Debra branches out to build church

Toowoomba Chronicle/January 13, 2001

A cult leader, who claims to have visions of the Virgin Mary, is selling home loans and slimming tablets to raise money for a cathedral.

Magnificat Meal Movement leader Ms Debra Geileskey, who now goes under her maiden name, Debra Burslem, has erected signs on the Warrego Highway near her headquarters at Helidon advertising Herbalife products and discount home loans through a 1800 telephone number. She also is reported to have bought a silver Mercedes-Benz, dyed her hair blonde and begun wearing business suits instead of her usual blue flowing religious robes. Ms Burslem founded the movement in 1992, attracting up to 400 people to monthly prayer meetings at its peak. She plans to build a $41 million cathedral in a nearby paddock to which she believes Jesus Christ would visit at his Second Coming.

She was unavailable for comment yesterday. Helidon Catholic priest Father John Ryan, who lives next to the movement's former base, said he believed its new business orientation would lead to its downfall. "I believe that this overt moving into business and sales is to me evidence of what I've always believed - that there is a strong commercial element to this movement,'' Father Ryan said. "The alleged spiritual aims will abate.'' Father Ryan said he believed cult members travelled to Mackay, Toowoomba and Townsville selling Herbalife and often set up in shopping centres. He said at least two couples had left the movement since it started the new business. Twenty-two of the 75 families who moved to Helidon to take part in the movement in the past five years had left and returned to the Catholic Church, he said. Father Ryan said two types of people had become involved in the movement - people who had grown up "in the Catholic mould'' who were keen to explore devotion to the Eucharist and the Virgin Mary, and people with "psychological and spiritual burdens'' for whom the cult was a haven.

Father Ryan said the second group of people were particularly at risk of the movement's "brainwashing'' methods. "People are very afraid to leave when they are there,'' Father Ryan said. Yesterday townsfolk seemed amused at the latest developments involving the MMM. There was little activity at the cult's headquarters. One member parked her vehicle across the access road leading to the house, telling photographers to leave. Two members arrived shortly afterwards with about 10 pizzas in the back seat.

One Helidon business owner said he had heard rumours about Ms Geileskey, now Ms Burslem, selling Herbalife but had not seen the elusive cult leader for about 12 months. No one had seen the silver Mercedes reputedly owned by Ms Burslem. The businessman said there were several rumours about the cult including one that involved Ms Burslem travelling overseas regularly. He said Ms Burslem's latest business plans only served to reinforce most people's belief the cult was simply a money-making venture.

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