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The 40-odd passengers are calm and quiet as the bus makes its way down I-95. They’re nearing the end of a trek from Springfield, Va., to a small town in Georgia. The trip is long, the scenery is dull, and there’s not much to talk about. On this trip, though, monotony begets miracles.
Zena, who is sitting in the front of the bus, suddenly falls to her knees and begins moaning. “Oh, Mama Mary, Mama Mary!” she cries, her hands clasped in front of her chest. “She is in front of the bus!”
The other travelers begin saying the rosary with the fervor of passengers on a doomed airliner. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee,” they chant. Hands flicker across faces in the sign of the cross. A couple of women take pictures.
As Zena addresses Mary once again”Blessed art thou among women,” she screamsRhaymond, a 5-year-old sitting at the back of the bus, shouts, “What are you all looking at?”
“Holy Mary, mother of God…” Zena keens. “Don’t leave us, Mother Mary!…Pray for us
“Hello?” Rhaymond yells. “Hello?”
Amid the commotion, the bus swerves into the left lane, cutting off a passing car, whose driver leans on the horn. Zena waves her arms in the air as if she were riding a rollercoaster. “Can anyone see her, too?” she asks. Then she groans: “Tell me I’m not the only one seeing her! I would have warned everyone, but she came so fast! Usually, when Mary comes there is the smell of roses announcing her presence, but this time she appeared from nowhere in front of the bus. It was even in color. She blessed this trip. It was just so awesome.”
Zena’s exuberance inspires other passengers to corroborate her vision. “I kind of saw her,” says a woman. “She had black hair or something. And she had a big crown thingy on her head?”
The bus’s passengers are pilgrims who have charted a 650-mile trip to Conyers, Ga., to catch a glimpse of the divine. Among them are the devout and the doubting, from all walks of life: office grunts, lawyers, nurses, and housewives. Whatever their backgrounds, though, they all find a touchstone in Zena, a woman whose will and faith overwhelm those around her. When she sees the Virgin, they do, too. When she smells roses, they pick up the scent.
Zena came to the United States from the Philippines as a child. She is a natural leadercharismatic, steely, and stubborn. She has a way of speaking warmly to you while checking closely for signs that you don’t believe her. She wears elegant, conservative clothes, appropriate for her job as an administrative assistant at the World Bank.
Although she had always been a zealous Catholic, Zena found tangible support for her faith on a trip to Conyers last October. She went to a site on a farm owned by a woman named Nancy Fowler, who Zena says receives visits from Mary on the 13th day of each month. On Zena’s visit, though, the Virgin hung around long enough to chat with her for a spell. Zena interpreted the event as a calling to spread her faith among friends and acquaintances.
Shortly after she returned, Zena posted dozens of signs in churches and grocery stores throughout the District and Northern Virginia advertising a mid-December pilgrimage to Conyers.
As Zena collects the $120 trip fee from the pilgrims on the first day of the expedition, she remarks that the Virgin Mary has been visiting her since her childhood. Over the bus’s PA system, Zena welcomes her fellow worshipers and leads the group in prayer. “We pray for our driver to have a steady hand for lane changes,” Zena says. “We also pray for him to have quick reflexes, for when other cars come in front of us. Amen.”
All pilgrims on the trip receive a packet of information that includes Zena’s reflections on her last trip to Conyers. She went to thank Mary for the miraculous healing of Zena’s husband, who had “a lump (tumor) the size of and as hard as a golf ball on his right cheek.” The diary reflects Zena’s awareness of how the world views the apparition business: “Knowing the possibility of being ridiculed and be branded as an odd-ball, I just strongly feel that I should bear witness.”
As we motor down the interstate, the group of pilgrims doesn’t take any chances, entreating her with over 200 Hail Marys fairly bellowed in unison on the way to Conyers. If Mary is anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard, she’ll surely make a point of rendezvousing with this group.
The pilgrims’ destination has become a tourism gravy train for Conyers, a small town in central Georgia between Atlanta and Athens. For 10 years, Fowler claims, the Virgin Mary has appeared on the 13th of every month. The Virgin has allegedly been making earthly visits to the “Apparition Room” of Fowler’s farmhouse for eight of those years, a location Fowler says Mary chose with an eye toward holiness, convenient parking, and sanitation facilities.
Following her conversations with Mary, Fowler traditionally relates the message to the assembled crowds, which have been known to number in the tens of thousands. If you’re visiting the central Georgia area in the middle of the month, it’s wise to book your hotel room early.
Conyers is just part of the worldwide Catholic cottage industry that feeds on apparitions. On the bus ride to Georgia, the pilgrims watch a video narrated by Martin Sheen documenting the apparition phenomenon. Sheen traces the sighting frenzy to 1916, when three children in a shepherd’s field in Fatima, Portugal, claimed to have seen Mary. The children spread the news, and the next day hundreds of people crowded onto the field. The sun fell toward the earth for 10 minutes, and the onlookers felt a great heat and thought they would be burned up. The three children were recognized as visionaries and passed on the messages of the Virgin Mary for a year afterward.
In Akita, Japan, in 1972, Mary helped a nun revise a bishop’s speech, suggesting to the nun that the bishop add a word to a particular sentence. After her work as an editor, Mary appeared another year at the same place and reportedly made a statue bleed, cry, and sweat.
Recently, there has been a spate of Mary sightings: in Conyers, in Maryland, in the former Yugoslavia. A Korean woman named Julia Kim sees her all the time and once received a Communion wafer that turned into human flesh, a tiny infant’s heart, in her mouth. This was captured on video. Kim’s face was pale around her bloody lips, and an unidentifiable piece of flesh lay upon her tongue.
“I’m not tired!” Zena exclaims as we pile onto the bus at 8 o’clock the next morning. “The blessed Virgin woke me up at 4:30.”
The Virgin presented herself in the form of a wake-up call snafu at the pilgrims’ hotela lot of people were up at 4:30. Now, mouths crusted with Super 8 donuts and coffee, they mumble the morning rosary and watch the intermittent brownouts of dead kudzu along the side of the road. The bus passes the first sign mentioning Conyers: a Hooters billboard, featuring three attractive women in orange shorts and the caption “Georgia Peaches, Five Miles.”
Once at the farm, Zena takes charge. She leads us to the farmhouse, hauling folding chairs, and we get a good spot for the noon rosary and visitation report by Fowler. Then we will head up to the Holy Hill, where we will fill bottles with holy water, where pilgrims from El Salvador and Ireland and the Philippines will join in a “Prayer for America,” and where, at the base of an enormous, crucified Jesus, Zena will see Maryagain.
Jesus’ cross is embedded in a concrete altar, which is covered with flowers, scented candles, and rosaries. Zena kneels closest to it, her short brown hair framing a face vivid with concentration. It’s so cold that Zena gives off steam like a football player as she leads the group in prayer. As she intently recites the Sorrowful Mysteries, she suddenly looks up and cries out, “I smell the roses!”
Around her, pilgrims fall to their knees. All join in the rosary as Zena leads it, getting louder, more hysterical. She interrupts the prayers with cries of recognition. “Yes, Mama Mary!” she says. “Yes, I smell your roses! Oh, I see you! Let my brothers smell your roses!” She waves her hands frantically in front of her face. “Smell the roses!” Zena shouts. “Smell the roses! Smell the roses! Smell the roses! Smell the roses! Smell! Smell the roses and feel her presence!”
After pausing a moment to savor the scent, Zena ends the rosary and rocks back on her heels. “I’m sorry, Mother,” she says. “I interrupted your rosary. Forgive me. But thank you for visiting us.”
Then she looks over to the altar and asks, “Whose rosary beads are those?”
Carmen says, “Mine.”
Zena stares at her. “They’re gold,” she says.
A crowd gathers. Zena shouts, “A miracle! Carmencita’s rosary has turned to gold!”
The pilgrims press in to look. Sure enough, the little bits of chain between beads are yellowish. “Were they gold before?” Carmen is asked.
“I don’t know!” says Carmen. She looks bewildered. “I think they might have been.”
“Doubt!” Zena says reproachfully. “Carmencita, that was a miracle and you know it!” She reminds the assembled gawkers that the transmutation of rosaries into gold is a miracle that has happened at this farm beforethat the holiness of this ground, visited monthly by the Virgin Mary, makes the extraordinary commonplace. “We smelled the roses!” Zena says. The scent of fresh roses is a traditional sign of Mary’s presence. “We smelled the roses, and your rosary turned to gold.”
Carmen’s eyes are wide and she looks around, terrified by the crowd, all staring at her and her miracle rosary. Another pilgrim asks, “Carmen, was Jesus here?”
“I believe he was here. I’m supposed to,” Carmen says. “I’m a good Catholic.”
“Are you doubting?” she is asked.
“I’m not worth it,” says Carmen, and begins to cry.
“Of course you are!” reproaches Zena. She hugs Carmen across the cement altar. “Carmen, you have been given a miracle,” she says. “A miracle.”
Other than Zena’s rose-scented personal encounter with the Mother of God, the day’s mostly a dud. It starts raining hard, and Mary fails to appear during the noon rosary. A guy in an orange vest comes out onto the porch to announce that Fowler no longer appears every 13th, just in October, and then leads the disappointed pilgrims in the longest rosary yetthrough all 15 Mysteries and 150 Hail Marys. It takes an hour and a half. At the end, we’re drenched and cold.
And then, in the middle of it all, a burst of energy, of pure faith. A group of teenage folk dancers from Mexico burst into the yard. Dressed in traditional Native American headdresses and leggings and vests depicting the Sacred Heart and Jesus and Mary, they dance an intense jig full of stomping and drumming and more joy in the glory of God than a hundred rain-drenched rosaries. The jangling of the hundreds of shells attached to their vests creates a fuzzy static, a gorgeous rattling that makes the bedraggled pilgrims smile.
The next day, driving home, Zena sees Mary again, but it’s a desultory vision, shared by no one. The pilgrims do not begrudge Zena her visions; they realize they lack her connection with holiness.
After the rosary, Zena gets on the PA system: “While we were saying the rosary, Virgin Mary was with us. I smelled her roses. She has blessed this trip.”
A short conference takes place at the front of the bus. Then Zena pops up again. “Let me clarify that,” she says. “When I smelled the roses, that was not when Victoria sprayed perfume. She sprayed it after I announced the smell. You’re being naughty, Victoria!” she says, wagging her finger.
“Look at Carmen,” Zena announces to the bus. “She smelled the roses, and her rosary turned to gold.” Zena habitually reinforces Mary’s miracles by constantly referring to them, discussing them, reminding doubters of them. She is God’s own cheerleader.
Carmen has gotten over her embarrassment and is now proud that she was visited by the Virgin. “Is it real gold?” she asks.
“Eighteen carat at least,” Zena answers her. “Take it to a jeweler.”
After Zena retreats to her seat, Carmen talks about the day’s events without coaching. “My faith is more renewed now, sure,” she says. “Mary was asking me to pray more, I think. Who has time to pray in Washington? But I’m going to anyway.”
Like most of the pilgrims, Carmen is a sincere, honest believer. She pulls out her rosary. “My mother gave me this,” she says confidentially. “I know it was gold before I put it on the altar. But I think that Mary was working through me anyway.” She fingers the beads and looks up. “She used me to make others believe, with Zena’s help, even though I know it didn’t change. I was an instrument.”
She is quiet for a moment. Then she puts the rosary away. “Maybe Mary gets tired of listening to the rosary all the time,” Carmen says. “I think I have to talk to the lady myself.”CP