Along Comes Mary

Common wisdom has it that a wooden statue cannot actually see anything. But if the Pilgrim Statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary were to look out from her designated home upon a certain glass coffee table in a certain living room, here is what her eyes would fall upon:

Peripherally to the left are shelves of videotapes, including Apollo 13, Sister Act, Pope John Paul II: The Movie, The Greatest Story Ever Told and a boxed set of the complete James Bond films. She would see a Montgomery Ward floor fan pushing the air her way, causing the Jesus candle at her feet to flicker. She'd see down the narrow, wood-paneled hallway; there, a Ten Commandments crucifix hangs above a cookie jar that doubles as a smiling lamb.

Her gaze would be able to travel through the screen door to the porch, where wind chimes provide the only sound in the place, other than the ticking of two clocks. She could look out to the yard where Giza or Red or Gringa or Zimba--two dogs and two cats--might be loping by or just lying there under a shade tree.

Finally, she would see the Cyclone fence with the "Beware of Dog" sign on the gate. It is a gate that opens to the dirt road that leads to Yarnell, Arizona, where you can pick up Highway 93 and travel to the rest of the world.

Mary should know this route well by now. Her "escort," Joe Nolan, has taken her on it 13 or 14 times, making pilgrimages to Catholic churches all over the state. Joe carries her in to a church, and the faithful flock to pray the rosary, meditate and bask in her presence. Then Joe packs up the Pilgrim Statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary again and shuttles her back to the glass coffee table in the living room.

He has been doing this with her for about a year now.

She came from Fatima, stands four feet tall, weighs 35 pounds, and her hands can be removed to prevent breakage during transport. That last fact is something that Joe would "rather not advertise. Some people feel kind of funny when they see that."

Mary, Virgin Mother of Jesus, obviously needs no introduction. Fatima, in case you didn't know, is a small Portuguese village about 90 miles north of Lisbon. And it was in Fatima, exactly 79 years and a few days ago (May 13, 1917) that the place blossomed into an international shrine when three shepherd children were visited by an apparition of the Virgin Mary.

"She appeared to them with the message that she wanted them and everybody to start praying the rosary for the sinners and sins of the world," explains Joe.

The statue now in Joe's care is supposed to be a dead ringer for who--or what--the three children encountered.

In 1994, the World Apostolate of Fatima, an organization dedicated to spreading the word of the apparition, purchased the statue from a woodcarver named Jose Thedim; her sole purpose, now, is to make the rounds of parishes in the Diocese of Phoenix.

As Joe reveals all of this, he hunkers down in an easy chair that is much too small for him and hangs his legs over the side. He is a tall Texan with a lingering drawl to prove it; Maria, his wife of nearly 21 years, is from Portugal. She, too, has an accent, one that sometimes reminds me of a Gabor sister, though what she says is nothing that would come from the mouth of Eva or Zsa Zsa.

At one point, Maria gives me a big, warm grin and says, "Ve are Joe and Maria--like Joseph and Mary, you zee?"

Joe continues with the tale of the three children: Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta.

"Lucia de Santos is still alive, she's a sister in a convent in Portugal," Joe says. "The Blessed Mother had foretold that she would soon come to get to the other two children and take them up to heaven, and she did. Francisco died in 1919, Jacinta died in 1920. They both went through a lot of suffering. Francisco had pneumonia, and Jacinta had pneumonia and tuberculosis and pleurisy when she died."

While Joe is telling me this, Zimba the fluffy black cat jumps up onto the table next to me--the table where Mary stands beside a burning Jesus candle. I'm concentrating on Joe when I see this flaming tail pass very quickly a few inches before my eyes.

"His tail's on fire," I say. Everybody politely smiles and nods. Later I will learn that they thought I was attempting some kind of joke, saying, "The table's on fire." When the room begins to smell of scorched fur seconds later, Joe looks at Zimba and says, "Hey, I guess your tail was on fire."

Ask Joe--a quiet, retired man who likes to work in the garden--ask him what really moved him to want to drive the statue around and get up in front of hundreds of people and speak about the Virgin Mary, and he will say, "I have no idea."

Maria, however, will nod her head sagely and say, "I know why. Was Virgin Mary . . . was Virgin Mary."

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