Up for auction: Necedah religious sect's entire world

Wisconsin State Journal/October 8, 2008

Necedah - As sure as the galloon matches the stole, tongues are wagging here about the auction Saturday of the contents of a home-cum-chapel formerly occupied by Alan A. Bushey and his flock, members of the tiny and shrinking Immaculate Conception Community.

And no, that is not the place where a follower of that group died on the toilet, but it is close.

Bushey, 58, aka Bishop John Peter Bushey, is out on bail, awaiting trial on charges stemming from the discovery last May of the corpse of a devout supporter who died of natural causes and was left to decompose on a toilet in a one-bathroom rural Necedah home, just a few blocks from the chapel.

The body of 90-year-old Magdeline Alvina Middlesworth had been there two months, and the smell eventually alerted inquiring authorities.

Auctioneer Ray Miller said he and possibly two more auctioneers will sell everything at N10314 Queen's Way - including the real estate, the steeple and 19,000 plastic-packaged communion wafers - to the highest bidders.

Miller has been taking calls from far-flung people interested in the religious items that, for the hard core, include a closet full of colorful, exquisitely sewn vestments and more than 50 robelike "chasubles" with matching stoles (scarf-like decorations that are garnished with "galloon," or embroidery).

Worldwide attention

Bushey has been evicted from the home, which was, depending on which end of the pew you are seated, either given to or leased to him and his church in 2001 by an Iowa farm family trust. That trust has now legally retaken possession of the property and given Bushey a month to remove his belongings.

"Actually, I've been dealing with some people in California who put up the money for his bail," said Miller, a friendly man of many talents - a farrier, he wears a cap advertising horseshoes.

Bushey, as leader of the group, is accused of harming a child by predicting financial doom to two children and threatening to send the children to public school if they revealed there was a corpse in the bathroom. In a trial set for April, he also faces charges of hiding a corpse, and, in connection with the dead woman's financial affairs, theft.

The mother of the children, Tammy Lewis, 35, faces similar charges, and a hearing in her case is set for Oct. 17. The explanation for the long wait for the bathroom was that everyone was waiting for a miracle, a prospect that grows dimmer.

The story got worldwide exposure, and Necedah once again placidly repositioned itself as a refuge for religion-related fringe groups, a niche unappreciated by established religions.

In the 1950s, a local woman's claimed visions of the Virgin Mary - still a tourist attraction at the Queen of the Holy Rosary Shrine - drew tens of thousands of the hopeful to Necedah. In the 1990s, investigators tracked down a museum's worth of stolen religious items to a Necedah-area storehouse, gathered by a thief who was convinced communists would take over the world and burn all the Roman Catholic churches.

Bibles, bunkers for sale

Miller, the auctioneer, wasn't aware of the story last June when a woman dressed as a nun - light-blue habit with ivory trim - approached him in a parking lot in Adams and asked if he could run an auction for her church.

He said yes but didn't hear from the group again until last month, when Bushey and the Immaculate Conception, which reportedly has fewer than a dozen members, signed on to empty their sanctuary of chalices and religious costumes, pews and vestments, beds and bibles, furniture, even the flashlights and farmer matches found in two hidden corrugated-iron bunkers. (The bunkers go with the property, which will also be auctioned.)

The religious items for sale number in the hundreds, even thousands if you count the communion wafers still packed in the shipping cartons from MOS (Mother of Our Savior) Inc. of Pekin, Ind., a purveyor of religious items.

Religious statues - arms outstretched, hands folded, faces frozen in a woozy docility - fill a table. Hundreds of books sit on shelves that contain not one novel, though a pristine copy of "The Devil and How to Resist Him" beckons. There are empty gallon jugs marked "Holy Water" and cartons of plastic rosaries, two paper bags filled with brand new white clerical-collared shirts (15 ½ and 16 ½, 32-33 sleeves).

The wood-heated house itself is clean-floored throughout and dirty-walled in the old part. Square and rectangular marks clearly show where pictures once filled the walls. Bushey lived in the home's newer addition that was also a church.

A snooper would find in the rear of the seven-pew chapel three tiny closets, the "confessional," the smallest about three-feet by three-feet square, with shag-carpeting attached to the floors, ceilings, electrical outlets and walls.

'Thanks for understanding'

Miller, who speculated that the building was being outfitted to be a small monastery or convent, found no big surprises, though the existence of the bunkers was a revelation. In the basement, there is a composting toilet, and in a large storeroom a couple of boxes of booze, good brandy and whiskey, dust-covered. Those can't be sold, and there are some things that probably just won't sell, such as the cartons of cassette tapes of religious talks.

The short steeple and bell also might be a tough sell, as they have to be removed from the building, but there has been great interest shown in the religious clothing. Some of the items typically sell for more than $500.

Miller said Bushey, who lives in a friend's home on nearby Shrine Road and has claimed he made a vow of poverty, has been over once to pick up some personal items, but there has been no contact other than that.

"He seems to be pretty passionate about religion," Miller said.

On Shrine Road, a woman responds to a knock at the door. She says politely that no one there will comment about the auction, and "thanks for understanding."

A clue to Bushey's thoughts on Saturday's end of a world might be found in an Aug. 11 hand-written letter to Juneau County Circuit Court Judge John Roemer concerning the trust's attempt to evict him from a home he claimed was given to him and his church in 2001: "If they (the church) can retain the property that was donated to them, they stand a better chance of attracting a new pastor should I be forced to be absent."

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