Saturday, November 27, 2010

Reports of weeping Virgin Mary statue draw faithful to Ontario church

A Virgin Mary statue is drawing scores of people to an ethnic Roman Catholic church with reports that she smiles during the day and weeps tears of healing oil at night.

Two veteran investigators of religious and paranormal phenomenon cautioned, however, that the weeping Madonna figure is more likely a case of "pious deception."

The plaster statue has been displayed since Nov. 6 at St. Charbel Maronite Roman Catholic Church in Windsor, Ontario, a modest brick building serving Lebanese Catholics.

The church has been packed with more than 400 people at recent weekend Masses, but on a recent Tuesday evening, about 40 people participated in a 7 p.m. recitation of the rosary. 

After about 20 minutes, a reverent buzz arose from the front of the church.

A man in a leather jacket near the statue pointed a finger at the corner of his eye, then moved his finger down his cheek -- signaling that the Madonna was weeping.

Getting people to come to church and to worship God is the reason why the Madonna smiles and weeps, according to the statue's former owner, Fadia Ibrahim.

"I think it's a miracle from God," Ibrahim told The Toledo Blade. "She wants people to pray, go back to the church. She like people to believe on her son, and she want people to help each other as before."

Ibrahim, 48, who immigrated to Canada 20 years ago from Beirut, said the story of the weeping statue goes back to 2008, when the Virgin Mary first began appearing to her in visions.

"I can hear her like when you talk to me," she said of Jesus' mother.

Word of Ibrahim's visions led people to come knocking on the door of her family's two-story brick home on a quiet suburban Windsor street. 

Then, in June, a family of Chaldean Catholics from Detroit arrived at the house with the statue, new and in a box.

"We put it inside the house and during Canada Day (July 1), my daughter found out it started to leak oil," Ibrahim said.

After the statue had been in her house about six weeks, Ibrahim said the Virgin Mary told her to have an enclosed pedestal built on her front lawn to display the statue.

The crowds grew -- as did her neighbors' irritation from the noise and traffic.

City building officials gave Ibrahim until Nov. 19 to remove the Madonna.

Meanwhile, pilgrims collected tears, and Ibrahim began getting reports that people had been miraculously healed by the oil.

Ibrahim tried to give the Virgin Mary to her own church, but the pastor refused.

The Rev. Chaaya Akkari agreed to accept the statue at St. Charbel's, although he was not convinced at the time that the tears were real. 

He washed and scrubbed the statue twice by hand, wanting to ensure there was no oil or residue or trickery.

For the first week that Mary stood in St. Charbel's sanctuary, there were no signs or miracles.

Then, during recitation of the rosary on the evening of Nov. 13, the Maronite priest said he and about 50 worshippers clearly saw tears dripping from the statue's eyes. "It's true. I saw it," Akkari said. "Now I know."

The Virgin Mary statue has been weeping almost nightly ever since, and people have been visiting the church from throughout Ontario and Michigan.

Joe Nickell, author of "Looking for a Miracle" and editor of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine, strongly advises the church test the tears and statue.

"Basically, statues don't weep," Nickell said in an interview. "... most are, and I choose my words carefully, pious frauds or pious deceptions."

Rhett Rushing, a professor at the University of Texas-San Antonio, also a veteran investigator of weeping Madonnas, said, "My theory as a social scientist is that you'll see what you came expecting to see."

The public is fascinated with the supernatural, Rushing said. "You're looking at two words here: truth and faith. Where do they cross? And can they cross? You can't scientifically debunk or investigate something that's based on faith. A faith-based investigation is an oxymoron."