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CUT copes with illness of leader, sect changes

The Bozeman Daily Chronicle/March 13, 2005
By Scott McMillion

Elizabeth Clare Prophet, at the age of 65, is suffering the sixth year of the ravages of Alzheimer's Disease.

"She's continuing a slow decline," Erin Prophet, her oldest daughter and co-guardian, said in a recent interview.

It's a sad, slow winding down of a woman whose life was always controversial, but never dull, who is still revered by thousands of people around the world as a spiritual leader with a direct link to God.

She founded the Church Universal and Triumphant, an international New Age sect with its headquarters in Corwin Springs. She's written dozens of books, had at least four books written about her and her church, could preach for hours and never break a sweat.

In her prime, she was both venerated by her supporters -- they called her Mother, Guru Ma, Mother of the Flame and the Vicar of Christ -- and reviled by her critics who called her a power-hungry charlatan. But she was rarely ignored.

"She did make her mark on the world," said her daughter, Tatiana Prophet. "She influenced the New Age movement in ways that might never be fully appreciated."

Elizabeth Prophet announced her diagnosis in 1999, at the age of 59, but people had such strong feelings about her that some refused to believe it.

"This is selective Alzheimer's, to be used only with lawsuits, financial problems and ... government agencies," an ex-CUT member who gave her name only as "Cathleen," asserted on a Web site critical of the church.

Even some of her most loyal supporters couldn't take the news.

As late as 2000 "there were still some people on the church board (of directors) who questioned whether she had Alzheimer's," Erin Prophet said. "There are still people in the church who think she might get better."

"With Alzheimer's Disease, you don't get better," noted Murray Steinman, Prophet's other co-guardian.

This skepticism persists despite the fact that, by 2003, Prophet couldn't say the names of her own children.

Elizabeth Prophet now needs 24-hour care. She lives in Bozeman, in an apartment attached to the home of Steinman, a former vice president of the church and close friend.

During a visit with family members last summer, she was able to walk with assistance, but her only words that day were "bye-bye," according to a Web site maintained by Erin Prophet (www.ecprophet.info).

"Unfortunately, her mind, which controls the speech patterns, facial expressions, etc., is continuing to lose capacity," the Web site explains.

Although incapacitated now, she is still the one and only "messenger" of the Church Universal and Triumphant, a sect she organized in 1974, shortly after the death of Mark Prophet, father of four of her five children and the founder of The Summit Lighthouse, a sister organization of CUT.

A messenger, according to CUT doctrine, is the one person on Earth who can take "dictations" from Ascended Masters, heavenly beings ranging from Buddha to Jesus to the "head of the Cosmic Secret Service." The messenger, the doctrine holds, has a direct link to God.

Church officials say Prophet retains her title, despite her incapacity. But other people also claim the mantle.

"There are at least eight people currently claiming the mantle of Messenger," the church's board of directors and other officials announced in a March 3 letter to followers.

Some of those followers believe the new messenger is David Lewis, a Feng Shui consultant in Livingston. Lewis, a former official with the church, has been taking dictations from Ascended Masters at the Wellspring Institute in Emigrant. His Web site -- heartscenter.org -- calls him a "messenger in training."

Marsha Covington, a California woman who says she has worked with Prophet in the past, also takes dictations at Wellspring.

Monroe and Carolyn Shearer, also former CUT officials, make similar claims and operate the Temple of the Presence in Tucson, Ariz.

Gilbert Cleirbaut, the CUT president from 1996 to 1999 and the man responsible for "re-engineering" the church from 600 employees to its current size, was hired for his managerial skills. But he, too, later began taking dictations from the Ascended Masters, according to e-mails he sent out in 2002, and toured Europe and Canada offering dictations.

"We completely reject the claims of David Lewis and others to messengership," the church's March 3 letter says, adding that anybody who promotes or supports Lewis is banned from attending any CUT functions.

The letter says this is a "difficult time of challenge," for the church and urges continued support for Prophet.

"Our beloved Mother is our messenger and Guru," the letter says. "We need to stay true to her."

Paying the bills

Staying true to Prophet is an expensive proposition. Her 24-hour care in a private home requires 6.5 full-time caregivers at a cost of $164,000 a year.

Plus, she has rent to pay and medical bills, according to a November 2003 letter from Erin Prophet, posted on her Web site. It all added up to over $200,000 for that year. The church was paying 80 percent of the costs, including a $72,000 pension.

Prophet donated all royalties from her books to the church, and her personal savings, Erin Prophet said, "are not large."

Erin Prophet set up trust funds so followers and friends could help defray expenses, and posted an exchange of testy letters with church officials, whom she had asked for more support.

The CUT board of directors accused Erin Prophet of "inaccurate" statements and said her "conclusions are misleading."

She in turn accused them of a "bureaucratic stonewall approach" and posted a full account of her mother's care and its costs.

They've since patched up their differences, both Erin Prophet and CUT spokeswoman Destyne Erickson said recently, and Elizabeth Prophet's care is now fully funded, by the church and by $60,000 in donations from followers.

She said the church increased its donations, but that happened only after she posted her complaints on the Internet.

A scattered clan

Elizabeth Prophet was married four times and has five children. Four of them, from her marriage with Mark Prophet, are adults and have gone on to build successful careers in "the world," as opposed to the semi-communal compounds they grew up in. None follow the church's teachings any more. The fifth child, Seth, born when Prophet was 55 years old and still married to former husband Ed Francis, is now 11 years old.

Sean, the eldest, is a film editor for television projects in California and Erin is a technical writer in Massachusetts. Both of them served on the church's board of directors in the 1980s and had leadership positions in the church.

Moira, the third child, is an advertising executive in California. Tatiana is a journalist in the East.

Prophet's fifth child, Seth Francis, is now 11 and lives in Bozeman with his father, Ed Francis, who works in real estate. Prophet's first husband was Dag Ytreburg and the marriage ended in divorce. Mark Prophet was the second and the marriage ended with his death in 1973. Randall King was the third. That marriage, too, ended in divorce.

Francis could not be reached for comment for this story.

For many years, Prophet and her immediate family served in leadership positions in the church: board members, vice presidents, official spokespersons to the media. In the 1990s, all of them, along with a number of other church officials, left the organization.

Steinman, one of Prophet's oldest friends, also played a key role in the church, and was its public face during much of the "shelter cycle," when he used his quick wit and deft verbal skills to deal with hordes of reporters. He later helped engineer the complicated land deal that sold half of the church's Royal Teton Ranch to the U.S. Forest Service.

He is now founder and president of Strategicom, a growing Bozeman marketing and public relations firm with a long list of clients (including the Bozeman Chronicle).

"I have no idea what's going on down there," he said of CUT headquarters in Corwin Springs. "I don't have any contact with the official people. I've moved on."

Like many former church members, he described himself as "integrated into the community now."

Also like many others, ranging from electricians to restaurateurs, university professors to printing company executives, he has built a career and a life unrelated to the church.

The grown Prophet children have done likewise. Although scattered across the country, they say they remain emotionally close. And although they disagree with many of the actions of the church under their mother's leadership, they remain dedicated to her.

Sean Prophet, 40, said growing up in the church offered both good and bad lessons and experiences.

He got to travel widely, he learned about group dynamics and "the power of suggestion and the pitfalls of communal living," he said in an e-mail.

Most church employees lived in cramped quarters, worked long hours and were paid a minimal stipend, though the Prophet family had special privileges.

On the negative side, he said he "was elevated early to positions of power within the group, which I did not deserve."

He said the church of his youth "reeked of fundamentalism" and imposed "near-Taliban style restrictions on dress and human interaction."

He isn't a fan of religion.

"It has become axiomatic for me that religion is, in fact, entertainment. It has all aspects: drama, tragedy, comedy, farce," he wrote.

Tatiana Prophet, 33, said in an interview that she isn't surprised that CUT leaders react sharply to other people who claim Ascended Masters speak through them. Her mother kicked other such claimants out of the church.

"I love my mother with all my heart," she said, but she doesn't embrace her teachings.

"There's a positive side to the church's teachings and there was a negative view that the church took," she said. That included "the whole idea that a nuclear attack could be eminent" and the "quite-loopy political views."

She said she left the church a decade ago at the age of 23 and earned a master's degree in psychology, partly because she wanted to understand her mother.

"It took me years to get over growing up in the church, growing up with somebody who was larger than life," she said. "I had to ask questions of my own self, and not of an authority figure who had a direct line to God.

"I respect anyone's right to practice any religion," she said. "But the only religion I practice is the Golden Rule."

Erin Prophet, 39, continues to work on a book about her life in the church while working as a technical writer in Massachusetts.

She was once trained to succeed her mother as messenger, but walked away from that responsibility while in her early 20s.

She is her mother's co-guardian and conservator, which means she oversees her care and finances.

A goal she shares with the church is to keep her mother from having to go to a nursing home.

For a time, she considered beginning a new organization to disseminate her parents' teachings, but has now abandoned that idea.

Moira Prophet, 37, gained a moment of fame in the late 1980s when she publicly denounced her mother for deceiving followers and living an extravagant lifestyle. At the time, her family reacted harshly.

On the day when church members went underground in 1990, she was unaware of what was going on, she said in a recent interview. Her mother had kicked her out of the church, citing rebellious behavior.

"I was in Bozeman," she said. "I was left to die."

Moira sees irony in that.

"Now I'm probably the most spiritual (of the siblings), in a way," she said. "I'm grateful for everything I had growing up."

She described the church's "shelter cycle" years as a "bizarre aberration. It's fundamentalism and that can happen in any religion."

Now adults, with careers and families, the Prophet siblings all said they are closer than ever, partly because of their mother's health problems.

"We all have different feelings about our experience," Moira said. "We don't have to agree on everything. But we're very supportive of each other."

She and the others said they consider Francis, young Seth, Steinman and his wife part of an extended family.

"It's nice to have the church stuff out of the way," Moira said.

Underground bunkers remain from CUT 'shelter era'

Charlie Hull has a chipper attitude about his bomb shelter.

"Mine's the best-looking one in town," the Paradise Valley resident said in a recent telephone interview.

It's clean, painted, dry and stocked with supplies for 90 people, he said.

"Just flip a switch" and it's ready to go, he said.

The subdivisions of north and south Glastonbury, which flank Emigrant, included about 45 bomb shelters during the "shelter cycle" of 1989 and 1990. Church Universal and Triumphant leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet had prophesied that nuclear war was likely in that time. So was an earthquake and other catastrophes.

But in the ensuing 15 years, most of the shelters have been flooded by groundwater or abandoned, according to Hull and Phillip Hoag, who owns another shelter.

CUT members had worried about a nuclear hit in Paradise Valley -- a concern based on Prophet's warnings -- but Hull said nobody's too concerned any more.

"It looks like those days are past," he said.

"Our (shelter) is well maintained," said Hoag. "It's solvent. It works. But most of them are defunct. I don't think the vast majority of them are in any way operable right now."

A couple of shelter owners have been fined by state officials for violating underground fuel storage tank regulations, and Hoag said the Glastonbury homeowners association is pressuring owners of unusable shelters to clean them up.

That's a big switch from the 1980s, when subdivision covenants banned non-CUT members and required all residents to have access to bomb shelters.

Owning one is "kind of an expensive hobby," Hoag said. "It's a spare tire we hope we never need."

He said he's no longer affiliated with CUT

"I'm friendly with everybody, but I don't have any religious affiliation."

Both he and Hull declined requests to tour the shelters.

The church also maintains its massive 756-person shelter in a subalpine meadow in the Mol Heron Creek drainage, near Corwin Springs.

In the past, church officials have likened it to an insurance policy.

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