Heavenly visions disturb small town's way of life

September 15, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

EMMITSBURG -- With apparitions of the Virgin Mary a weekly recurrence at an old Roman Catholic church here, all might seem, well, heavenly in this small mountainside town.

But "Vision Night" -- as some locals have taken to calling the Thursday prayer sessions when pharmacologist Gianna Talone-Sullivan says she sees visions of the Virgin Mary -- has become a mixed blessing, depending on whom you ask.

On one hand, hundreds of worshipers from the Middle Atlantic and occasionally beyond are showing up each week for the evening services, sometimes hours ahead of time. They often stroll Main Street, spending money at the few restaurants and stores in town.

So many are arriving these Thursdays that two entrepreneurs -- one from Baltimore and the other from New York -- are planning to open religious gift shops on Main Street. That's a welcome event in a town that would seem eager to have new business.

"We have a whole lot of good material that I think people seem to be hungry for," said Leonard Wolff, owner of Christ the King Bookstore in Baltimore. He plans to open on the town square next month. "We'll make all kinds of material available on Gianna."

But John Hovde, owner of Mother Carey's Chickens, a small restaurant on the town square, is one who points out that "Vision Night" has something of a down side, too.

Ask him how so, and he explains: "This community is deeply rooted in a small-town way of life. People come and don't stop to consider the lifestyle of the people that live here."

What has particularly disturbed some other residents in recent weeks are reports of visitors picnicking and children playing in the cemetery surrounding St. Joseph's Catholic Church, the site of the visions.

"When people are spreading blankets and chairs in the cemetery, things are getting out of hand," says Kathleen Shorb, a parishioner who lives across from the church. "We have parents and grandparents buried there. It's disrespectful."

With the growing crowds -- which number upward of 800 at some services -- have come increasing complaints about traffic, parking and litter, mostly from residents and businesses near the 152-year-old, gray stucco church.

Since Dr. Talone-Sullivan, 37, reported seeing the visions last November during a sparsely attended prayer meeting, participants on some recent Thursdays are now nearly triple the church's capacity.

As a result, St. Joseph's has installed outside speakers for those who kneel on the church's lawn and a large-screen television set in the parish hall to accommodate the overflow crowds for the church, which seats just 370 in its sanctuary.

"Parking is the biggest problem," says Theresa Hollinger, who lives on DePaul Street, a block from the church. "It's not that I mind people going to church; I just think they should have a little consideration for the people who live here."

Emmitsburg and church officials have worked to alleviate the problems. Parking violators are regularly ticketed -- fines range from $2 to $30, depending on the violation. Overflow parking is directed to other lots within walking distance of the church.

And the church has posted signs asking people not to litter and not to let their children play in the cemetery. Trash bins have been placed around the church.

"The church has cooperated with the town, and the town has been very cooperative with the church," says Mayor William Carr. "I don't think [the services] have affected the town adversely, or that [they] ever are going to, but I'm not sure that everybody would agree with that."

Kerry Shorb, owner of a hair salon directly across from the church, is among those who would disagree.

"It's hurting my business," Mr. Shorb says. "When people call for an appointment on Thursday night and I remind them that it's Vision Night, they cancel. There's no place to park around here."

Mr. Shorb and others have suggested the church shuttle visitors from parking lots at nearby Mount St. Mary's College or the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

The Rev. Alfred Pehrrson, pastor of the parish of about 550

families, said shuttling is an expensive proposition -- something that the church has not even considered. He noted that walking is supposed to be a part of any kind of pilgrimage.

"We have tried to correct any complaints," Father Pehrrson said. "We were overwhelmed at first, but if anybody calls it a circus now, they don't know what they're talking about."

For others, the weekly parade of worshipers has meant brisk business on Vision Night.

"Some days are busy as soon as we open the door at 10:30 [a.m.]," said Susie Glass, one of the owners of The Ott House, a restaurant and bar on the town square. "I'd say our sales are up 50 to 60 percent."

Mr. Hovde, a former restaurant manager from Rockville, said sales at his homey restaurant, which seats about 35 people, are up 40 percent. Mr. Hovde said, however, that he had opened his business in Emmitsburg to take advantage of the slower pace.

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