Best of Phoenix

Something About Mary

Craig LaRotonda

See all of Best of Phoenix 2017 here.

Deep into the repetitious recitation of the rosary, celestial beams of green, orange, and yellow light would fan out from behind the tall, bronze figure of the Virgin Mother on the church’s altar, and the statue would take human form. The incarnate Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ, would then deliver a message to two young adults at St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The rosary is a meditative prayer that typically involves reading events from the lives of Jesus and Mary and following each event with the saying of one Our Father and 10 Hail Marys. (To pass the time, my super-Catholic mother would lead our family in rosaries on long car trips.)

These rosary sessions took place in the church every Thursday night in the early 1990s and were attended by thousands of religious pilgrims from around the world, who would watch jealously as the visionaries, in a trance-like ecstatic state, saw what only those two had been selected to see and heard what only they had been selected to hear. The two young adults were members of the Scottsdale Visionaries, a chosen group of nine young adults and youth ministers from the parish who regularly saw and heard the Blessed Mother.

I was a young adult at St. Maria Goretti at that time, and I was a youth minister. I also was one of the parish janitors. I had not been chosen to see Mary … not really.

I do not recall being jealous of the visionaries, nor do I recall being bothered by the routine that conjured Our Lady’s appearances or by Her messages, which typically directed the faithful to avoid the false gods of materialism, to focus on the spiritual, and — ironically for devotees of the rosary — to pray more.

However, I was confused by the young adults who Mary did choose. Like She had done in Belgium, France, and Mexico, the Virgin Mother appeared to good-looking, devout, and diligent young adults at St. Maria Goretti. These individuals were very different from the whores, hotheads, cheats, and good-time-Charlies that comprised Jesus’ circle. Furthermore, six of the nine Scottsdale Visionaries were female, and Christ clearly preferred the company of men. In hindsight, it may be that Mary simply was trying to find a better class of friends for Her Son.

I loved St. Maria Goretti parish. I grew up there, attending religious education and receiving the sacraments. When I was a young teenager, its youth group was very important to me. It fed my interest in ethics and activism and introduced me to girls from other schools, girls who might be more accepting of me (and my interest in ethics and activism) than were the girls from my own school. Moreover, my youth minister was objectively cool. He introduced me to Elvis Costello and showed U2 Live at Red Rocks at a peer-leader retreat.

I was eager to have the same influence on other, similarly-minded teens, so when the job of junior high youth minister came up, I campaigned for it aggressively. I got the job despite my long hair and young age (I was only 18, going into my sophomore year of college). It helped that nobody else applied, thanks, in part, to the fact that St. Maria Goretti’s pastor was dismissive of the junior high program, publicly referring to middle school students as “soulless.” It also helped that the junior high youth minister job paid three dollars an hour.

To be a youth minister and afford college, I also applied to be one of the parish janitors, because that job paid eight dollars an hour.

Working two jobs at the same place seemed to me to be ideal. For example, there would be no commute between my shifts as janitor and my shifts as youth minister. Furthermore, I assumed that being a janitor at a church would be less taxing than being a janitor at nonreligious establishments because the parishioners would treat the facilities with reverence, just as I always had.

As with the visions of Mary, there was a routine to my Saturday janitorial duties. For most of my college career, I arrived at St. Maria Goretti at 6 a.m. I would unlock the main door of the church, and then lock it behind me. I rarely flipped on the light switches, choosing instead to work by the glow of the votive candles and the blue, rose, and yellow sunbeams that shone through the massive stained-glass window of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Alone in the vaulted, tent-shaped building, I would grab my supplies from the maintenance closet hidden inside the men’s room. I would clean and restock the restrooms, remove trash from the pews, replace spent votive candles, vacuum the altar and aisles, and refill the holy water vessels at each entrance.

This last duty always disturbed me. When they enter a church, Catholics dip their fingers in water that has been sanctified by a priest, and they make the sign of the cross on their bodies with that water. The holy water reminds Catholics of their baptisms and, as witnessed in The Exorcist, it is supposed to protect them against evil. I worried that I was putting the faithful at risk by topping off the vessels with tap water. In his tired and circuitous manner of speaking, the head janitor explained to me that holy water left in the vessels permeated the fresh tap water. It is similar to how great Champagne makers add some of the previous year’s wine to the new unfermented grape juice to ensure consistency across vintages. To put it in more biblical terms, I was performing the janitorial version of the Wedding at Cana miracle.

Speaking of The Exorcist, I would like to point out that I was dead wrong that the church’s facilities would be treated with reverence. Parishioners, especially female parishioners, did horrible things to the restrooms. As close as I could figure, some of the faithful felt compelled to rid their bodies of evil immediately prior to Mass, which often left the stalls looking like Regan MacNeil’s bedroom.

As I mentioned, the Virgin Mother’s choice of visionaries initially perplexed me, and so did Her choice of statue. She did not choose to appear through the small, traditional statue of Her that had sat in a tiny shrine in the church since St. Maria Goretti was built, nor did She pick any of the innumerable other statues or images of Her on the church grounds. Mary chose to appear through the new 8-foot-tall bronze statue of Her on the altar. It was the second statue of Her that the pastor commissioned after one of his pilgrimages to Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Our Lady had started appearing to six young adults there several years earlier.

One morning early in my tenure, alone in the silence and brilliant gem light of the church, I opened the secret janitor’s closet in the church and came face to face with Mary.

I had unknowingly discovered the first statue that the pastor commissioned.

I left the building.

I later learned that, upon delivery, the pastor rejected this 5-and-a-half-foot-tall statue of Mary and, not knowing what else to do with it, the head janitor tucked it away in the maintenance closet. He did not wrap it or place a sheet over it. He just sat it right inside the closet, facing out, and he never warned me.

I do not know the pastor’s official reason for rejecting this statue of Mary, but I recognized that there was something different about it. The clothing was traditional, as was the pose, which was classic Virgin Mother: head cocked to one side and looking down, and Her slightly outreached arms at Her sides with the palms of Her hands facing forward. However, Her head was different. Mary’s hair was jet black and Her lips were vibrant red. She looked a little like Natalie Wood as Maria in West Side Story. The Virgin Mother always is depicted as beautiful, but this version was something else. This Mary was sexy.

Although I concede that presenting the congregation with an alluring depiction of its maternal figure was perhaps too Grecian for St. Maria Goretti’s Catholic community, keeping Our Lady of Hotness in the janitor’s closet made me anxious. I felt like we were courting danger or lighting a candle and placing it under a bushel basket. I fantasized about yelling, “Nobody puts Mary in the closet!” grabbing the statue around the waist, hoisting it above my head, and dancing down the center aisle of the church while the choir sang “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.”

A superstition is a belief that a specific action can bring about supernatural consequences. Accordingly, the Scottsdale Visionaries technically were superstitious for believing that praying a certain way to a specific statue would bring about a Marian apparition, I was superstitious for believing that harm would come from putting a statue in a closet, and all Catholics are superstitious for believing that water should protect them from evil. However, unlike most superstitions, those of the Scottsdale Visionaries and the worshippers who followed them yielded additional beliefs, beliefs about the world and how humans should treat each other. Eventually, most of the young adults in the group stopped receiving messages from the Virgin Mother. They got married, became street musicians, started families, and became professors. If their superstitions helped them and their followers get through life without hurting themselves or others, then I do not fault them for these beliefs.

As for Our Lady of Hotness, I think the head janitor threw it in the dumpster on my day off.