Bad Friday as weeping Madonna is locked up

FROM ANDREW GUMBEL

in Civitavecchia

Everything was in place yesterday for the proclamation of a modern miracle: the road signs, the car parks, the portable toilets, the wheelchair access, the burger stands, even bullet-proof glass in the windows of the church.

But the parish of Sant'Agostino, outside Civitavecchia, was cruelly robbed of its chance to attract more Good Friday pilgrims than the Pope.

Its object of veneration, an 18-in statue of the Madonna from Medjugorje, Bosnia, which is said to have been weeping blood on and off since early February, remained under judicial lock and key, ordered to stay out of the public eye while investigators look further into the phenomenon.

Parishioners may have dreamed of coachloads of pilgrims pouring in from all over Italy and further afield, but they will have to wait. Yesterday most of the outsiders milling around Sant'Agostino and the nearby house belonging to Fabio Gregori, the owner of the statue, were either police guards or journalists. Only the occasional motorist stopped to pull up a tuft or two of grass for good luck.

A planned Good Friday parade had to be cancelled first because the Madonna was not going to be available, and then because the contingency plan, using a copy, was vetoed by the Vatican. But nobody was too disconsolate - they expect the "new Lourdes" to take off any moment now. "The day we get the Madonna back I am going to sell 150,000 coffees," said one bar owner.

"They say we could get 80,000 visitors at any one time. When you think that Civitavecchia has a population of just 55,000 that is quite staggering," said Claudio Dell'Anno, the uncle of Mr Gregori. "We heard that one tourist agency from the north of Italy alone had lined up 300 coaches for Easter, but was forced to cancel at the last minute."

Around Civitavecchia there is an unmistakable sense that good times are at last going to descend on a port town just north of Rome where more than 25 per cent of the adult population is unemployed.

In Don Camillo fashion, the local bishop, Girolamo Grillo, has had no difficulty in persuading the atheist left-wing mayor, Pietro Tidei, to promote the commercial possibilities of the weeping Madonna. Mr Tidei has been talking about requisitioning ferries as floating hotels to house all the pilgrims, while his press officer grandly refers to herself as the "mayor's chief of staff".

Local entrepreneurs paid for the building work around Sant'Agostino out of their own pockets. There are now four drinking fountains in the drive up to the church, and the phonecompany has contributed a phone box.

The attractions of the Madonna, sacred and profane, appear to be blinding the townsfolk to the most important question - whether or not she is a fake. Investigators are in theory conducting DNA tests to compare the tears with the blood of Mr Gregori and possibly others.

But the owner's uncle said Mr Gregori had not been approached for any test, and that everyone expected the statue to be back on display in the church by next week. "I think the seizure of the statue was a way of marking time while all the building work and security arrangements could be finished," Mr Dell'Anno said.

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