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."

Then Joe will explain.
"We used to get a paper called the Fatima News every two months. That was many years ago, and we moved a couple times, so for years we didn't get it. One day we went down to Phoenix to help our daughter a little bit on her house; we got there and what's sitting in her mailbox but the Fatima News. It has her address and our name on it. We still don't know how that happened. I opened it up, and that's when we saw the article that she was going to be at St. Germaine's."

After a service at St. Germaine's, Joe spoke with the fellow who was looking after Mary. "He asked us if we wanted to join their prayer cell--that's a group of people that get together once a week to say the rosary.

"Three weeks later, he called and asked if I wanted to be the speaker/escort for the statue. I've always been scared to death to get up in front of people to talk, so I kind of refused at first. Right after I hung up the phone, both of us felt kind of a sense of regret about not only what we told him, but that we had refused the Blessed Mother. We kind of felt like she was asking us to do it."

So they did.

Now it's time for Joe to prepare Mary for her very first trip into Phoenix, a four-day visit to St. Agnes Church that will culminate on the 79th anniversary of the Fatima sightings.

The hands are removed, which does give her an unsettling look. Then Joe brings out a baby-blue covering, trimmed with lace, that reads "My Children Is Time to Come to Me" on the front. He places it over Mary. He picks her up, strains a bit, knocks over a couple of small icons that are on the table. That covering is billowing near the Jesus candle; I think of the cat's tail and start to worry.

But all goes smoothly.
Then it's out to the Ford Econoline 150 van with the Good Sam Club bumper sticker. The van is white. Joe opens up the back doors, and there is a homemade sleeping-bag arrangement, carefully opened to accept the statue. He lays her down, Mary's enshrouded head rests on her very own silk pillow. Joe folds the sleeping bag together, tucks her in safe and sound.

It's a pretty elaborate ceremony, and to me--a non-Catholic--it seems somewhat odd for a religion that is not supposed to worship icons.

"There's a misconception by a lot of people that aren't Catholic," Joe clarifies. "They think that we actually bow down to the statue itself, but that's not true; it's what the statue represents. As we know, this statue's made of wood. The statue itself can't do anything."

He opens a side door of the van and hands me a little book called Mother of Christ Crusade ("Free . . . Not to Be Sold") and a plastic bag containing a purple rosary with instructions on its use. "We give away these rosary packets, and this is not just for Catholics," he says. "Anybody can say the rosary, like she wants."

Mary is ready to roll. It's hot and silent out in the yard. Joe slams the back doors shut, I sneeze, and he does not say "Bless you."

It is Sunday afternoon on May 12, Mother's Day, and I am in the second pew from the front in St. Agnes Church. The last Mass of the day, 1 p.m., in Spanish, is over, and people are still coming in to visit the Pilgrim Statue. Joe has placed her on a table to the left of the altar, where she's surrounded by vases of red roses and white carnations. The Blessed Virgin is wearing a crown, a rosary dangles from her right hand, and a small sign on the floor before her says, "Don't Touch Me, I'll Touch You."

When I entered the church, a woman told me there have been more than 1,000 people in today. Then she gave me a flier that said, "Your Mother Is Coming to Visit You" above a head shot of Mary.

People approach the statue, older women with black-lace scarves around their heads, young fathers with video cameras, folks dressed for church and some for heat. They kneel and pray silently for a long time, or just stand there respectfully and stare at her. A woman with a white paper napkin bobby-pinned to her head walks up and drops something in the pledge box. A family of six moves in, a young girl giggles and whispers to a kid I guess is her brother. She snaps her gum and finally kneels with the rest, but rises quickly and heads out. I see her tee shirt says "Brat" across the front.

Scenes like this will continue until 4 p.m. Monday, followers coming to Mary, who stands silent and rigid with a benevolent, permanent smile for all.

We all know she is a statue of wood, but if she could actually see, if she could look out from her table, her gaze would travel over the heads of the people, past the wall statues of Saint John Vianney, Saint Vincent de Paul and the Infant of Prague, past Father Tim's "English Only" confessional. She could look out the big front doors to the parking lot, where Joe Nolan will be pulling up the white Econoline with the comfortable bed and silk pillow in back, and she could see 24th Street and the highways beyond that lead back to a quiet dirt road where a house with a glass coffee table, empty for the moment, is waiting.



All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >