Recently, Pastor Samuel Johnson, 49, the spiritual head of the troubled PTL Ministries, has been answering the phone with the Hebrew greeting “shalom.” PTL lawyer Edward Allman told Johnson that “it looks like you are gonna have to forget about the New Testament for a while.” And throughout Heritage USA, the PTLowned 500-acre Christian theme park near Charlotte,
N.C., the former employees of scandal-plagued televangelists James and Tammy Bakker are openly wondering what their mysterious new boss, Toronto Orthodox Jew Stephen Mernick, 34, has planned for the empire, which he has agreed to buy for $139 million. At a packed news conference in his Toronto lawyer’s office last Friday, the gentlevoiced, chubby Mernick, dressed in a dark suit and yarmulke, did not disclose any blueprint for the project. He said that he had bought PTL for its real estate potential. As for his intentions for its future, he -
added, “I have a very open mind.”
Mernick, a reserved Toronto businessman who owns interests in real estate, waste disposal and travel agencies, was accepted by PTL’s trustee in bankruptcy as the successful buyer on Oct. 3. The PTL—Praise The Lord—club went into bankruptcy following Bakker’s affair with PTL secretary Jessica
Hahn and his subsequent fir_
ing last year. Pending court approval, which is expected later this month, Mernick will acquire PTL assets, including the theme park, a 600-room hotel, 1,700 acres of undeveloped real estate and the Inspirational Television Network, which broadcasts 24 hours a day, via satellite, to 10 million North American homes. Pastor Johnson, a former Bible college classmate of the Bakkers and now the new spiritual director of PTL, told
Maclean’s. “The man’s faith is not a factor. We anticipated an astute businessman, and that is what he seems to be.”
Mernick first entered the spotlight last June when, using the company name Patagonia Realty Corp., he purchased the Firestone Canada Inc. plant in Hamilton for an undisclosed amount. The tire factory, val-
_ ued at $90 million, was
closed by the Akron, Ohiobased parent the previous year. According to Hamilton MP Sheila Copps, who knows Mernick, he originally bought the plant for its real estate potential but has since been considering ways of reopening it as a tire factory. Copps says that she is impressed by the businessman, calling him “an unassuming, straight-up guy.”
In private, Mernick, whose father, Frank, owned a construction company, has
spent the past decade establishing a solid empire for himself. In a letter to Charlotte bankruptcy trustee M. C. (Red) Benton, Mernick said that he is “currently in the process of concluding 14 property transactions in the Kingston, Ont., area that will include 1,000 to 2,000 units and 1.2 miles of hotel frontage with a capacity of 2,000 rooms.” Mernick also owns an import-export business specializing in trade with Israel, landfill sites and garbage trucks serving several towns near Toronto, a travel agency called All About Travel and various tracts of real estate including part of a mixed-use development on 272 acres of land in Westchester, N.Y. Memick’s bid was accepted by Benton on Oct. 3. It calls for $60 million to be delivered by Dec. 31 and $79 million over the following five years.
According to friends, Memick’s private life centres on his wife, Judy, a native of Memphis, Term., his five young children and the Jewish youth movement. Frank Dimant, vice-president of B’nai B’rith Canada and a friend of Mernick for three years, describes the businessman’s contributions to the organization’s youth
0 group as “very generous.”
1 Mernick has participated in
1 Jewish youth activities since the early 1970s and he has
2 been known to drive his I family car all night to attend
youth camps, where he joins in campfire singsongs. Mernick studied at a Toronto seminary but he has never practised as a rabbi. Still, he adheres strictly to orthodox principles, disconnecting his phone on Saturdays and avoiding physical contact with women in public, and he also shuns tobacco. He has composed religious songs, including the children’s Shifti Bevet Hashem (I have returned to the house of the Lord). Said Dimant: “He is a committed Jew. He believes in ensuring our survival.”
Discretion is a tack that the media-shy Mernick will likely continue to follow. He told the news conference that he might be open to business proposals by Bakker, who has said that he has not given up his quest to regain the PTL ministry. Said Mernick: “I’m a very open-minded person, prepared to speak to any of them.” But Bakker, who is still trying to raise money to purchase the PTL through a telephone campaign, is probably too late. For all his posturing, he has been unable to do in a year what a quiet Torontonian has done in only a few short weeks.
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