EMMITSBURG -- The pilgrims have heard that here, by the old stone grotto, miracles happen and people in turmoil find peace.
Drawn by tales of the Virgin Mary's presence, they come from all faiths to the wooded niche that is the National Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes on the grounds of Mount St. Mary's College. During Easter week, the pilgrimage builds to a crescendo.
Last Easter, 1,500 people came for a non-denominational service despite a 3-inch snow cover. Tomorrow, 2,000 are expected to gather on the Western Maryland hillside clutching their rosaries, and empty plastic juice bottles for holy water.
The water they seek rises from the spring at the oldest Mary Shrine in the original 13 Colonies, water some say can cure the sick.
A Baltimore psychiatrist believes the water cured his deafness. A documentary filmmaker came seeking the facts, and reported visions of white lights and doves.
Jerry Caffrey, 44, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, says the shrine and the help of Monsignor Hugh Phillips, the grotto chaplain, showed him the way to faith and provided the strength he needed to kick his addictions.
"The Mother of God is especially present in this place," said Mr. Caffrey. "I know a lot of people who've experienced cleansing in their soul here." He discovered the grotto on a walk while he was a patient at a nearby drug rehab center, he said.
"Every time I fall or am tempted, I go down to the grotto and say my prayers, get my soul in order," he added. Divorced and living by himself, he is lonely, he said. "But when I go down there, the loneliness goes away."
Former Archbishop of Baltimore Lawrence Shehan reported being healed of tuberculosis at the grotto. Seminarians have reported cures for eye problems and for carpal tunnel syndrome.
Baltimore psychiatrist Robert Ludicke had been operated on at Johns Hopkins Hospital for an ear condition that resulted in a loss of hearing. He said he applied spring water to his ear and was instantlycured of his deafness. "I don't know if I'd call it a miracle," he said. "Let's say a favor was granted, whether coincidental or not."
Says Monsignor Phillips, a gentle man in his 70s, "A lot of beautiful things happen up here."
It is just the sort of setting for a miracle: A romantic dell; an aging priest with a saintly face; ground made holy by association with a canonized saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton, who lived nearby. She was canonized in 1975 as the United States' first native-born saint.
The Virgin Mary presides here in the form of a 25-foot gold-leafed bronze figure standing atop a bell tower that overlooks the Mount St. Mary's College campus and the nearby Seton shrine.
A wide path leads to the grotto; small paths mark the Stations of the Cross, wind past a reservoir by another statue of Mary, leading pilgrims to a glass-walled chapel. Philadelphia cleric John Neumann, a canonized saint, walked here long before Gov. William Donald Schaefer and more than a million other pilgrims.
Mass is offered at noon and at 5 p.m. every Sunday throughout the year. Healing services with anointings follow all Masses.
For a century and a half, the grotto had been almost exclusively a shrine for students and faculty at the college and seminary. In 1958 the mountain road was paved, and visitors began to pour in.
Janet Goldsmith of Glen Burnie made the 90-minute drive to the grotto this week. As she drove, she clutched an ivory rosary against the steering wheel of her station wagon. Her hair was laced with flowers. Wearing the mysterious smile of someone who knows a secret, she spoke with certainty of the blessings she would receive from the Virgin.
"You don't have to seek religion here," said Mrs. Goldsmith, 49, who made the trip five times a week last year, after her husband died in February. "It finds you. To me it's like paradise, like [the Garden of] Eden; it has treasures."
Yet this is no Medjugorje, the small Yugoslavian town where for the past 10 years Mary has reportedly appeared to young visionaries, attracting millions of visitors.
Asked if Mary has appeared here, in this spot, Monsignor Phillips whispered, "Oh, YES!" and looked quickly around, as if the very words might spark a visitation.
When one of Medjugorje's visionaries, Ivan Dragicecic, visited the Emmitsburg grotto in November 1990, he reportedly beheld an ecstatic vision of Mary and wept. He was the only one to see the Blessed Mother.
Mount St. Mary's College, which owns the land where the shrine is located, declines to authenticate alleged miracles there, and Monsignor Phillips prefers to call them "blessings" or "favors granted." However, a videotape made by an independent company that purports to document healings at the grotto will soon be available for sale, with the proceeds going to maintain the shrine.
Mrs. Goldsmith knows there are many skeptics.
But her approach to faith is to accept without proof, without doubt.
"If you have faith, no explanation is necessary," she said, reading the words from a marble marker near the grotto. "If you don't have faith, no explanation is possible."