Monday, February 11, 2013

Virgin Mary Visitations: Miraculous, Hoaxes or Just Plain Weird?

Illinois Manifestations, Miracles or Wishful Thinking?

This seemed like an appropriate posting today as we receive news that Pope Benedict plans to resign his position as leader of the Church, the first pope to do so in over 600 years. As it turns out, today, February 11, is also the anniversary of the first of 18 visions of a lady dressed in white in a grotto at Lourdes, France in 1858. My own interest in such happenings was piqued a number of years ago when I learned just how many strange happening like this had occurred in my home state of Illinois. 

 The grotto at Lourdes, France. The sightings of the Virgin Mary began here in February 1858. 
Mysterious visitations from angels, religious visions and the Blessed Mother are nothing new in the history of the world, although most believe that such events ended long ago. This may not be the case, though, especially in Illinois, where the Virgin Mary still makes regular appearances; where paintings, shrines and relics bleed and ooze; and where trees, walls, windows and highway underpasses play host to miraculous forms that entrance the faithful and mystify everyone else.

Visitors from the heavens have reportedly been around since the beginning of recorded time, from the "burning bush" of Moses to Ezekiel's wheel and the numerous stories of angels in earthly form that graced the biblical writings. Perhaps the most famous of the heavenly visitors in modern times is Mary, the mother of Jesus. After the death of her son, she became the core of the early Christian church and since the third century, Mary has made countless visitations, especially to those of the Catholic faith, who hold Mary in higher esteem than other churches.

Several of these visitations have been more famous than others. The first was in December 1531, when Mary was said to have appeared to a Mexican peasant named Juan Diego and left an impression of herself on his cloak. This visitation, and the cloth, can be seen today at the Shrine of Guadalupe in Mexico. I visited this location a number of years ago and saw the image on the cloth. No matter what you believe, there is no doubt that it holds a special meaning for the literally thousands of people who visit the location each day.

Another famous visitation came at Lourdes, France, beginning on February 11, 1858. A young girl named Bernadette Soubrious was gathering firewood near a stream when she heard a terrific noise from a nearby cave. A shimmering cloud appeared and from it, came a beautiful woman who claimed to be the Blessed Mother. She asked Bernadette to have a chapel built on the spot and this grotto has come to be known as one of the most famous religious shrines in the world. Thousands of people have come here for the reportedly healing powers of the water and many have told of further apparitions of Mary.

In May 1917 came the mysterious visitations in Fatima, Portugal, which began as a powerful wind and a blinding light for three children, Lucia dos Santos, Francisco and Jacinto Marto. Mary's appearances at Fatima were witnessed by thousands of people and at one point, a massive crowd claimed to witness impossible movements of the sun in the sky. Divine Intervention or mass hallucination? No one knows for sure, but the faithful will tell you that the Blessed Mother did appear at Fatima and that she passed along cryptic messages to the children. Her final message was said to be so earth-shattering that it was kept secret by the Vatican for many years. When revealed, the Church stated that the prediction had accurately foretold the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II.

Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Illinois
In Illinois, the Lady of the Snows Shrine in Belleville has been the setting for visits from the Virgin Mary for many years. She was first encountered by Ray Doiron here in 1993 and appeared for a number of years afterward. Doiron had been through three near-death experiences and was deaf in his right ear before being visited by Mary. He was sleeping one afternoon and he heard a soft voice that instructed him to go to the nearby Lady of Snows Shrine, which is a duplicate of the shrine at Lourdes. He was told to first go on February 11 (the anniversary of the first sightings at Lourdes) and then on the 13th day of each successive month.

At first, Doiron kept the visitations a secret, but the events were always the same. There would be a strong wind, followed by an eerie calm, and then a statue at the shrine would turn start to glow with a bluish tint. The light around the statue would pulse for a few moments and then turn white and very bright. The Blessed Mother would then emerge from the light, speaking and imparting life lessons on Doiron, which he wrote down to prevent any mistakes. He was soon allowed to bring a small number of friends with him to the shrine so that they could experience the visitations too and later on, Mary allowed him to make them public. Since that time, thousands have visited the site and it remains a popular and blessed spot today.

Several years ago, although the visitations continue to this day, Mary also reportedly appeared to six young people in the war-torn county of Bosnia. The events here have attracted more than 11 million people from over the world. One of the pilgrims who came to Bosnia was Joseph Reinholtz, a retired railroad worker from Hillside. Before journeying to Bosnia, he had been suffering from blurred vision and bouts with blindness. He traveled to the site of the apparitions to meet with one of the young people who had reported experiencing the Blessed Mother. She prayed over Reinholtz in 1987 and after his return to Illinois, his vision slowly returned to normal.

Reinholtz returned to Bosnia in 1989 and met with the young woman again. She instructed him that when he returned home, he was to look for a large crucifix that was near a three-branched tree. She told him that this was a place where he was to go and pray. Reinholtz later discovered the location that she described at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside and he began making frequent visits to the site to pray. His determination was rewarded on August 15, 1990, when he experienced his first visitation from Mary. She returned to him again on November 1 and this time, he claimed, she was accompanied by St. Michael and three angels. Reinholtz spoke widely of what he was experiencing and soon thousands of people began flocking to the large cemetery cross. It wasn’t long before complaints about the number of spectators caused the cemetery officials to move the crucifix to another location in 1992. Today, it is quite accessible and the cemetery has placed a paved parking lot next to it.

The faithful still flock to the cross at Queen of Heaven Cemetery

The visitations, apparitions and bizarre events reportedly continue today and occur every day but Tuesday, which is coincidentally the day of the week that the Archdiocese of Chicago placed a “restriction of obedience” on Reinholtz and asked that he not visit the cemetery. Sadly, Joseph Reinholtz suffered a stroke in February 1995 and was hospitalized, where the Blessed Mother continued to visit him. He passed away in December 1996 but his legacy continues in Queen of Heaven Cemetery, where the crucifix still stands.

Reinholtz has not been the only person to report miraculous visitations at the Queen of Heaven cross. There have been dozens of photographs here that purport to show angels and various types of light phenomena. Others claim that they have seen blood dripping from the cross and others have reported the scent of invisible roses in the air.

I have visited this site several times and it is almost always surrounded by the faithful, who are praying and passing out religious literature. I have been shown many “miraculous” photographs by pilgrims here, all taken around the cross, but confess that they look a lot like bad photography and sun glare to me. Regardless, though, I cannot argue about the importance of these photos in the lives of the believers. No matter what the reader might believe in personally, a visit to Queen of Heaven will convince him that something wonderful is taking place here ---- whether it be of this world or another.

Along with sightings of the Blessed Mother, Illinois has also played host to other religious apparitions and few “miraculously” weeping statues and relics. Over the last three decades, there have been more than a dozen religious apparitions and unexplained happenings in the Chicago area and other parts of the state. Each of them has attracted dozens, or even hundreds, of believers, skeptics and news reporters, always on the look-out for an unusual story. The strange items and events have included statues, paintings and icons that appears to weep and bleed, as well as images, shapes and shadows that appear on windows, walls and even tree trunks. 

One of the mysterious relics was a painting of the Blessed Mother that was hanging in the St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church in 1986. One day, the painting suddenly began to weep, a phenomenon that continued over the next seven months. During this time, some sort of clear liquid that looked like water dripped from the eyes, and the fingers, of the painting. Hundreds of people came to witness the event but the icon abruptly stopped crying in July 1987. A year later, it began again but the weeping was short-lived this time. During this second incident, the tears produced by the painting were used to anoint 19 other icons in Pennsylvania and all of them began to weep too. 

Another painting, this one an inexpensive rendition of Mary and Jesus, reportedly began to weep in April 1987. This one was not located in a church however, but in the apartment of a retired tailor on West Devon Avenue in Chicago. The event made minor news in the city but still managed to attract crowds to the man’s home.

Another barely remembered event took place at St. Adrian’s Church on Chicago’s south side in May 1970. According to witnesses, a collection of remains of St. Maximina, which was a 1,700 year old first-class relic, began to ooze watery blood.  The bleeding lasted for a few months and then came to an end without warning.

In June 1984, a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary appeared to shed tears at the St. John of God Catholic Church on the southwest side. The Archdiocese of Chicago investigated the phenomenon for more than a year before announcing that it could not positively rule out natural causes for liquid oozing from the wood, despite the wood’s age and composition. The faithful were not concerned and continued to gather at the church until the tears eventually came to an end.

Several icons at Apanacio and St. John on the north side of the city reportedly began weeping in the early 1990s. The icons were stolen by an unknown thief, but were later returned. Once they came back, the tears no longer appeared on them. The church has since been disbanded.

An icon panel of the Blessed Mother at St. George's Antiochan Orthodox Church  in Cicero began weeping oil at the beginning of Holy Week in April 1994. Eight orthodox bishops examined the tears and declared them to be genuine. Mary has continued to cry and the relic has since been renamed Our Lady of Cicero.  An Orthodox bishop declared that an event was “an extension of the miracle of Our Lady of Cicero” in Schiller Park in May 1997. The event he referred to was when a tiny paper copy of the St. George Antiochian icon began to ooze oily tears. Moments later, the faithful who had gathered to see it claimed to see a life-sized image of the icon appear on a picture window behind the makeshift shrine that housed it. It was a one-time event but a breath-taking one to those who were present.

In November 1994, the owner of a religious gift store in St. Charles claimed that six plastic statues of Mary bowed their heads after being unpacked from a shipping box and having rosaries placed around their necks.

The Virgin of Guadalupe was said to have visited Hanover Park in July 1997, appearing on the wall of an apartment complex located at 2420 Glendale Terrace. The image appeared from shadows created by a security light that was angled at the building. When the light was turned off, the image vanished, but the faithful remained, convinced that a holy miracle had taken place. Today, at the southwest end of the parking lot, a tent has been erected next to the building where the apparition appeared. The tent contains hundreds of votive candles, offerings, rosaries and a statue of the Blessed Mother.

In July 1999, another shadowy image of Mary appeared in Joliet. A young boy was playing in the street on the east side of the city and looked up to the second story of a vacant house and saw the image in the window. News quickly spread and over the course of the next several weeks, thousands of people jammed tiny Abe Street, blocking traffic and trampling the lawns of those who lived nearby. They came to pray, stare, leave messages and to “soak up the sign from God”. The police were forced to set up barricades to keep people on the sidewalks but it did no good and the crowds poured into the streets. The faithful remained here for most of the summer, leaving roses and candles, but not everyone who came was convinced. Most of the skeptical thought that the image looked “more like an owl.”

In July 2001, the Blessed Mother dropped in again, this time in Rogers Park. This sighting was unique for Chicago as the Virgin reportedly appeared in an oval-shaped scar in the trunk of a tree. Despite the fact that skeptics insisted that the faithful were merely seeing “whatever they wanted to see”, scores of people flocked to an area in the park near the corner of Honore and Rogers Avenues and surrounded the tree with candles, rosaries and prayer offerings. The alleged apparition appeared about 10 feet from the ground, inside of the scar on the trunk. The scar looked like a medallion on a chain and the folds in the scar tissue created the image of cloaked person. As the story spread of the sighting, so many onlookers came to the park that Chicago police had to close the street to be able to handle the crowd.

And this would not turn out to be the only “miracle tree” in Illinois. An old tree in a Catholic Cemetery in Quincy, located in west central Illinois, was noticed to hold the life-sized figure of Jesus Christ a few years ago. A cemetery worker was the first to discover the phenomenon but kept it a secret for several days before deciding to share it with others.  It should be noted that the image can only be seen from a certain distance, and certain angle, which is why the faithful say that it had not been discovered earlier.  After the Quincy newspaper and television station ran stories on the tree, people began flocking to the cemetery to see the tree. According to a spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Cemetery Association, nearly 2,000 people were visiting the site each day and a guest book that had been placed next to the tree acquired 30,000 signatures during the summer of 1998.

The tree, which had been given the names of “The Jesus Tree” and the “Good Shepherd Tree”, had to have  fence placed around it because many of the visitors were peeling pieces of bark from the tree to take home as souvenirs. The grounds around the tree had been worn bare by the thousands of visitors who came. They hung crosses on the tree and fence, left rosaries, flowers, stuff animals, photographs of loved ones and more. The tree continues to attract visitors today.

One of the most recent alleged visitations by the Blessed Mother occurred in April 2005 when hundreds of people began gathering at a Fullerton Avenue underpass on the Kennedy Expressway to witness an image believed to be the Virgin Mary.  Thousands who came to see the image quickly turned the spot into a shrine and dubbed the huge water and salt stain, which they believed formed into the shape of the Blessed Mother, “Our Lady of the Underpass”. The faithful were convinced that it marked the recent passing of Pope John Paul II.

The “Our Lady of the Underpass” image was discovered in April 2005 under Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway. Thousands flocked to the site, which was a salt stain they believed was in the image of the Virgin Mary. It remained a shrine until just recently. 
Word quickly spread and the image was widely reported on local, then national, news shows and in newspapers all over the country. Believers flocked to the underpass, tying up traffic and creating headaches for state troopers and city police officers. Those who gathered left behind candles, flowers, pictures and tokens, all offered with prayers and tears. Many of the people that I saw at the underpass myself were anxious to touch the image, presumably in the belief that it would bless or cure them, and some held their children out of over the police barricades that were erected around the image to touch or kiss the stain.

The Chicago archdioceses had no immediate reaction to the image, due to more pressing issues such as the conclave in the Vatican City at the time to elect a new pope. When he returned from Rome after the funeral of Pope John Paul II and the selection of Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Francis George side-stepped the issue of whether the church believed the stain was legitimate. “If it’s helpful in reminding people of the Virgin Mary’s care and love for us,” he said, “that’s wonderful.”

Within days, there was discussion about the city coming in and either painting over the image or power washing it off the underpass due to the traffic congestion that it was causing. However, the area was actually under the jurisdiction of the Illinois Department of Transportation and officials there said that there were no plans to remove the image. As it turned out, though, someone took matters into his own hands.

On the night of May 5, 2005, a man used black shoe polish to scrawl the words “Big Lie” over the stain. Victor Gonzalez of Chicago was quickly arrested and charged with criminal damage to state-supported property. He told relatives that he believed visitors to the site were worshipping a graven image in violation of the Second Commandment. The graffiti did little to discourage the visitors and managed to make them angry instead. The following day, the Chicago police department directed transportation workers to paint over the image with brown paint for “safety reasons”. Many of those who were gathered at the site wept as a coat of brown paint was rolled over the stain.

Many of the candles, flowers, pictures and other mementoes were left behind on the spot and as it turned out, this was for the best.  Less than a week later, two car wash employees, Rosa Diaz and Anne Reczek, used a degreaser to clean off the wall on their lunch break, removing both the brown paint and the shoe polish that had been used to vandalize the stain.  Onlookers were again “blessed” with the image of the Virgin Mary and the site remained intact for many years. Even after the salt stain faded, the shrine remained with photographs posted of the original design. The number of faithful faded over time and by the end of 2012, the shrine was no more.

The miraculous visions and visitations of Illinois are among the greatest oddities of the state and many are torn between belief and disbelief. What do you, the reader, make of these strange, and perhaps wonderful, sightings and experiences? If you are not a believer, you are apt to dismiss them as the fevered imaginings of a religious mind. Perhaps -- or perhaps not -- regardless, I’d prefer to leave that up to you to decide.

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