The faithful gasped, then the `Virgin' spoke her last

THE heart-shaped sign outside the grey-painted wooden farmhouse read: "No food, drink or pets in Apparition Room." A line of policemen, a fence and rows of seated nuns ensured none of the throng got close enough to peer through the windows. Inside, we were told, the Virgin Mary had just appeared and was giving a message to the world through a 47-year- old Georgian housewife and purported "visionary", Nancy.

Spread across a sloping grassy hillside, 100,000 pairs of ears strained to hear the muffled, unintelligible sounds of a woman's voice through the loudspeakers under the farmhouse eaves. A few believed it was the Virgin talking, most that it was Mrs Fowler mumbling responses. The believers, from all corners of the world, gasped, knelt, thrust their foreheads into the grass and prayed. It was a kind of religious version of Woodstock on what is known here as Fowler's Farm as thousands of cars, coaches and camper vans continued to pour on to the site.

And then it happened.

"There she is!" someone shouted and all eyes and cameras turned south towards a single puffy white cloud in a hazy blue sky. "See, it's the Virgin. She's holding Jesus, in that cloud, and she's moving." I tilted my head this way and that, but couldn't quite make it out. Many took Polaroid snapshots and turned them around until they were satisfied the Virgin Mary could be seen. "Look up there. The sun's spinning, it always does that when the Virgin appears," said the pilgrim squeezed against me on my right, Marguerite Nelson, from Dallas, Texas. I had the impression it was the cloud that was moving across the sun.

"You'll feel the drops of gold dust next, then it'll smell of roses," said Marguerite. Others had warned me of the same but, if it happened, the dust must have been extra fine, the roses wilted. Marguerite was kneeling on a spread-out olive green T-shirt with the logo "Top 10 reasons to stay Roman Catholic". I could see only that reason number five was "Great Pope!"

"I have a beautiful picture I took on a previous visit of the Virgin standing on the farmhouse roof. You can see little Jesus in her arms," said Ana Weidie, 59, a pilgrim kneeling to my left over a makeshift shrine she had strewn across the grass with crucifixes, photographs and rosaries.

That was when Mrs Fowler made her own appearance, a small, chubby, round- faced figure with unkempt black hair, dressed in a dark suit and black shirt, walking briskly on to the farmhouse porch, clutching a yellow notepad, looking as though nothing unusual had happened and she was rushing off to work. It was hard to imagine that she had just been in what a sympathetic neurophysiologist who knows her calls a "near-coma, delta activity, with only three or four heartbeats a minute".

She climbed on to a makeshift podium set up with microphones and read to the throng the message the Virgin had given her, word for word. An interpreter made sure the largely Hispanic crowd, mostly women, understood by translating a line at a time. Among the faithful were 60 busloads from Monterrey, Mexico, who had driven three days and two nights to get here. Others had flown in from as far away as Japan and Australia.

"Our loving mother gave me this message," Mrs Fowler said. "My dear children, I have come for the last time this way. The next time I will see you will be in heaven." Mrs Fowler, a former nurse, had initially passed her visitor's messages on to ever-increasing crowds during the 1990s on the 13th of every month. She had restricted it to an annual event, on the 13th of October, since 1994 and had said this time the Virgin had told her it would be her last visit. Hence Tuesday's largest ever crowd.

As her flock knelt on the hillside, many holding their arms aloft, Mrs Fowler continued to read the message in a barely audible, high-pitched girlish voice. "Children, be ready for heaven. My son has prepared a place for you. But please stop offending God. You have not yet seen the forces of nature." Some pilgrims turned to one another with gaping looks that said: "I knew it."

"For the first time, there were a multitude of figures in shadows behind our loving mother," Mrs Fowler went on. "She told me these were the souls of purgatory but that they would get to Heaven today." Her followers cried out "Ave Maria", and waved white handkerchiefs or rosaries above their heads.

A loudhailer from the bottom of the hill interrupted: "Move your car, now! You will be towed if you leave it there!" It was a bulky Rockdale County cop, trying to sort out the traffic still crawling on to the site. Rockdale's cattle farmers, many Protestant, many flying the southern Confederate flag alongside the Stars and Stripes on their porches, are not great fans of Mrs Fowler or her followers, and local officials consider her annual event something of a public nuisance. A few years ago, county inspectors found that "holy water" from a well on her farm - she said it had been blessed by Jesus in an apparition - was contaminated. She was forced to post signs warning that the water was holy but not recommended for drinking.

The Pope has not condoned her activity and the local Catholic church this week issued leaflets urging pilgrims to attend Mass in local churches. The hierarchy may be envious of the donations Mrs Fowler receives, as well as the income from books and videos about her visions.

Mrs Fowler shuns interviews and is secretive about her past. She says she was guided to the farm by Jesus in 1987 and that followers bought it for her. Before her appearance on Tuesday, a Bolivian neurophysiologist, Ricardo Castanon, had told the crowd why he believed in Mrs Fowler. When she visited Bolivia in 1995, he said, Jesus had told her he would leave a sign of his presence in that country. "The moment she left, more than 100 statues of Jesus began crying and bleeding," he said.

Why would so many people travel so far, at such expense to listen to a chubby middle-aged southern American housewife?Perhaps people need to believe more than ever. There have been increasing "apparitions" of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, particularly in the Americas, in recent years. There is a waiting list into the next century to visit the home of the paralysed 14-year-old Audrey Santo, who cannot speak and can barely move, in Worcester, Massachusetts. People believe she has been given divine powers and can cure ailments including cancer. And believers have begun flocking to the village home of a Mexican housewife, Fernanda Rivas, to see a cake she says came out of the oven miraculously carrying an image of the Madonna and child.

Back in Georgia, some are asking why the Virgin Mary says she will no longer visit Mrs Fowler's farm. The answer may be linked to the fact that the Georgia housewife, like many Americans who are knocking on a bit, is moving to The Sunshine State - Florida - next month. She will still accept donations to what she calls her non- profit group, known as Our Loving Mother's Children Inc.

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