She dated consecutively, never concurrently.

"She was a serial monogamist," says her daughter.

When Catherine Sungenis died her friends came and held a memorial service at Moonridge. Lord Orion said a witch's prayer. Earlier she had been taken to Georgetown University. She had donated her body to the medical school.

"I've done the same thing," Leah says.

So what will happen to Moonridge? Probably it will remain in the holistic family, so to speak. Besides the acupuncturists and Buddhists, Leah says, the witches and the firewalkers also have expressed interest.

Pub Date: 11/20/96

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