Even if you have an allergic reaction to religion, you will, I hope, find this post diverting and fetchingly odd. As long-time readers know, I'm not a religious person myself.
Nevertheless, a couple of years ago I confessed
that, as a boy, I formed an inexplicable, somewhat embarrassing crush on St Bernadette, the pretty peasant girl who allegedly saw the Virgin Mary in 1858. In that earlier post, I did not divulge my desire to write a book -- a book offering not another biography of Bernadette, but an overview of Mary sightings. What I envisioned (so to speak) was the first such work written from a truly objective, "man-from-Mars" stance -- an investigation by someone who is neither friend nor foe to the Church. An outsider's
The project fell by the wayside when I realized that few people have any desire to read a book that refuses to take sides. Both atheists and the pious consider themselves objective observers, yet they both use "objectivity" as a synonym for "I want you to agree with my presumptions from the outset." (Of course, both atheists and the pious would indignantly deny adhering to that definition of that word, but I think they're lying to themselves.)
My mantra: "Conclusions come at the end of the investigation, not the beginning." Alas, when it comes to claims involving religious phenomena, most people really do prefer their conclusions at the wrong end. Besides, the Catholics with the deepest interest in this material tend to be tea partiers, a weltanschauung which sure as hell ain't my
cup of tea. I can't talk to such people for very long without losing my temper.
ought to write a "neutralist" book about this topic, because these stories are, if nothing else, incredibly strange. Some are scary. Some are sad. Some have political ramifications. All are strange.
The familiar, church-approved visions -- the stories commonly recounted in books intended for a Catholic audience -- are indeed fascinating. But I have an even greater interest in the many bizarre episodes which never have received any kind of official recognition, and which fewer people know about. Most writers ignore these claims -- although Father Rene Laurentin's magisterial Dictionnaire des "apparitions" de la Vierge Marie
makes a valiant effort to take in the entire field. (The book weighs in at 1400-plus pages -- small font, double columns, lots of citations.) On the skeptical side of the aisle, Marc Hallet's invaulable Les apparitions de la Vierge et la critique historique
is, despite its bias, unafraid of detail and generally well-argued.
You don't have to believe in the supernatural to learn from these narratives. They explore the extremes of human
experience. Here are a few examples:
Everyone has heard about Jonestown, and most people know about the "Heaven's Gate" murder/suicide cult. But nearly every one has forgotten about Joseph Kibwetere's Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in Uganda, a cult which ended in the second-largest group suicide, or mass-murder, in the history of religious sects. The event took place on March 17, 2000, the date on which the cult's leaders had claimed Doomsday would occur. And so, in a sense, it did: The people who made that prophecy locked more than five hundred of their followers into a church and set off explosions.
Hundreds of additional bodies were later found at other sites associated with the sect. The number of reported victims grew over the course of a week; the official final tally came to 778 bodies.
As with the tragedies of Jonestown and the Order of the Solar Temple, controversy erupted over the question of "Murder or suicide?" Apparently, most of the cult members in the main church died before
the building erupted in flame. Some news reports spoke of strangulation, some of poison, some of stabbings. A few writers have even hinted at a conspiratorial scenario in which the government of Uganda used the mass "suicide" as a cover for the murder of political enemies.
Much of the contemporary news coverage neglected to mention that Kibwetere was a Marian visionary. His second-in command, a former prostitute named Credonia Mwerinde
(a.k.a. "the Programmer"), also claimed to be in contact with the Virgin:
Some say Mwerinde, who claimed to have met the Virgin Mary, ultimately eclipsed the cult's founder in both real importance and power. Fr. Paul Ikazire, a priest and former cult member said she dominated the group and that "Kibwetere was just a figurehead." He characterized Mwerinde as "a trickster, obsessed with the desire to grab other people's property." The Virgin Mary as channeled through Mwerinde proscribed all the rules of the group.
The gender-bending lion-tamer.
Credonia Mwerinde preached that personal possessions were evil. She encouraged cult members to sell everything and surrender all their assets to her. Eventually Mwerinde became rich and accumulated farms, houses and cars. Paul Ikazire recalled, "She would come in and say things like: 'The Virgin Mary wants you to bring more money."'
Between the years 1921-24, a woman calling herself Georges Marasco became famous throughout Belgium, and not just because her name and her appearance were undeniably masculine. (This site
says that she openly identified herself as male, a claim I've not seen in older books.) She was a Marian visionary, a stigmatist and a healer who reputedly could reveal secrets of both the past and future.
In 1920, she was stricken by a mysterious paralysis, which was healed during a visit to a Marian shrine in Halle. This experience launched her career as a mystic.
A steady stream of visitors made the pilgrimage to her home in Vorst, where she lived with a much younger "sister" named Irène. The pilgrims came in search of physical healing and spiritual direction. Despite her unconventional appearance, her many disciples viewed her as a genuinely holy person; one observer called her "a sort of priestess."
Naturally, she made many enemies, some of whom spread the rumor that she had spied for the Germans during World War I. She insisted that she had, in fact, worked for the allies, and that she had even been an intimate friend of the famed British Red Cross nurse Edith Cavell, who (in an internationally notorious episode) had been executed by the Kaiser's forces because she had helped allied POWs escape German custody. Although no Cavell biography mentions Marasco, the Belgian government did grudgingly admit that Marasco had acted courageously in the service of the Allies.
In 1924, the police arrested her for obtaining money through fraudulence. Her trial became quite the cause célèbre
in Belgium and was followed throughout the Catholic world. Investigators learned that her real name was Bertha Mrazek, and that her parents had tossed her into the streets while she was still a child. She joined a circus and earned a living as a sketch artist, a contortionist, and even a lion-tamer. After the war, she sang at the famed Chat Noir nightclub in Paris, living the life of a classic Bohemian hell-raiser. Irène, born in 1913, was her daughter
, not her sister.
Although this “backstory” would shock few people nowadays, in the 1920s, people expected miraculées
to have more family-friendly biographies. The public turned against her, and she was confined to a lunatic asylum near Mons. A 1927 news story reported that harsh treatment had nearly driven her mad. After that, she disappears from history.
Another transgender visionary.
In 1989, in a town called Agoo in the Philippines, a 12 year-old boy named Judiel Nieva began to see visions of the Blessed Mother, even as his family's statue of the Virgin began to weep tears of blood. Over the next few years, Nieva's visions attracted many pilgrims.
On March 6, 1993, thousands of people converged on a hill where Nieva (then aged 16) fell into a trance. (Some estimates put the crowd at a million people, a number I find hard to credit.) Many witnesses claimed to see bizarre solar phenomena of the kind familiar to anyone who knows the familiar Fatima story. Two distinguished political figures -- the Speaker of the House and the Senate President Pro Tempore -- were in attendance; they claimed that they saw the silhouette of a woman floating above a guava tree near Nieva.
The local Bishop decided to investigate. Bishop Salvador Lazo was an arch-conservative (and somewhat anti-Semitic) cleric who aroused the ire of the Church hierarchy when he accused the Vatican of being infiltrated by a Freemasonic conspiracy. Although initially enthusiastic about the Nieva story, the Bishop was disturbed to learn that young Judiel had surrounded himself with a coterie of handsome young "bodyguards." There were also reports that the Nieva family had helped themselves to funds donated by the faithful to the project of erecting a church on the apparition hill. Eventually, Lazo issued a report condemning the apparitions as fraudulent.
The story does not end there. Judiel Nieva has taken on a new identity as a woman named Angel de la Vega. She -- this is now her pronoun, although I'm not sure if she has actually had sexual reassignment surgery -- has even gained some renown as an actress on Filipino television.
She claims that her sex change was "what the Beloved Virgin Mary willed." Today, she owns a spa and a restaurant in her home town of Agoo. Although she no longer discusses religious matters in public, she insists that her apparitions were genuine and, by some accounts, still hears "locutions" from the Virgin.
Conservative Catholics would concur with the Bishop's assessment of Nieva/De la Vega. But if he/she was a false visionary, what do we make of the strange sights seen by so many people in 1993?
An Irish mystical entrepreneur named Christina Gallagher is one visionary about whom I can no longer be objective: In my opinion, she is nothing more than a deceiver out to fleece the public. Although little-known in the United States, she has, in her homeland, been the focus of numerous news stories (see here
) and one book-length expose
The author of that book, Jim Gallagher (no relation), is her primary journalistic bête noire
. Perhaps it would be best to let him tell the story -- and quite a gripping story it is:
If you don't have time to watch the interview, the following excerpts from Jim Gallagher's reportage should give you a taste of what he has uncovered. This comes from a blurb for his book:
THE shocking secret life of millionaire ‘visionary’ Christina Gallagher is laid bare today in a new book, based on a series of Sunday World revelations, which lifts the lid on her scams, greed and lies. Immaculate Deception reveals for the first time how the self-proclaimed holy woman told her most loyal supporters how she was recovering from a heart attack when in fact she had sneaked off to England for two weeks to meet a boyfriend. The book also exposes how the money-grabbing leader of the House of Prayer in Achill Island was furious when a generous American benefactor gave her “only” $800,000 when she expected $2 million.
And here are a couple of excerpts from one of Jim Gallagher's news reports:
FAKE visionary Christina Gallagher’s main American fundraiser is an ex-convict who took part in a $15million fraud, the Sunday World can sensationally reveal. John Rooney, who is the official owner of the self-proclaimed holy woman’s €4-million Malahide mansion, spent time behind bars for his part in a massive interstate scam in the US. The 65-year-old fraudster pleaded guilty in a Texas court to a con-trick which cost his own employers at the time a whopping $10 million.
Many elderly donors in Ireland were brainwashed into handing over tens of thousands of euro but were asked to make out their cheques to John Rooney. Soon after, Gallagher’s magnificent home was bought Rooney’s name. One couple, Michael and Betty Morrissey from Co Waterford, signed a cheque for an incredible €50,000 to Rooney in June 2005 and now assume their money went straight into buying Gallagher’s house.
One of the reasons why this woman particularly annoys me is the fact that she claims to have seen apparitions of not just the Virgin but also my beloved Bernadette Soubirous -- whose behavior never resembled Christina's. Bernadette avoided crowds, disdained fame, considered money unclean and refused even to take fruit
handed to her by well-wishers.
Although many alleged visionaries have made dubious claims, Christina Gallagher is...unique. And yet her organization, the House of Prayer
, is slowly making inroads in the United States.
A mass sighting.
On March 18, 1896, something very odd took place in the French coastal town of Tilly-sur-Seulles, located not too far from the place American soldiers later called Omaha Beach. The Virgin Mary allegedly appeared just outside a school run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart -- not just to one seer, but to the entire school, including three nuns, sixty students, and several visitors from town. They all saw the life-sized figure of a woman wearing a white dress and a white belt, her feet enveloped by a soft, pink cloud as she slowly floated over the school grounds before wafting out of sight.
You don't believe it? Well, I can't say that I do either. Nevertheless, and for what it's worth, we have a couple of photographs. The first was published in the June 20, 1896 edition of a London periodical called The Graphic (and I apologize for the terrible reproduction)...
I have found a somewhat better-quality version of a similar photo which appeared in an 1896 edition of Le Monde Illustre
Could these pictures be fakes? Of course. Bogus "ghost" photographs abounded in the 1890s. (I have a couple of hilariously obvious "ghost of Bernadette" images from this era.) The figure in the sky could be the superimposed image of a religious statue. Although we can't make any fair judgment about authenticity until we know more about how these images came to be, this much seems certain: The "Virgin" in these photos is much larger than life-sized.
The photos reproduced above were taken not on March 18 but on a subsequent occasion. Over the next four months, the "Virgin" made a number of return appearances at very irregular intervals. For example, there were three public events in May, on May 1, May 2 and May 27. On July 3, the figure appeared for two full hours. The sightings ceased soon thereafter.
As one might expect, crowds flocked to the town throughout this period. Whenever the apparition appeared, most witnesses reported that the figure floated through the air, although some claimed that she rose up out of the ground.
Some of the schoolchildren began to fall into trances (or "ecstasy," to use the term preferred by Catholics) and started to act in an unstable, disturbing fashion.
Around this time, a 24 year-old seamstress named Marie Martel, who lived in the nearby village of Cristot, showed up in Tilly. She soon commandeered the narrative.
On April 25, she began to have intense subjective visions, and claimed to be in regular private communication with the Virgin. Soon thereafter, Mlle Martel's health began to suffer. An affluent local gave Marie a place to stay in town, saving her the trouble of making the journey to and from her home.
Her visionary sequence lasted well into the 20th century, during which time she became the center of a small personality cult. As the years passed, she had visions not just of the Virgin Mary but also of Christ, St. Michael and Joan of Arc (who was not yet a saint). Although nearly all Catholics believe that the "solar miracle" motif originated at Fatima, the first such case occurred in Tilly-sur-Seulles in October of 1901, during one of Marie's visions. Surprisingly, the locals seemed unimpressed, and few outsiders took note of the incident.
Marie offered her followers some spectacularly wrongheaded forecasts of world events -- for example, she said that all of Paris would soon be destroyed by a great fire. Although Marie Martel predicted that a great Basilica would be built on the site of the original Tilly apparitions, no such structure came into being.
In short and in sum, Marie (who died in 1913) made a poor impression on many observers. As her cult diminished, the entire story of Tilly-sur-Seulles faded from public attention. That outcome seems a little unfair, since the unhappy career of Marie Martel does not necessarily have anything to do with the original sightings, which had many witnesses.
What caused that first mass vision? Skeptics will no doubt trot out the concept of pareidolia, the psychological phenomenon which explains why we "see" images in clouds or stucco walls. In my estimation, the multiple-witness events don't fall into that category -- if
the descriptions we have are accurate.
And that's a jumbo-sized if
Tilly-sur-Seulles deserves further study. For now, that's all I can honestly say about the affair.
When the idea to write this post first popped into my brain, I had planned to include seven or eight additional stories, all very weird. But the sun is rising on this Christmas morning, and I've been typing all night. We can return to this topic in the future, if any readers express interest.
However, I suspect that some of my regular visitors have been irked by this blog's uncharacteristic leap into a luminous, bubbling, boiling vat of strangeness. Blame it on the holiday. 'Tis the season for tales of miracles and magic, n'est-ce pas
I still do not know what causes people to report these visions. In the case of Christina Gallagher, I have a pretty good idea of what she's
up to -- but many other stories are more bewildering. For example, if Credonia Mwerinde was motivated purely by money, why did she engineer the deaths of her donors?
There must be a way to study such things without making folks angry; alas, this topic tends to bring out the worst in both the true believers and the hard-headed materialistic harrumphers. Maybe one day I'll discover the right words which will calm critics on both sides.
At this time, the only words that come to mind are these: Have a weird