Father Sylvester Peterka, dressed casually in a T-shirt and shorts, leads me into the darkened interior of the Immaculate Conception Church on Druid Hill Avenue and over to an alcove dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
A statue of Mary towers above us, her arms spread in benediction, a smile on her lips. She is flanked by a double rack of vigil candles, their flames flickering gently. And over on one wall rests Agnes Pulliam's painting.
We stand before it, the priest and I, and study the painting in silence.
"It's really something isn't it?" he says at last.
The painting is of the Virgin Mary, but with African features. She has dark brown skin and curly black hair that frames her face beneath a shawl. There is innocence in her wide, dark eyes. There is a peacefulness in the gentle slope of her shoulders, and in the way her two hands are folded before her, just so, in an attitude of prayer.
"Yes it is," I say at last.
Another moment of silence.
Then I ask Father Peterka, "What is your reaction to the things Mrs. Pulliam says happened while she worked on this picture? Do you think she received some kind of divine inspiration?"
Father Peterka smiles.
"I believe her," he says simply. "I believe God works in mysterious ways. People try to find other reasons for it, but sometimes you have to just accept things. I believe that God is great.
"When Agnes told me what had happened," Father Peterka continues, "as I listened, she certainly did not lack sincerity. And then, when I saw the picture, this just beautiful picture. . . ."
He spreads his hands as if to say that the painting on the wall speaks for itself.
"I believe that God is great," he says again, "and that the Blessed Mother continues to shower her blessings on Agnes, on this church, on the congregation, on us all."
Together, we study Pulliam's work. Then, we shake hands and I leave.
There had been a tightness in my chest while we studied the painting, a sense of breathlessness, of awe. Was it the work of art itself? I wondered. Or the supposed mystery behind its creation? Was it the candles and the dark silence of the church? Had I been moved by evidence of divine power or by the power of suggestion? On Druid Hill Avenue no trees grow. The sun beats down on the pavement, glitters off shards of broken glass along the curb. Cars rattle past. People lounge about on their porches, their faces drawn and haggard.
What do I believe? I wondered as I left the church and walked along Druid Hill Avenue. Do I believe in the possibility of a mystery that does not involve murder or mayhem? Do I believe miracles can happen in Baltimore?
I still am not sure. How can one ever be sure?
Agnes Pulliam is 71 years old, the mother of eight children, a lifelong city resident. She is a short, gray-haired woman with a pleasant face who lives in a modest home on Dewey Avenue. She also is an incredibly gifted, self-taught artist.
Last year, Father Peterka commissioned Pulliam, a member of Immaculate Conception Church, to do a portrait of a black Madonna. The ethnicity of the image, Peterka hastened to explain, was relevant only because Immaculate Conception Church serves an African American congregation.
"I feel that God is a universal God," said Peterka. "Unfortunately, the church has made God so Eurocentric that all of the images are Eurocentric. In a sense, we are really limiting God when we do that."
But Pulliam found the assignment especially challenging.
"I didn't know what Father wanted to do with the picture when it was finished, but I wanted it to be something really special," she said.
So she read books on how artists of the past approached the task when commissioned to do religious works. She vowed to fast and sacrifice her soap operas when she was ready to start.
And she prayed. She prayed to God and she prayed to the Blessed Mother. "I just felt I needed to pray for this one," said Pulliam, in her quiet, self-effacing manner. "I don't usually pray over my pictures."
On Nov. 29, 1990, she believes, the first of certain things happened -- she calls them "outstanding occurrences" -- in answer to her prayers.
First, an inner voice insisted that she begin work on the Madonna that morning. "If you really love the Blessed Mother like you say you do," said the voice, "you'll do the [preliminary] sketch today."
So Pulliam, who had been procrastinating, searched her house for paper. Finally, she went into her son's room and borrowed three sheets of computer paper. She put them aside and went downstairs to pray to the Blessed Mother for inspiration.
"I always pray to the Blessed Mother of Perpetual Help for all my problems," said Pulliam. "She's been so gracious and kind, answering all of my prayers."
This time, her prayers appeared to go unanswered.