Debra Geileskey solemnly told her followers in the Magnificat Meal Movement that the Lord had instructed her to follow the diet of the Eucharist.
Over 14 months, the MMM leader claimed to have consumed nothing but "holy" wafers, except on 33 days when God told her she could eat normally. Mrs Geileskey, an ex-teacher, has an international following of thousands and claims to see Jesus and the Virgin Mary and to have been chosen to report messages from God. "She is very convincing," said Michelle Stewart, a former follower of the controversial Catholic-influenced cult based at Helidon, near Toowoomba.
When Mrs Stewart grew suspicious of her plumpish leader's fasting, she claims, she found cream biscuits, soft drink, fruit juice and delicacies such as sugar lumps and sweetened ginger in Mrs Geileskey's dress cupboard. "I confronted her and she told me the devil was deceiving me and I had imagined it," Mrs Stewart said.
She now sides with Mrs Geileskey's husband of 26 years, Gordon, in a split that threatens to destroy the cult, which the Catholic Church brands a "clear danger to many good people". Mr Geileskey says he realised only gradually that his wife's claims to see visions and receive heavenly messages were false.
"I came to the conclusion that God couldn't possibly be responsible for such a proliferation of lies, but I think she really believes those lies and that she is spoken to."
He says his wife has prophesied that she will die on September 9 (the ninth day of the ninth month of '99) and fire will destroy the MMM headquarters.
Mr Geileskey fears a Jonestown-style mass suicide. "It has the potential to go that far when you get a mob mentality and logic doesn't have much to do with it."
But Mrs Geileskey said: "It is simply not true, like most things Michelle and Gordon say."
She also denies having fasted: "I eat every day of the week, like everybody else."
The real reason for the split, she says, is that Mr Geileskey left her for Mrs Stewart; but they deny any romantic involvement.
The Geileskeys had debts of more than $300,000 when they moved to Helidon from Melbourne in 1993. But the MMM company, Our Lady's Mount, had amassed assets worth more than $500,000 by 1997. Members who moved to Helidon from all over Australia - effectively taking over the town - were "directed by God" to sign over shares in their new properties.
The warring sides are battling to control the company. Its deadlocked board has four members: the Geileskeys, Mrs Stewart and her estranged husband, Phil, who backs Mrs Geileskey.
Mr Geileskey claims his wife used the votes of shareholders who did not have voting rights to dump him and Mrs Stewart from the board.
Mr Geileskey and Mr Stewart are seeking a Supreme Court order confirming their termination of MMM's lease of the headquarters, where Mrs Stewart has a cottage, and evicting Mrs Geileskey and her followers. A preliminary hearing was held on Thursday.
Mrs Geileskey has taken out an interim domestic violence order against her husband; Mrs Stewart has complained to police that Mrs Geileskey assaulted her.
Mrs Stewart says her teenage son, Nicholas, was told by Mrs Geileskey that his mother and Mr Geileskey would die for criticising her. Mrs Geileskey denies this and says her own three children have been damaged by the row.
With Mrs Geileskey and 14 followers on good-behaviour bonds for disrupting services at the local Catholic church, mainstream Catholics are delighted with the turmoil.
"I will be happy with any sign that the influence of this cult is diminishing," said Father John Ryan, Helidon's priest, whose church is next door to the MMM headquarters. Mrs Geileskey, who turned 46 last week, insists her visions are genuine and that all is well with the MMM. "People are coming to us every day and we are still growing."
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