The Madonna of Mexico has yet to produce any genuine miracles, unless you count the extraordinary amount of attention that the smoky image branded on Veronica Dennis’ burnt kitchen wall has recently brought to this little western Maine town.
“Oh, yeah, I absolutely think it’s put Mexico on the map,” Meggan White told me from her home in nearby Rumford, where White, her good friend, has been living since a fire gutted her house more than a week ago. “And that may be a kind of miracle in itself.”
In case you haven’t been following this intriguing little tale, here’s a recap. On Jan. 15, while Dennis and one of her two daughters were clearing ice from the driveway of their Mexico home, a fire broke out inside when a space heater ignited the bed. When she was able to go back into her ruined home to salvage personal items, Dennis lifted a framed print of a palm tree off a charred kitchen wall and was stunned to find the likeness of the Virgin Mary staring back at her, glowing golden in a ray of sunlight.
“It’s so eerie, so freaky,” she remarked to a local reporter about the apparition.
The Mexico fire chief quickly dismissed the image as nothing more than a smoke stain that just happened to bear a striking resemblance to the mother of Jesus.
Officials of the Catholic Church in Maine were noncommittal, preferring to wait and see if the image prompted miracles or conversions or a significant improvement in people’s lives.
Dennis, a Catholic woman, chose to interpret the outline as a heavenly sign that the recent hard luck in her life – she’d just lost her job and her daughter’s boyfriend broke his leg a day before the fire – was mercifully about to end.
“I took it as a sign that things were going to be OK, that someone was watching out for us,” she told the Lewiston Sun Journal at the time.
As word of the image spread, which it did rapidly when a newspaper photo and story were picked up by the wire services and sent around the world, Dennis became concerned that devout pilgrims would begin pouring into town, looking for miracles and turning her house and neighborhood into “a three-ringed circus.”
So she followed her insurance company’s instructions and boarded up the place, which soon discouraged the steady stream of gawkers, and pondered what to do next.
“I was with Veronica that day of the fire, and she was dealing with the devastation at the time and didn’t really consider that the image would create so much attention,” White said Monday, after Dennis had gone out for the day. “But once it hit the news, she was dumbfounded at how fast it spread. Neither of us ever thought it would go nationwide. We had no idea. It’s amazing.”
Until they started exploring the Internet together at night, the two friends weren’t aware of the many other Virgin Mary images that have popped up in the most unusual places in recent years.
They didn’t know about the 2003 sighting of the Madonna on a hospital window near Boston, for instance, which drew thousands of people who refused to believe that the image really was just the result of condensation.
They didn’t know that Mary’s image was seen on the side of a bank building in Clearwater, Fla., back in 1996, or in a road-salt stain last spring on a Chicago expressway underpass, or – God forbid – even on a grilled-cheese sandwich which eventually sold on eBay for $28,000.
“At night we put Victoria’s name in the Google search engine just to see how far this has gone and what comments people are making about it,” said White. “Some of them are so far-fetched that you have to laugh about it. Veronica can do that, now that the shock has passed and she’s focused on rebuilding her house on the same spot.”
Fearing for the safety of the image, Dennis and her friends cut the panel from the charred wall last Thursday night and brought it back to White’s house. The next day, when viewed outside under cloudy skies, the image appeared to have lost a lot of its former luster.
“It didn’t have the same glow as when it was still on the wall with the sunlight on it,” White said. “The funny thing is, though, when I took pictures of it the flash from the camera brought back the original glow. Lighting definitely enhances it.”
Dennis had said earlier she wouldn’t sell the saintly image, preferring instead to frame it and hang it in a place of honor in the new house she hopes to build one day. After thinking it over, however, she is now considering selling it to a person or a group who could care for it properly and treat it with the reverence she believes it deserves.
“We’ve talked a lot about what to do with it,” White said. “If people really want to see the image, and make a shrine of it and visit it, they wouldn’t be able to do that if it were in Veronica’s home. Besides, if it could benefit her financially in rebuilding her home and her life, then maybe that is a miracle after all.”