Little Audrey's bedside manna

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The Independent Culture
There are miracles abroad in Massachusetts. Ten years after Audrey Santo fell into a

near-coma, thousands are flocking to her side in search of healing. Welcome to Lourdes, USA

Move over, Bernadette; there's a new girl on the block. The saint of the healing shrine at Lourdes in France now has competition from a bedridden 14-year-old called Audrey Santo. She is linked to a series of miraculous happenings that are exciting Catholics across America. Three weeks ago in Worcester, Massachusetts, near Boston, her family had to hire a football stadium to accommodate the 10,000 pilgrims who came to celebrate mass on the 10th anniversary of the accident that put her in a near-coma. Audrey's travelling glass-fronted cube was placed next to the altar. Audrey's mother, Linda, gave her usual speech as pilgrims crowded to see her: "Some people come here seeking physical or spiritual or emotional healing. Some are curiosity seekers. And some people just like to hit the hot spots of the spiritual world," she said with a chuckle. It was a very hot day. "Now let's say some Hail Marys for a breeze from the Blessed Mother."

Audrey Marie Santo is affectionately as well as officially known as "Little Audrey". The official Catholic term for her is a "suffering soul", meaning that God has chosen to reveal Himself to us through her suffering. But if she seems a thoroughly modern saint-in-the-making with her VCR, her oxygen tanks and her scanned video-prayer-card photograph, the miraculous events around her are as old as organised religion itself.

In her house the statues and paintings of Christ and the Virgin Mary drip with oil and weep blood. They mysteriously turn themselves towards her. Four hosts have bled during the celebration of the Eucharist, one even being caught on video. Visitors, even those with no sense of smell, say that her room smells of roses. She suffers the stigmata (Christ's wounds appear on her palms, although not very bloodily), and, according to her family, every Good Friday she appears to go through the Passion. She is contorted by pain that climaxes at three in the afternoon, then sleeps all Saturday and wakes on Easter Sunday.

The incidents are on the increase. According to material given out to visitors, "On Christmas Day of 1991, two tears of blood came from her right eye." There followed bleeding from her trachea, and whip marks on her face that came and went. "Little Audrey Santo, of her own free will, had made her decision. She would abandon herself completely to God for the sake of sinners. As a mystic and a victim soul, Audrey continues the work of Christ." Pilgrims also claim to have been healed in her presence; others say they have been healed by her prayers.

All this, from a girl who can barely move. Her rare medical state is known as akinetic mutism. She can squeeze the fingers of one hand, which those who know her say she uses to communicate, and her eyes can open, although her gaze constantly moves from side to side involuntarily. Nurses tend her day and night, and while all her organs are said to be in working order, she is going into adolescence still dependent on feeding- and breathing- tubes. The only thing she consumes orally is daily Holy Communion.

It began when she was three. Audrey was found face down in the family swimming-pool on a Sunday afternoon. Doctors estimated that she had been in the water for two to five minutes. She was revived, but badly treated - given excessive amounts of drugs. She was not expected to live. Months later, she had both her legs accidentally broken by her physiotherapist.

At this point Linda Santo decided to nurse Audrey herself. Mrs Santo, whose father was a Lebanese Maronite, is about as pious as a lay person can be. When pregnant with each of her children, she always prayed to give birth to a saint. As effective head of her blue-collar household, this determined woman raised $8,000 in 1988 to take Audrey to Medjugorje, the then Yugoslavian shrine where four children were receiving instruction from the Virgin Mary. On her first night there, a crowd gathered below her balcony shouting "American baby face in the moon!" They believed they could see Audrey's image there. The next night they gathered again, and saw two moons. The second of these, they claimed, had an old nun's face.

A few days later Audrey and her mother saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary in church, and Linda recounted that Audrey seemed to be communicating with her. Shortly thereafter the little girl had to be flown back to America after a sudden cardiac arrest, which Linda Santo attributed to the proximity of Yugoslavia's biggest abortion clinic.

The waiting-time for an audience with Little Audrey is now 18 months. The day I went to their modest home in a neat Worcester cul-de-sac, a man with terminal cancer was visiting. A typical visit lasts just two- and-a-half minutes. Audrey's bedroom has a large window looking on to the hall, looking rather like a recording studio. On the door is a sign reading "Shh! I'm talking to God." The walls are covered in religious icons. At the appropriate moment the curtain is drawn back. Sometimes pilgrims are invited in to pray at the girl's bedside. There have been cases of people trying to take her hairs away with them, as relics, but contact is discouraged, and Audrey's mum, her grandma or a nurse is always on hand.

Supplicants ask the girl to intercede for them. Her mother believes that Audrey prays subvocally all the time, and she reads out a large mailbag of petitions to her daughter every week. None is left unread.

Audrey lies there in her lacy white nightie, her waist-length hair brushed and tied with ribbons, looking like the subject of a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Around her the statues glisten with oil. Afterwards, visitors are taken into the converted garage which, like the rest of the house, is choc-a- bloc with religious icons.

Mary Cormier is the family's spokesperson and co-ordinator of the pilgrims. She has just moved into the area to devote herself to the Apostolate of the Silent Soul (her license plate reads "MY GIFT"). She invites me to take a closer look at the icons. A couple of them on the altar sit on mirror tiles, which are damp with the oil. "Oil is available if the Lord provides it," she says. "Visitors can take away a swab of it on a cotton ball in a plastic bag for their own use. We don't sell it." She invites me and the photographer to feel it. "Now make the sign of the cross," she tells me. "Just like your mother would." Next she shows me a print of the Madonna, with oily tear tracks running down her face. There are faint brown stains, too. "That's where she cried blood," she says. "You can't really tell when it will happen."

Looking around the room, I see that there seems to be oil everywhere - soaked into a paper sign on the pew where the priests sit, on the tasteful icons, and on the kitschy ones. It has no smell, but looks and feels just like, well, olive oil. Or Three-in-One.

Like so many conversations you have in these X Files-like situations, the discourse slips back and forth between common sense and pure faith. Mrs Cormier shows me a Xerox of the one-page report by the Analytical Laboratory of Kraft Food Ingredients in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr Boguslaw Lipinski, a consultant with the Harvard Medical School, found the oil to be a non-commercial vegetable oil, made up of a mixture of the four main fatty acids (palmitic, oleic, linoleic and linolenic) with no recognisable chemical fingerprint.

I called Dr Lipinski, a Catholic who had visited the house and who reported seeing oil exuding directly from a metal chalice. "I am not easily fooled," he told me on the phone, "but after wiping it away, I watched it reappear on the surface after about half an hour." Like Mrs Cormier and all the volunteers and local priests, his belief in the miraculous is unshakable.

Not everyone's is, though. Dr Joe Nickell is Senior Research Fellow at the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. He has written extensively in its journal The Skeptical Inquirer, and in his book Looking For A Miracle, about the illusions he has uncovered: UFOs, clairvoyants, channellers, weeping Madonnas, the (rubber) alien autopsy, spontaneous human combustion, miracle photographs, Nessie, crop circles. A former private eye, magician, "carnie" (carnival worker), river- boat manager and journalist, he now lectures to police groups on junk science.

Last year he got the call from a Toronto newspaper to investigate a weeping Madonna statue. He laughs. "By the time I got there they were charging $2.50 a look, and they had the statue on an altar behind a wall of candles. So I couldn't get close up to it, but I could see that the tears were viscous - they were from a non-drying oil. Well, it makes sense. Water tears have constantly to be replenished; these don't. Plus, in the flickering light they can seem to be moving. Anyway it turned out that it was the same priest who had had a weeping icon in Queens, New York. And before that he was defrocked from an Orthodox church in Athens for running a brothel."

Nickell goes on to state that many miraculous icons have been exposed as frauds - albeit usually pious frauds, to raise spiritual rather than financial capital. So, could there simply be someone in the Santos garage who is using an oil can? Nickell, wary of the libel laws, will say no such thing.

"Besides the fact that crediting an idol with animism is idolatry, which the church condemns, I think it's grossly unfair that the burden of proof should be on the rest of us," he says. "I just hope the church does a proper job of investigating this latest one. My bet is that if I could take control over one of Audrey's icons it would immediately dry up." Some Catholics may say that that would be proof of the little girl's influence. But Church officials are more hesitant. They haven't even officially recognised Medjugorje yet. The chance of an embarrassing reversal always lurks.

The memory is still fresh of Veronica Leukin, another Marian visionary from Queens, who shocked her followers in the Seventies by telling them that the Virgin Mary had revealed to her that the then Pope was an impostor, made over by a team of plastic surgeons.

It seems to be that the higher up the hierarchy, the more official scepticism there is. Canonisations, after all, can take centuries of lobbying the Vatican. At middle management level, the Bishop of Worcester has appointed a commission of theologians and psychologists to look into the Little Audrey affair, and has cautioned priests and churchgoers alike from placing too much faith in these events. On the other hand, he has set no deadline for producing a report, and he made sure that the stadium Mass was held on consecrated ground. But, at grass-roots level, there is little to stop priests joining in the fervour. A hundred of them turned out for the stadium Mass.

I caught up with Father Michael Macnamara on his car phone heading down the Massachusetts turnpike for his weekly Wednesday Mass at the Santo home. He admitted that he remains open to the possibility of a hoax, saying that the Church's role is to watch, see that good spiritual work is being done, and make sure that nothing "uncharitable" occurs.

"If it did turn out that evil got in the way, I think we'd all be disappointed. But then, we're all human, and we fall from time to time. The most important miracles taking place are the conversions, and the people coming back to the faith. You know how hard it is getting people to come to Mass these days; well, something must be happening if 10,000 people turn up in the 90-degree heat to sit outside on metal bleachers for four hours."

There is no doubting the sacrifices (including financial) that Mrs Santo has made for her youngest daughter, or the love her extended family lavishes on her. Things have been hard for the whole family - each of Audrey's three siblings has had a heart attack and surgery. They all sit with her and talk to her, noting her apparent mood changes with care. Even her 15-year-old brother, a normal lad who like to play basketball with his friends, has nothing negative to say about being raised in a house full of pious worshippers with a constant stream of pilgrims at the door.

"Seeing the difference in people's hearts, that's what matters," Fr Macnamara continues earnestly. "Seeing the intimacy they experience with God, that's the real miracle. I wouldn't travel all this way every week just for Audrey and some weeping statues."

For more information write to: The Apostolate of the Silent Soul, Inc, PO Box 174, Rutland MA 01543 US; tel: +1 (508) 791-8077. Major apparitions of Jesus and Mary website: http://web.