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Nine times people in Chicago saw the Virgin Mary: ‘A sort of tangible, visible encounter with the divine’

A painting of the Virgin Mary at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, in the Belmont Central neighborhood, appeared to be weeping on Sept. 8, 2019.

For decades, believers throughout the Chicago area have claimed to experience unexplainable religious phenomena.

In 1987, a manifestation on the chimney of a bowling alley in Northlake appeared to show the image of Jesus Christ.

A crucifix that appeared to shed blood inside Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside reportedly left those who observed it in "awe and moved to tears" in 1991.

In 2016, people traveled to the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Homer Glen to observe fragrant oil dripping from an icon of St. John the Baptist.

A hole in a rusted chimney atop Town and Country Bowl in Northlake created an image in which some people saw a figure they believed to be Jesus Christ in June 1987. (John Dziekan/Chicago Tribune)

Are these events miracles? While the Archdiocese of Chicago has investigated some of these instances, the church has declined to call them miraculous. The only weeping statue accepted by the Vatican, the leadership base of the Catholic Church, is one at Syracuse, in Sicily, Italy. In 1953, a small terra cotta statue of the Virgin of the Immaculate Heart in a roadside shrine there inexplicably wept over a four-day period.

But as author, psychologist and former Catholic priest Eugene Kennedy noted following a local "Weeping Mary" occurrence in 1984, mystery is part of faith and people who flock to see crying icons should not be viewed as crazy for wanting a little bit of peace. "Most people never realize the transcendent moments in their lives and they want a little sign in a consuming world that maybe there is something over the edge of suffering and sadness. They're not looking for very much," he said.

Most of these claims have a commonality -- the Virgin Mary. Here's a look back at reports of the religious icon weeping or presenting in everyday objects, pulled from the Chicago Tribune archives.

July 14, 1931

An estimated 7,000 people gathered on South Ashland Avenue near Elburn Avenue on July 15, 1931, to see the shadow that reportedly resembled the Virgin Mary and child. (Chicago Tribune historical photo)

An unnamed man walking in the 1100 block of South Ashland Avenue says he sees an image of a woman holding a baby in her arms projected onto the side of a nearby three-story building. He points out the likeness to other people, including a woman who declares, "A miracle has come. It is the Blessed Virgin Mary."

Later that evening, 500 people gather on the street, some falling to their knees on the street to pray. Twenty police officers are sent to the scene. A fireman tells a Chicago Tribune reporter, "It is a reflection. Where it comes from I don't know. But it is not for the fire department to tamper with."

At 11:30 p.m. the next night -- with thousands of people watching -- the image suddenly disappears. Police soon realize lace curtains are to blame for the excitement. When a shade is lowered in a second-story apartment, which just happens to be owned by a member of the Genna crime family, then the projection vanishes.

The crowd would soon vanish as well, to the dismay of ice cream and hot dog vendors hoping to get their business.

May 1984

People walk near the "weeping" statue of the Virgin Mary at St. John of God Catholic Church on the South Side in 1984. (Michael Budrys/Chicago Tribune)

About 300 people -- including the parish's priest -- watch clear liquid drip from the eyes of a 39-inch wooden statue of the Virgin Mary at St. John of God Catholic Church on the South Side.

Soon, thousands of people attend mass there, most coming from outside the neighborhood. Donations pour into the cash-strapped church. Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago, requests an investigation be launched into the phenomenon.

A man fires three shots at the statue on July 25, 1984, hitting it once on its carved robe. The two other bullets become embedded in a wall. None of the 40 people inside the church at the time are injured, but the man leaves the church and is not caught.

The archdiocese investigation focuses on the statue itself. Donated to the church shortly before the weeping incidents, Mystical Rose is a replica of another that reportedly shed tears at a small shrine in Montichiari, Italy. It and several others were imported to the United States by 42-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., priest John Starace, who was under investigation by the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. Starace claimed Mystical Rose and another statue he brought to the U.S. from Italy weeped on the same day in 1984, but that was not made public. Starace was later banned from saying public masses and his sales of religious items suspended.

The Archdiocese of Chicago's report on the weeping incidents was inconclusive and produced no evidence of a miracle.

The church closed in 1992 and was later demolished. The statue was sent to its retired priest, who moved to Florida.

The 39-inch wooden statue of the Virgin Mary with bullet hole above the bottom hem of its gown at St. John of God Church on July 25, 1984. (Jerry Tomaselli/Chicago Tribune)

Dec. 6, 1986

Streaks emanate from the Virgin Mary's eyes on an icon behind the altar at St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church in December 1986. (Jerry Tomaselli/Chicago Tribune)

Moisture appears under the eyes of a depiction of Mary holding the baby Jesus, a gold and scarlet icon painted on canvas and mounted on wood, during the feast day for St. Nicholas at St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church, in Belmont Cragin.

The tiny Greek Orthodox Church, whose membership is about 250 parishioners, experiences a rush of people during the holiday season and as the icon, deemed "Our Lady of Chicago," continued to weep in 1987. Many leave donations, but senior priest Rev. Philip Koufos tells the Chicago Tribune the church doesn't need the money: "We do not want money. This church was paid off years ago. We don't want a carnival. We take this so seriously. We're humbled by it."

Many pilgrims, or visitors, to the church say they hope for a miracle, citing four people whose small plane's instruments failed in foggy, icy conditions yet they landed safely. The plane's passengers had also visited the icon.

A high-ranking official of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America stops short of calling the phenomenon a miracle, but agrees it's an "inexplicable sign" of deep religious importance. He decides not to seek a formal investigation.

Our Lady of Chicago would weep again in September 1988 and July 1995.

April 22, 1994

A religious icon of the Virgin Mary, left, was streaked with moisture at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church on April 24, 1994. A long line of people, wanting to see the religious icon, waited for the church to open its doors on May 5, 1994. (Chicago Tribune historical photos)

A priest notices what appears to be water coming from the eyes of a painting of the Virgin Mary in the sanctuary of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, in Cicero.

A bishop from Pittsburgh arrives to inspect the icon, now named Our Lady of Cicero, and warns believers to be cautious about the meaning of its weeping. "Everything that appears miraculous is not from God," Bishop Basil said. "It may be from Satan. We know from scripture that Satan can do miracles." He tells the Chicago Tribune he performed a brief exorcism to "banish thee Satan," but couldn't determine the authenticity of the event. No laboratory or scientific tests of the icon are conducted.

On March 29, 2015, 60th Court was honorarily renamed for icon.

May 10, 1997

Franklin Park resident Diana Lipe, with daughter Angelina, sees the image of Mary on the window of the Najjar family's Schiller Park home in May 1997. (Charles Osgood/Chicago Tribune)

Sam Najjar notices condensation on the bay window in his living room forms the shape of the Virgin Mary with her arms spread open.

The next day, Mother's Day, the image appeared to drip oil. The family collected the oil in a bowl and showed it to their priest, Father Dahdal, who then tried to wipe the oil off the window, but it didn't go away. More than a week later, the image is still visible at his family's Schiller Park home and hundreds of visitors stream through to venerate the apparent image of Mary.

The bishop of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America visits the Najjar home and declares the image a miracle -- only the second one in the United States for that church. "Not every window has the image of the mother of God, and not every icon weeps or produces oil," Bishop Demetri says after inspecting the window and questioning the Najjar family.

August 1997

People gaze at an image they say is Our Lady of Guadalupe under a light outside an apartment building in the Glendale Terrace neighborhood of Hanover Park in August 1997. (Jim Prisching/Chicago Tribune)

People in Hanover Park see a vision on the side of a three-story apartment building that they believe is of Our Lady of Guadalupe -- the very same image that appeared to the poor Aztec Indian Juan Diego in the mid-16th Century.

Some of the hundreds of people who come every night to see the image pray. Some sing or say the rosary. Others leave flowers and votive candles at a colorful, makeshift altar. Most say they see the image under a light that was placed on the building for security reasons.

Whether it is real is almost beside the point.

"This provides what people want -- a sort of tangible, visible encounter with the divine instead of just the symbols," says Robert Orsi, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University. "Certainly, there is a vast hunger for it."

The faithful pray at a makeshift shrine in Hanover Park's Glendale Terrace neighborhood. (Jim Prisching/Chicago Tribune)

July 2001

The likeness of the the Virgin of Guadalupe was found in a tree, left, in the 7300 block of North Rogers Avenue on July 9, 2001. (Charles Osgood/Chicago Tribune)

Ariceli Moreno discovers what she believes to be an apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe on a tree in Rogers Park across the street from Pottawattomie Park. Moreno claims she felt a tap on her back then turned to find the 7-by-4-inch knot where a branch had been severed. Worshippers and reporters flock to the tree.

"That's my mother," said visitor Luis Hurtado, pointing to the tree decorated with flowers, in 2001. "Last week there was just one rose. Now there's all this and I'm very glad."

People gather under a tree that appears to display a likeness to the Virgin of Guadalupe in Rogers Park on July 9, 2001. (Charles Osgood/Chicago Tribune)

April 10, 2005

Maria Rodriguez takes a photo with her father's cellphone at the "Our Lady of the Underpass" shrine on Fullerton Avenue on April 20, 2005. (Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune)

While driving home, Obdulia Delgado sees what she believes to be the image of the Virgin Mary in a stain on the concrete wall of the viaduct that runs under the Kennedy Expressway. She tells friends and the curious and the faithful begin to gather at the scene the next day. Police officers set up temporary barricades at "Our Lady of the Underpass" to prevent people from driving and parking in the area on the north of Fullerton Avenue.

"God has many ways to stir up devotion in people's hearts," said Cardinal Francis George at a news conference in 2005. "It's a purely natural phenomenon. If it's helpful in reminding people of the Virgin Mary's care for us and love for us, that's wonderful."

A man on a bicyle stopped at the image and scrawled "Big Lie" over part of it in shoe polish on May 6, 2005. This prompts city maintenance workers to cover the entire image with brown paint. Shortly thereafter, however, employees of a nearby car wash use a de-greasing agent to scrub away the paint and shoe polish.

Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich visited the site as a new pope was announced. She surmised, "People like to be connected and they like to be wowed. We need wonderment, pageantry, community and fun. And what we need, we make. From St. Peter's Square to the Kennedy Expressway, it's no more mystical than that, and no less."

The event draws national attention and inspires a play.

After praying in front of a wall for several minutes, Teresa Arias kisses the painted-over image on May 6, 2005. (David Klobucar/Chicago Tribune)

Sept. 8, 2019

Streaks of liquid residue remain on a painting at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Chicago on Sept. 9, 2019. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

An employee of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in the Belmont Central neighborhood of Chicago tells Rev. Nicholas Jonas tears are streaming down the face of a painting of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus.

"When these things happen, I feel like a little kid when first going into a candy factory, and you're just in awe," Jonas said. He then placed cotton balls at the bottom of the icon to absorb the moisture.

Jonas posts the image on Facebook, leading Greek Orthodox Church officials to ask for "temporary possession" of the icon.

The announcement came the same day a federal bankruptcy judge approved a $2.5 million sale of the Holy Trinity church building to Universal Church, Inc., a New York-based Protestant church.

Sources: Chicago Tribune archive photos and reporting

@ChiTribGraphics


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