In search of a miracle, they flock to Emmitsburg

June 12, 1994|By Greg Tasker and Mary Gail Hare | Greg Tasker and Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writers

EMMITSBURG -- An altar boy, taking a turn in leading recitation of the rosary by hundreds of people packed in a small Roman Catholic church here, stops speaking.

A petite woman in a plaid blouse and blue skirt, seated in a front pew, has knelt forward, her hands folded in prayer. She is staring upward, facing the altar, fixated.

A few voices begin the second verse of the familiar "Hail, Mary, Mother of God" but taper off, and silence overwhelms the congregation.

Some finger rosary beads. Some close their eyes in prayer. Nearly all are kneeling, too, and many watch every movement the woman makes.

Gianna Talone-Sullivan continues staring for several minutes. Then, she nods. Her eyes do not blink. Her lips move, but she does not speak.

Since November, this scene has been repeated every Thursday evening at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church. Dr. Talone-Sullivan, a pharmacologist by occupation, claims to see a vision of the Virgin Mary for several minutes during these evening-prayer services.

She also receives, she says, a message that is written down and shared later with the congregation.

"My little ones, live the messages of God," the Rev. Alfred Pehrsson read from Dr. Talone-Sullivan's handwritten words Thursday night.

"Only those who observe and live his words will be justified."

As word of the recurring apparition spreads, growing numbers of people flock to the 152-year-old, gray stucco church in this northeastern Frederick County town, which some see as special because of its association with St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint.

"What I've experienced myself is overwhelming," says Father Pehrsson, pastor for the parish of about 525 families. "We've tried to keep this low key, but word-of-mouth is bringing people from all over." Calls asking for directions to the church come to the rectory all week.

On recent Thursdays, visitors have begun arriving at 4 p.m. -- three hours early to get one of the church's 350 seats. They jam the pews and the aisles. Some are willing to stand for a service that begins at 7 p.m. and continues nearly three hours. Many kneel at the altar rail.

"I need a church stretcher," Father Pehrsson said, surveying Thursday night's crowd from behind the altar. He estimated the attendance at about 700, double the church's seating capacity. Despite the wait to get in, the congregation's demeanor was generally respectful.

Many of those attending Thursday night seemed to be pilgrims who have made similar trips to Lourdes, France; Fatima, Portugal; and Medjugorje in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina, where other widely publicized visions of the Virgin Mary have been documented or reported.

These pilgrims -- not to mention the curious -- are coming from Baltimore, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

At least one child in a wheelchair was present Thursday, and several who were randomly interviewed said they had cancer.

"We've never been to a place like this in America," Tony Balsamo, a 39-year-old accountant from Baltimore, said Thursday night. "This service was just wonderful. The rafters were lifted off the church."

After the rosary prayers and Mass, Dr. Talone-Sullivan remained seated, leading in a soft, almost child-like voice prayers for healing. She cautioned: "I am not a healer. Jesus is the healer. Turn to him."

As a priest carried a Holy Communion wafer in an ornate container among the congregation, she prayed aloud: "We trust in your divine mercy. We turn all our physical problems over to you."

Apparitions began in 1980

Dr. Talone-Sullivan's apparitions are said to have begun in 1988 at St. Maria Goretti Roman Catholic parish in Scottsdale, Ariz. There, she led a group of nine men and women who said they had visions and messages -- from the voice of Mary, the mother of Jesus and one of the most important figures in Christianity who is especially revered by many Roman Catholics.

"Gianna has been our primary visionary," said Margie Perry, pastoral assistant at the Scottsdale church, which since that time has been the site of weekly prayer services. "I have seen her great spiritual maturity and definitely believe what she experiences is true."

Despite the public appearances at St. Joseph's, Dr. Talone-Sullivan has declined to be interviewed until after meeting with church officials in Baltimore.

She and her husband moved to Emmitsburg, Father Pehrsson said, after a visit to the small mountain town's Grotto of Lourdes, off U.S. 15 atop College Mountain near the campus of Mount St. Mary's College, during which she said she experienced a vision. The grotto is a replica of the famed place of the same name in Lourdes.

In that visitation, Father Pehrsson said, Dr. Talone-Sullivan was told that there was good work for her to do in Emmitsburg.

Since moving here last fall, Dr. Talone-Sullivan and her internist

husband, Dr. Michael Sullivan, have set up a health clinic in TC 34-foot recreational vehicle -- called "Mission of Mercy" -- to aid the poor and homeless in rural Maryland towns.

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