A young priest. Upswept brown hair. Mustache. A taste for RC Cola and pizza
with green peppers. A hesitant Southern drawl. Nervous eyes. It is Exhibit A.
Exhibit B is a 12-inch statue: a plaster reproduction of Our Lady of Grace,
ordered from a mail-order religious supply house in Havertown, Pa. Her robes
are blue, her face touched with pink. Her eyes gaze down in earthly
contemplation, even as her arms open prayerfully for heavenly redemption of
Long before the word "miracle," long before the TV newscasts and newspaper
headlines and tour buses, there were the priest and the statue, neither of them
particularly remarkable. Which makes all the more intriguing the events that
started unfolding on Nov. 28, 1991, when, without warning, droplets of water
welled in the eyes of the statue, slid down its plaster face and plunked onto
an oak server in the living room of the priest's parents, Jim and Ann Bruse of
Stafford, Va. Father, mother and son watched in puzzlement and awe.
That was how it began. Later - when Father Jim's hands and feet bled, when
the 4-foot statue at the Lake Ridge Va., parish wept in front of 500 people,
when stories of unexplained "healings" and a sun that "spins" made whispered
rounds among the Northern Virginia faithful - Channel 9 in nearby Washington,
D.C., broke the story, publicly posing the questions that more than a few had
already dared ask in private: "Is it a miracle?"
Is it a miracle?
Lake Ridge is only one American
community where the question has preoccupied, baffled, inspired and even
angered residents, In the past year, an enigmatic array of supernatural
"sightings" has erupted across the United States:
In Arizona, nine otherwise "normal"
young adults say Mary, Jesus's mother, has visited and spoken to them; in
Texas, an icon of Jesus reportedly wept; in a Denver, suburb, a woman described
visions of the Virgin wearing a "pink gown" in a mountainside shrine.
Whether these events indeed
constitute divine intervention - much less what it means if they do - has
created a kind of litmus-test controversy about the value of faith, instincts
and science. Millions of Americans are of two minds about miracles. On the one
hand, they want to believe in them (and a 1989 Gallup Poll found that 83
percent of Americans do) because such events suggest that God exists and our
daily lives have a purpose.
At the same time, people have a
conflicting urge to dismiss miracles as fakes. To lend them credence seems to
demonstrate naivete or ignorance. It is one thing to privately cheer on Kevin
Costner when a disembodied voice tells him in "Field of Dreams," "If you
build it, he will come." It is quite another to tell your boss that God spoke
to you in the back yard about your real estate plans.
The debate goes not just to the
question of whether miracles exist but to how they have been used and abused.
The religiously inspired maintain that events like those in Lake Ridge, Va.,
are proof that God is using his powers to call sinners back to him. Skeptics,
including much of the press and the scientific community, consider the notion
of miracles as nutty as Bigfoot or UFOs, a distraction for the gullible from
the often frustrating realities of daily life. The fact that miracles, by their
very nature, cannot be scientifically proved only perpetuates the debate. Even
the Roman Catholic Church - which has recognized just 14 Virgin sightings and
weeping statue episodes in the past two centuries - allows that, at some point,
it's up to the believer to decide.
And that is what they say in Lake
Ridge, where this tale begins.
The town on I-95
Tidy, edged lawns. Freshly mulched shrubs. Uniform rows of mailboxes
fronting brand-new split-levels and ranches. Lake Ridge has a certain military
precision about it, as if nothing could happen here that wasn't the result of
exacting and deliberate design, as if the business of living could be rendered
as predictable as the 4 p.m. thud of the Potomoc News
Fmt regular>on the doorstep. Many Lake Ridge residents, in fact, work at the
Pentagon, the FBI Academy and a nearby U.S. Marine base, and it was to house
such professionals that developers bulldozed the stands of oaks and poplars
that blanketed the area in the late 1960s. They envisioned a "planned
community," with no more than 13 people per acre and 1,000-plus acres for
As a result, everything in Lake Ridge
seems new: new schools, new brick-and-glass churches and new streets with names
like "Cassandra Court" and "Willowood Drive." Many couples and families are
youthful, too -
regular>the median age is just over 30. Although Washington, D.C., is just 40
minutes away by car, a football game between Woodbridge High School and its
archrival, Gar-Field, generates far more interest than the latest play at the
Not surprisingly, Lake Ridge residents
are also a churchgoing lot. Tucked among the colonials on Valleywood Drive is
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church, a looming, modern edifice whose
sloping roofs and redwood siding give it the look of an out-of-season ski lodge
set among snowless trees. But despite a burgeoning congregation that overflows
11 a.m. Mass on Sundays, the church has struggled. In 1986, the assistant
pastor, a handsome young priest just a few years out of the seminary, fell in
love with a married parishioner, quit the priesthood and later married her. A
few years later, another young assistant disappeared after Mass one Sunday and
never came back, leaving the pastor, Father Daniel Hamilton, to do the work of
two men. So it was with some trepidation that pastor and congregation awaited
the arrival of a new young priest sent by the bishop in June of 1990.
The priest in leather boots
"Did this guy really go to a seminary?" Parishioners looked at each other in
amazement when the new priest with the pompadour and leather boots got up to
give his first sermon at Sunday Mass. It was hard to imagine anyone more
ill-prepared than Father James Bruse. He fumbled for words. His eyes darted
nervously; he seemed preoccupied. His grammar was atrocious ("the beautifulest,
the wonderfulest ..."). and his delivery hurtled like a runaway train. It
seemed the quicker Father Jim could get away from the pulpit, the happier he
was - and many in the pews felt the same.
The son of a tea company salesman, Jim Bruse had grown up in Marlow Heights,
Md., where he was a solid but unexceptional pupil of the parochial schools, an
altar boy and trumpet player in the high school band. He completed college in
1976 and soon thereafter, in his only diversion from an otherwise unremarkable
youth, entered a series of roller-coaster riding contests. By the time he had
secured a spot in the Guinness Book of Records for riding five days, he had
also decided to quit his job repairing trucks and act on a long-held ambition
to become a priest.
In some ways, the very qualities that made Jim Bruse poor at sermonizing and
a mediocre seminary student made him a compassionate assistant pastor at his
fight two parishes. Where other priests might be more brusque and
uncommunicative, Father Jim, with his kind eyes and boyish, guileless demeanor,
was always approachable, never in a hurry. In the confessional, people felt
like they were talking to a friend. "I know just what you mean," he would tell
At St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the young priest settled into a routine of
Masses, baptisms, parish council meetings and doctrine classes, slowly earning
the support of members of his flock. But being an assistant pastor means being
on call 24 hours a day; the job is not just repetitive, it is lonely. In the
seventh year of his priesthood, as his daily duties merged into a numbing
sameness, Father Jim began to struggle with the depression and doubt that
typify the priesthoods legendary "seven-year itch." His one close-knit family
had drifted apart, and he worried that his father was having doubts about his
faith in God.
By November of 1991, Father Jim almost wondered himself. One night,
dispirited and alone in his room at the rectory, he began to question whether
he should be a priest at all. What was the point - and if Christ was real, why
couldn't he feel his presence? Confused and distraught, he prayed to God: "I
don't know where to turn. Please help me." A few days later, at Thanksgiving,
the priest went home to visit his parents.
The family and the statue
"Jimmy, come here." Ann Bruse, a kindly woman with a tight brown per, stood
in the center of her tidy living room on Thanksgiving Day. She was staring at a
statue of Our Lady of Grace, which her son had brought her as an early
Christmas present. The statue had a drop of water on its cheek. As Mrs. Bruse,
her husband and son watched, more drops appeared.
"It's crying," said Mrs. Bruse. Her husband stared in befuddlement. "There
must be some explanation," he said. Jim Bruse was born a Presbyterian, and
though he had converted to Catholicism, he had never shared his wife's
unswerving faith, privately believing her a bit "brainwashed." He picked the
statue up, scrutinized it, turned it upside down, shook it. Later, he removed a
tiny jeweled halo from its head, then took a flashlight and magnifying glass
and peered into the holes. The tears kept coming.
In subsequent days, the statue dripped intermittently, sometimes when just
the Bruses were at home, sometimes when the house was empty, but it always
seemed to happen when Father Jim came into the room. Before long, four other
statues in the house started to weep, too, so much so that Mrs. Bruse finally
put them in bowls to protect the furniture. The family speculated that perhaps
"the Holy Spirit is in the room," or "it's a sign from God." Beyond that,
they remained baffled. They told no one.
Then, the day after Christmas, Father Jim complained of sharp, stabbing
pains in his wrists. Before long, blood appeared to seep from unbroken skin on
his wrists and, later, from his feet and side. As a girl in Catholic school,
Ann Bruse had read how some of the saints carried on their hands, feet and side
the wounds that Christ suffered on the cross. Some stigmatists, she knew, had
endured tremendous physical pain as well. Now, her awe was coupled with fear
for her son, and she thought, "Oh, what he has to suffer!" But her next thought
was: Father Dan will know what to do.
The pastor who doubted
Daniel Hamilton, 50, is a burly, unfoolish man with thinning gray hair who
sometimes conceals his warmhearted kindness beneath a benign gruffness. A
priest of the old school with a degree in canon law, he believes in the
sacraments, the gospel and the traditional teachings of the church. He has
little use for shortcuts to God, doesn't know - or care - a lot about "this
At 4 p.m. on New Year's Eve, Father Dan, as he is known, looked up from his
desk to find his curate standing in his office doorway. "I need to speak to
you," said Father Jim, closing the door.
In a voice that shook, the young priest told his story while Hamilton
listened, his face impassive. But the pastor's thoughts raced with incredulity.
"Holy smoke," he said later. "Guy who works for me walks into my office
and goes on about statues that are crying and so forth, that he has this funny
bleeding. And I'm sitting right here saying to myself, 'This guy's got a real
Yet a few hours later, alone in the rectory, Hamilton was forced to
reconsider. The two priests had decided to trade statues, as an experiment, and
then Father Jim had gone to the church to say Mass. The pastor, meanwhile,
searched the basement for a copy of the Catholic Encyclopedia, since Father Jim
had said he was unfamiliar with the concept of stigmata. Later that evening,
Hamilton dropped by his assistant's bedroom, planning to leave the book. But
what he saw made him freeze. A statue of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton - the same one
he had loaned Father Jim - was crying. The tears looked like blood.
This can't be happening, he thought,
backing slowly out of the room. He tip-toed down the hall, slumped onto his own
bed and inhaled deeply. The he looked up at the statue of Mary on his dresser,
the one Father Jim had given him. It was crying tears, right into his sock
When Father Dan got out of bed the next morning. New Year's Day, water was
still running down the face of the statue in his room. All day long, during
breaks in the bowl games on his color TV, the priest checked the still dripping
statues. By now he felt that something extraordinary was going on. But what did
it mean? And what should he do about it? There had been no course in the
seminary on the proper procedure to follow when one's assistant made statues
Finally, Hamilton decided to call his superior, Bishop John R. Keating of
the Diocese of Arlington. According to sources close to Keating, the bishop
told Hamilton to keep the story quiet and get Father Jim to a doctor. A few
days later, when the two priests arrived at the bishop's home, Father Jim
brought with him a 12-inch statue of Our Lady of Fatima. When he handed it to
Keating, it was crying. Before long, a statue of Mary on the bishop's polished
wood mantle began to weep, too.
Bishop Keating didn't need this problem. From a bishop's standpoint, the
question of miracles is a surefire loser. If a bishop gives a miracle his
blessing and it turns out to be a hoax, the church looks ridiculous. But if he
discourages the faithful from believing, he risks driving away the thousands
whom the miracles have drawn to Mass. Keating tried to keep the lid on the
story, but on March 1, the big fiberglass Madonna at St. Elizabeth's began to
weep before 500 parishioners as Father Jim said Mass.
By then, both an internist and a psychiatrist had examined Bruse, each
reporting back to the bishop that they could find nothing wrong with the
priest. Still, when news reporters called, Keating issued a cautious statement
advising against "any speculation on the causes or possible significance of the
reported events." Even so, 3,000 people mobbed the church the following Sunday,
spilling out the doors, trampling the daffodils and jamming the streets so
badly that two county police officers were called in to direct traffic. Inside,
people fell to their knees before the Madonna, weeping, praying aloud and
straining for a glimpse of tears. The "miracle" had begun.
The skeptics in lab coats
There are dozens of ways to make a statue "weep." You can rub its face with
calcium chloride, which causes water vapor to condense from the air, giving the
appearance of "tears." You can smear cold oil or lard on the eyes; the grease
will warm to room temperature and drip. If the statue is hollow, like the
Madonna at St. Elizabeth's, you can run a thin infusion hose through the core
and out the eyes with a tiny needle, to deliver a steady flow.
But the method that came immediately to the mind of Chip Denman, as he stood
in front of the Madonna one evening last April, was far simpler.
"Misdirection," said Denman, a statistician and president of the National
Capital Area Skeptics, whose 350 members include physicists, psychologists and
magicians. "You distract people, then get a little bit of water splashed on the
face, secretly using a sponge or squirt gun."
The skeptics group is dedicated to applying scientific methods to claims of
the paranormal, and shortly after Denman's visit, a club officer contacted the
bishop's office and offered to investigate. The offer was politely rejected, a
spokesman explaining that the church investigates only in cases purporting to
bear a divine "message." But a few months later, a California astrophysicist
named Shawn Carlson, who had heard about the "miracles" of Lake Ridge and other
American towns, reproduced a crying statue on the CBS-TV show "48 Hours."
Carlson, who works at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories and makes a hobby of
debunking charlatans, made several pictures weep, too; one even cried "blood."
And although he refused to reveal his secrets, he makes no secret of his views:
"There is nothing about this encounter that could not be duplicated by
Many other skeptics agreed with Carlson, speculating that even Father Jim's
stigmata could be faked. At the time of his bleeding, one Washington, D.C.,
magic shop sold no fewer than four varieties of fake blood, which magicians say
can be easily secreted up a sleeve. Even Dr. Oscar D. Ratnoff, a Cleveland
hematologist who has studied more than 100 cases of spontaneous bruising and
bleeding and believes the blood of stigmatists is real, says such cases are
often psychogenic, linked to severe emotional stress.
But since the church refused to investigate, the skeptics could do little
more than speculate. Their doubts in no way affected the faithful, who now
arrived daily from as far away as Japan.
The believers in buses
Throughout last April, everywhere Father Jim went - churches, homes, offices
- statues wept. By now, the unassuming priest had begun to warm to the
limelight and gave several interviews, displaying his arms for the TV cameras,
describing the "excruciating pain" that felt like "the nail going
though," opining that "it's the work of Jesus Christ and Mary." Wearing
his purple chasuble and white alb, he stood quietly in the church vestibule day
after day to bless those who tarried after Mass. Many carried statues, and
sometimes, even before he handed them back, the statues were crying. Cancer
victims and crippled children came, too, and Father Jim pressed his hands to
their foreheads and prayed over them with closed eyes.
Before long, parishioners began whispering of other inexplicable events -
spinning suns, rays of vibrant colors, statues and rosaries changing colors and
amazing healings. One morning in May, 8-year-old Jackie Forsythe waited after
Mass for Father Jim outside her second-grade classroom at Aquinas School.
Eighteen months earlier, Jackie had been diagnosed with a mild case of juvenile
scoliosis, which had left her with an 18-degree curvature in her spine that
doctors said was probably irreversible. She hated the uncomfortable, molded
plastic body cast that she wore 23 hours a day, and she thought maybe a
blessing by Father Jim could make her back straight.
Two weeks later, when her mother took her to the Children's National Medical
Center in Washington, Dr. Laura L. Tosi, a pediatric orthopedist, confirmed
that Jackie's back had improved, and subsequent X-rays showed that the
curvature had been reduced to 4 degrees. Dr. Tosi, however, said that some
children improve with bracing or get better on their own. But Jackie remains
convinced: "I really believe it was Father Bruse," she insists.
Stories of other "healings," equally sketchy and ambiguous, traveled through
the parish. An 11-year-old girl from Dale City, Va., reportedly recovered from
blindness in one eye and a tumor after being blessed by Father Jim. (The girl's
family declined to be interviewed or to release medical records that might
confirm the report.) But most of the hundreds of visitors to the church went
away as ill as before. Many didn't even see the statues cry. Still, they didn't
seem to care. Standing quietly before the Virgin Mary statue or in the
vestibule, they spoke of how the miraculous events had brought them "back to
the church" or helped them "feel God's presence" in their daily lives.
The tears and blood, many believed, were "God's way of getting our attention" -
sort of a prelude. A prelude to what, they couldn't say.
The message in the tears
By August 1992, the bishop had long since ordered Father Jim to stop talking
to the press. With the absence of headlines and sound bites, the crowds began
to dwindle, and the daily 9 a.m. Mass that once attracted 150 now drew just 40.
By late August, the priest's bleeding had stopped, and the big Madonna in the
church no longer wept.
Still, reports of healings and other phenomena continue even now, and
occasionally, a statue - usually at the Bruse home or in the rectory - cries in
Father Jim's presence. The priest spends much of his time making the rounds of
hospitals to bless the sick, in addition to his regular parish duties. Whatever
doubts about God he once had are gone. "We don't have to worry about what's
beyond death," he told a friend, describing one of his ongoing periods of
mystical rapture. "We know. It's total love."
At the request of U.S. News, a Virginia medical laboratory recently tested a
sample of one statue's "tears" and found no evidence of the salt and proteins
present in human tears. Beyond that, there is no objective physical
documentation - at least none made public - to prove or disprove the phenomena.
If, in fact, the Lake Ridge story is a hoax, it is certainly an elaborately
choreographed one, relying on a variety of gimmicks and perhaps one or more
accomplices. Most parishioners believe that such complex trickery is beyond the
capability of the simple priest, and family members attest that Father Jim has
never dabbled with magic. Yet even if one supposes, for a moment, that the Lake
Ridge events are all genuine, a final puzzling question remains: What do they
Father Jim says that Christ is using the events to show us that he is real.
But what if the priest is wrong, and the weeping statues mean something else?
Until the Lord takes to skywriting his message, both the veracity and the
consequences such phenomena are likely to remain unsettled. Which leaves us, in
the end, with just a priest, some statues and a host of decent people, dreaming
a beautiful dream. Whether the dream is real, and what it means, are up to you