Friday, February 10, 2006

Holy Smoke

Published 1-24-06

“This is an unusual story,” I said to students while holding up the front page of the Lewiston Sun Journal. There was a large, color, above-the-fold picture of a woman staring at an image burned on a wall after a house fire in Mexico, Maine. Reading from the story, I said, “‘The image was created by smoke, according to the town’s fire chief. Others will say it is a miracle.’ I don’t think another newspaper would have run this story as prominently as the Sun Journal has. Do any of you know who the Virgin Mary is?”

Only three or four hands went up. Other students seemed perplexed, but curious.

“She’s the mother of Jesus,” said a boy.

“That’s what Christians believe,” I said. “Roman Catholics, the biggest group of Christians in this country and in the world, believe that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born. Some other Christian groups are skeptical about that.”

“How could she be a virgin and be pregnant?” I heard one student say to another. I repeated the question and said, “The Catholic Church teaches that Mary was visited by the Holy Spirit and became pregnant with the son of God, but remained a virgin. Like I said, not all Christians believe that.”

Some students snickered and others said, “Shh.” I handed the newspaper to a student in the front seat and it went up and down the rows as each stared at the picture.

“I don’t think the Portland Press Herald or the The Boston Globe would feature this story so prominently,” I said. “Lewiston, as well as Mexico and Rumford, are mill towns. French-Canadian immigrants from Canada and others from northern Europe moved to these places more than a century ago to work in the mills. Most of them were Catholics and many of their descendants still are. The Sun Journal knows a story like this would be interesting to them.”

“I remember hearing there was an image of the Virgin Mary in the shadow of a streetlight somewhere in Massachusetts,” said a boy.

“Really?” I said. “I never knew about that one.”

“Lots of people were coming to see it every night until it was shut off.

“Wasn’t there another image of her on a grilled cheese sandwich?” asked a student in the back of the room. “It was sold for more than $20,000 on Ebay, I think.” More students snickered. Others appeared interested.

“I did hear about the grilled cheese sandwich,” I said. “Here’s a quote from the Catholic Church in Maine about the picture in the paper: ‘“It’s amazing to look at,” said Susan Barnard, spokeswoman for the Catholic Church in Maine after viewing a Sun Journal photograph of the image on Tuesday. “As far as the Church is concerned, we don’t jump to conclusions quickly. We often take a wait-and-see attitude; we wait to see if it caused conversions, improves the lives of people or miracles happen. We would never encourage people to go to Mexico in droves,” she said. “We just know in history that if this is a true sign, miracles will happen there. If it’s authentic, it will prove itself in time.”’”

“As far as I know,” I said, “there are very few appearances of the Virgin Mary considered real by the church. One was in Portugal near the end of World War I. Another was in France more than a century ago, and another was in Mexico - the country Mexico - about five hundred years ago.”

“According to the Mexico, Maine fire chief, the Virgin Mary image formed behind a picture on the wall as the room filled up with smoke,” I said. “Chief Gary Wentzell said the image was ‘striking.’ He’s a Baptist - another kind of Christian.”

“What do you think of the picture, Mr. McLaughlin?” a student asked me.

“Well, I’m a Roman Catholic,” I said. “I belong to the church right over there through the pines beyond the soccer field,” pointing toward the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church next to our school, “and I agree with what Susan Barnard said. People should wait and see what happens. There weren’t any miracles after the grilled cheese sandwich. Let’s not come to any conclusions yet about this one and just watch what else happens up there in Mexico, Maine.”

The story stayed on the front page for several days. The woman who owns the house had cut out the paneling on which the image appeared and indicated a willingness to sell it. I updated students on this information the following week. “She must have heard about the price someone paid for the grilled cheese sandwich,” said a boy.

“Maybe,” I said. “Trying to sell it sounds somewhat unmiraculous to me.”

“Maybe not,” said a girl. “You said her house is burned, right?”


“Well, if she gets a lot of money for the image on Ebay, she can fix it up better. That’s kind of a miracle, isn’t it?”

“Hmm,” I said. “Good point.”

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