But in the fall of 2005, Magdeline Alvina Middlesworth ignored the advice of family and friends, sold her house, packed some belongings and moved to Necedah from Washington state.
"People warned her that she was getting involved with a dangerous cult, but she refused to accept that reality," said Father Michael OBrien, pastor of St. Mary of the Valley, a Catholic church in Monroe, Wash., where Middlesworth, 90, had been a parishioner for many years.
On Wednesday, her decaying body was found on a toilet in a house where police say it had sat for two months while a man and woman instructed the woman's two children to pray for a miracle that would bring Middlesworth back to life.
The man and woman, now facing criminal charges, were the bishop and a nun of an offshoot Catholic church unrecognized by Rome and unaffiliated with the shrine that has drawn worshippers for half a century, authorities say.
Alan A. Bushey, who goes by the name Bishop John Peter Bushey, said Mass in the Latin Tridentine rite at the Immaculate Conception Chapel, a small house converted into a church not far from the home where Middlesworth's body was found last week, according to a sign outside.
Bushey and Tammy D. Lewis, who calls herself Sister Mary Bernadette, are accused of leaving Middlesworth to rot on a toilet since March 4 after she collapsed while Lewis was helping her dress. A Juneau County sheriff's deputy discovered the decomposing corpse Wednesday during a welfare check prompted by a call from the dead woman's sister.
Another sister, Marcella Stein, 89, of Lyle, Wash., said she first heard of Middlesworth's plans as she was getting on the plane for Wisconsin. The family still isn't sure who persuaded her to move, but Middlesworth was looking forward to living nearer to the sister who called police.
The oldest of five children, Middlesworth entered a convent at 16 but wasn't ultimately accepted to be a nun, Stein said. She moved to Washington and married but never had children. Her husband died about 15 years ago.
Stein said her sister was religious, generous and gullible.
"How people could do that to her?" Stein asked. "She never hurt a soul in her life."
The allegations shocked even those who believe in miracles, in a community no stranger to religious fervor.
"He was always a good person," Michael Van Hoof, grandson of Mary Ann Van Hoof, whose reported vision of the Virgin Mary in 1949 gave rise to the Queen of Holy Rosary Shrine, said of Bushey.
"I would have never thought anything like that would be going on over there," he said. "I don't think the Lord is going to look very kindly on that."
Bushey, 57, and Lewis, 35, remained jailed Saturday, charged with two counts each of causing mental harm to a child. Fraud charges considered
Juneau County Sheriff Brent Oleson said Lewis' son and daughter, ages 12 and 15, who had been living in the home, are in foster care and that additional charges against the adults could be forthcoming.
"There's some evidence that they might have cashed her (Social Security) checks," said Oleson, whose detectives took financial papers from the home Saturday.
Lewis' son told investigators that Bushey told him that if Middlesworth's death was discovered, the children would have to go to public schools and they would all have to get jobs because Middlesworth paid the bills, according to a criminal complaint.
Van Hoof, who was married by Bushey, said he came to know him when they both attended Rosamystica Chapel in Necedah years before.
He said Bushey had tried to affiliate himself with the shrine - a collection of life-size dioramas featuring biblical scenes on the site of Van Hoof's claimed vision in 1949 - but was turned down.
No one answered the door Saturday at Bushey's church, Immaculate Conception Chapel on Queensway Ave., where a large crucifix adorned the front entrance and statues of the Virgin Mary stood around the grounds. Metal crutches and a walker lay on a stone structure near one, as if left by the healed.
A woman with the Queen of the Holy Rosary Shrine declined to comment.
Neighbors said Lewis moved to the house on Shrine Road within the last few years with her children, who called Middlesworth their grandmother.
At least one suggested Bushey may have held undue influence over her.
"For somebody to believe that and take it to heart, she'd have to be brainwashed," said Kevin George, who lives across the street from Lewis' modest blue ranch house.
Neighbors said she wore the veil and pale blue habit of other nuns who worshipped at Bushey's chapel, and that Bushey was frequently at the home.
They described the family as reclusive.
"We'd try to wave, but they wouldn't even acknowledge us," said Mary Johnson, who lives next door. "Sometimes their kids would try to come over and try to play with our puppies, but they'd always get scolded."
Johnson said she felt sorry for the kids.
"We had a kind of uneasy feeling for some time," she said. "I knew something was not right over there."
As much as they were shocked by the details coming out of the Middlesworth home, residents weren't surprised to find their neighbors believed they could resurrect the dead through prayer.
"No," Johnson said. "Not after living in this community as long as I have."