Audrey Santo's bedroom has the intense pinkness and laciness that a 14-year-old
girl might choose for herself. Adult attention has been paid to this: the
curtains are lace, and the bedspread is pink, and the pillow is both pink and
lacy. There are garlands of cloth flowers hanging over her; there are
confectionary bows in her hair. Audrey has not spoken for 10 years, since the
day she went into a coma, but her hair has grown and grown and grown, off the
pillow and over the edge of the bed.
Then there are elements that would not appeal to most teenagers, such as the
display window through which pilgrims can peer every
Wednesday afternoon, when the house opens to visitors. A few years ago, it was
possible to visit on short notice. But these days, the pilgrims shuffling
through the Santo residence have spent upward of 11 months on a waiting list,
which makes them better off than people who sign up today, who can't expect to
get into the house until well into 1999. They mostly just look, but photographs
are sometimes placed in the girl's curled fingers, and various visitors put
their faces right next to her cheek and whisper particular messages for Audrey
to convey to Jesus. Pilgrims find the sight tremendously affecting and, on a
few isolated occasions, have overstepped their bounds.
"There have been people who cut a piece of carpet off the floor in Audrey's
room," says John Clote, a Catholic filmmaker who directed a 1996 documentary
called Audrey's Life. "People have come in and pulled a hair out of her
head. People have done very strange things."
This is not -- as the Santos' next-door neighbors will freely tell you -- a
part of town known for being medieval. If anything, it's a part of town known
for being Jewish. Still, the residents of South Flagg Street have come to
expect certain Catholic idiosyncrasies on Wednesday afternoons, such as the
line of people waiting to kiss a communion wafer said to have bled during Mass,
or the people who walk in on crutches and come out healed, or Port-a-Potties
set out during yearly masses for the faithful of five continents.
Until a year or two ago, it was a small neighborhood miracle, known chiefly to
miracle-watchers and to the unflappable residents of South Flagg Street. As
word spreads, though, Audrey's case seems headed for a kind of public
reckoning. For one thing -- after eight years of reported anomalies that have
escalated from weeping statues to stigmata to hovering apparitions of the
Virgin Mary -- the Worcester diocese has begun a rare official investigation.
The Miracle of Little Audrey has become too big for the Church to ignore. It's
definitely too big for the neighbors to ignore.
"People can believe what they want to believe, but the neighborhood isn't
zoned for this," says Renee Harrison, who lives across the street. "Sometimes I
can't get out of my driveway."
Audrey Santo wandered into the swimming pool in her back yard on August 9,
1987. This is the private tragedy that launched a public phenomenon: by the
time she was resuscitated, the toddler had suffered massive hypoxia -- the
oxygen supply to her brain was cut off for several minutes, killing off blocks
of brain cells. Doctors informed her parents she would spend the rest of her
days on life-support, in a coma. They recommended that Linda Santo place her
youngest daughter in an extended-care facility.
Then, as now, Linda Santo had her own ideas about what was best for Audrey.
She has accused UMass Medical Center of bringing on Audrey's state with a drug
overdose and then breaking both her legs in physical therapy; she also has said
Audrey is not in a coma, but simply in a "non-moving, non-speaking state." She
took her daughter home, where, with dedication that has consistently impressed
visitors and medical personnel, the family has taken care of Audrey ever
Audrey's mother also took her somewhere else: shortly after the accident, she
flew with the child to Medjugorje, in what was then Yugoslavia, a popular
pilgrimage site where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared periodically
since 1981. It was there, Linda Santo says, that Audrey communicated directly
with the Virgin Mary and agreed to take on the obscure Catholic status of a
"victim soul" -- a pious individual who willingly takes on the suffering of
other people, sometimes to the extent of manifesting symptoms. Audrey also went
into cardiac arrest and required a medical evacuation to the United States
that, Worcester magazine reported, cost $25,000. In hindsight, her
mother has ascribed this crisis to Audrey's proximity to "the biggest abortion
clinic in Yugoslavia."
The miracles started soon after her return to Worcester. Since 1989, when
nurses first spoke of an overpowering scent of roses, the reports have
proliferated to include virtually
every supernatural phenomenon in the Catholic repertoire: icons weeping blood;
statues moving of their own accord; miraculous healing; bleeding communion
wafers; the face of Jesus appearing in that blood; blood appearing
spontaneously inside a tabernacle; the Virgin Mary appearing in cloud
formations overhead; and, dripping down the walls of the garage, copious
amounts of spontaneously appearing oil, which is collected on cotton balls and
distributed in tiny Ziploc bags to the faithful, who have used it to treat
things like tumors.
Other reported phenomena focus more on the child's status as a victim soul --
a claim made over the last century by a handful of chronically ill women, among
them Little Rose, the Stigmatized Ecstatic of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, who
developed an intense local following in the 1920s and '30s. Based on
observations of Audrey's elevated heart rate, nurses say she suffers acutely
between the hours of noon and three on Holy Week, when Christ is believed to
have hung on the cross. Her family's "spiritual guide," the Reverend George
Joyce, who heard about Audrey after he visited Medjugorje, says that she has
been "crucified on her bed." In an interview for the 1997 video The Story of
Little Audrey Santo: The Victim Soul Who Is Bringing People to Jesus, Linda
Santo tells how, when she was visited by a woman with ovarian cancer, Audrey
manifested symptoms of the illness;
X-rays of Audrey's ovaries, her mother says, showed not a tumor but "a little
angel." Another time, Audrey developed a vivid crimson rash; the family says
she was taking on the side effects of chemotherapy for a visiting cancer
patient. She is also said to have developed stigmata, in which the five wounds
of the crucified Christ spontaneously appear on the body.
As a result of these extraordinary events, Audrey is developing the
shell of bureaucracy typical of very famous people. To speak to Audrey Santo's
family, journalists must be approved by her "board of directors." (The
Phoenix was rejected by this body, whose taste runs to the Catholic
press, and to reporters who guarantee previews of news copy.) Her name is
increasingly well known in the circle of people who follow miracles. "She's
new. I think she just became popular in the last year or so," says Jim
Drzymala, administrator of the "Apparitions of Jesus and Mary" Web page. Those
who can't jump the line by virtue of chronic disease take what ancillary
contact they can get; once a year, on the anniversary of her near-drowning,
Audrey is wheeled into a local church to receive the faithful. Last year, as
Audrey lay in her tiara on a stretcher, this Mass attracted upward of 5000
people -- a crowd so large, and so unexpected, that "the police could not
respond appropriately," according to city councilor Wayne Griffin.
Every time the story appears, it ratchets up the level of public enthusiasm.
Audrey's Life and The Story of Little Audrey Santo have become so
popular that one fan recently asked Audrey's dermatologist, who appears in the
video, for an autograph. Channel 7, which has run several spots on the
phenomenon, has reported as many as 250 phone calls after a broadcast. And when
the Boston Herald ran a story about Audrey last month, the accompanying
photograph showed a plaque with a contact number for the Santo family friend
and representative Mary Cormier. The story ran on a Monday. Over the next two
days, according to Cormier, 700 people called that number.
The biggest sign of Audrey Santo's growing importance is the long-awaited
attention from the Diocese of Worcester, which has maintained a stoic silence
on the subject for eight years. That's not unusual -- in the century that
brought us the Stone Mountain Pasta Jesus and the Rocking Virgin of
Ballyspittle, Catholic authorities have tended to keep a safe (read: vast)
distance from miracle claims. Who can blame them? Take the case of Veronica
Leukin, the 1970s visionary of Bayside, New York, who had already built up a
significant following when she issued a surprise message from the Virgin Mary:
the sitting Pope was an impostor created by skilled plastic surgeons. So in the
diocese -- quite understandably -- miracles are not a popular topic of
"Every bishop dreads having one of these things happen in his diocese," says
Reverend Emmanuel McCarthy, a Brockton Eastern Rite priest and a friend of the
Santo family. He's familiar with the subject, since his daughter Benedicta's
recovery from an overdose of Tylenol was recently accepted as a miracle by the
"It's hard to get an objective standpoint in an emotionally charged
atmosphere," he says. The rigorous procedure of investigation is "negative from
the point of view of the fundamentalist empiricists, and it's negative from the
point of view of the believers. Either way, it's a no-win situation."
But -- whether because of the pilgrim traffic or the extraordinary nature of
the claims -- the Bishop of Worcester has been left with no choice. Sometime
over the next few weeks, a not-yet-named commission will venture into the murky
business of trying to figure out what's going on at 64 South Flagg Street.
Although the Vatican has set procedures for testing claims of miraculous
recovery, a requirement for canonizing new saints, there's no protocol for
testing a victim soul. ("There are those who believe she is suffering for other
people," says the Reverend Stephen Pedone, who will oversee the investigation.
"That's very difficult to monitor.") This will be the first time in its history
that the Worcester diocese has carried out an investigation of its own,
according to Pedone, judicial vicar for the diocese.
It's a tricky case, because Audrey can't speak. The vast majority of miracle
claims involve apparitions, in which a visionary conveys a message to the
people from Christ or the Virgin Mary, so investigators judge authenticity in
part by whether they agree with what Jesus or the Virgin seems to be saying.
But in this case, whatever interpretation pilgrims walk away with is supplied
by Linda Santo or by Joyce; the miracles themselves are pure supernatural
pyrotechnics. Asked what the investigation will consist of, Pedone mentions
medical analyses of healing claims but nothing about the rivulets of blood and
oil that run down statues throughout the house -- and which, presumably, could
be established empirically as spontaneous occurrences.
Pedone, who has visited the Santo house, says he has been deeply moved by the
devotion he has witnessed there, but he is otherwise noncommital on the subject
of the supernatural. He stresses the fact that miracles -- the miracles of life
and faith -- are present in the most ordinary settings.
"All this bespeaks a real spiritual hunger," Pedone says. "There are people
coming in in wheelchairs just to be able to walk by Audrey
. . . . Certainly it is miraculous -- just the fact that people
are being drawn into a deeper relationship with God -- but it shows a real
hunger, a real searching. Saint Augustine wrote that God `has placed a longing
in our hearts.' Well, our hearts continue to be restless."
In the meantime, when priests call the diocese to ask about Audrey, Pedone
issues mild discouragement -- chiefly, he says, out of concern for the
overtaxed Santo family.
"We don't encourage [the attention]" he says. "We're discouraging it, because
it just creates -- I don't want to say a carnival atmosphere, a circus
atmosphere -- but it's unsettling. When I was there, there was a constant
flurry of activity."
Although he doesn't bring this up, the commission will also investigate
theologically suspect activities going on at the Santo residence. Joyce appears
on a videotape administering communion wafers spattered with "sacred oil," an
enhancement of the eucharist which breaks baseline Catholic rules. And by
hailing Audrey as a "living saint," her supporters breach the strict Catholic
protocol that will keep Mother Teresa awaiting canonization for at least five
But even if the commission finds violations, it's clear that the Church would
risk something by condemning what's going on at the Santos'. Worshipers get on
their knees in a driveway on a Wednesday afternoon: the whole phenomenon is an
engine of devotion. As Pedone puts it, "There are a lot of things at stake
here, and one of those things is the faith of the people."
This, then, is the tightrope of the contemporary miracle. Miracles occur more
often than you would think; there are, at present, some 20 self-proclaimed
stigmatics that researchers know of, and an infinite number of self-proclaimed
visionaries, and a handful of so-called eucharistic miracles, in which
communion wafers bleed spontaneously or -- in the case of one Julia Kim of
Naju, South Korea -- actually turn into a tiny beating heart on someone's
tongue. The much-publicized Medjugorje visions, first reported in 1981, are
partly responsible for this upsurge; even within the community of
miracle-watchers, the trend is sometimes known as "the Medjugorje virus."
To those Catholics who follow the proliferating miracle reports, this is a
period of great revelation.
"I kind of equate it to living in the time of Jesus Christ," says Jim
Drzymala. "People say, `Wouldn't it be wonderful to live in the time of Jesus
Christ?' Well, we're living in the same times."
Others -- like Bruce Miller, an apparitions expert from Catholic University of
America, in Washington, DC -- wonder about the religious purpose for this
profusion of miracles.
"Down in Georgia, they are forever seeing Christ's face in things," says
Miller, who is not a Catholic himself. "What's the point of the face of Jesus
in a tree? Everyone says, `Ooooh, the face of Jesus in a tree.' They all
congregate for a while, and then they disappear. What has it accomplished?"
Little Audrey, moving into her second decade as a miracle, has accomplished
this much: she's made a lot of people nervous. Cases like hers force Catholics
to answer the dangerous question of what, precisely, they believe. Catholicism
itself turns on a central supernatural event: at Mass, bread and wine are
believed to transform physically into the body and blood of Christ. But the
church is rapidly liberalizing; according to statistics repeated with great
alarm and frequency by the Missouri-based Mercy Foundation, which produced
Audrey's Life, 70 percent of American Catholics don't believe in the
basic doctrine of transubstantiation, which hinges on the "real presence" of
Christ in the Eucharist. (Jim Davidson, a sociology professor at Purdue
University, in West Lafayette, Indiana, found otherwise: his recent survey
shows that 72 percent of Indiana Catholics "agree strongly" with the doctrine.)
Miracles like Audrey's ask post-Vatican II Catholics to put their money where
their mouth is. If you can't believe in a communion wafer oozing blood once,
how can you believe that it turns to flesh many thousands of times daily?
In six or seven months, the diocese will weigh in with a brief memo, either
encouraging or discouraging the recognition of God's hand in the case of Audrey
Santo. Mild discouragement is common in such cases; despite the crowds drawn to
Conyers, Georgia, or Emmitsburg, Maryland, or Scottsdale, Arizona, no miracle
site in the United States has ever gotten the stamp of approval accorded
Lourdes or La Sallette or Fatima. But then, it may not matter either way, says
a pilgrimage travel agent who routinely sends Catholics to nonapproved sites
such as Medjugorje.
"People don't always listen," she says, speaking on the condition of
anonymity. "This is what I see from many years of dealing with pilgrims.
American Catholics feel freer to go contrary to what their priests might
And despite the great exhaustion that Pedone ascribes to them, the Santo
family will probably keep the door open for as long as there are pilgrims
lining up in front of it.
"I asked [Linda Santo] and [George Joyce], `Why you are letting me do
this?' " says Clote, who filmed the documentary Audrey's Life. "She
said, `We'd like to drop the shades down and have this all for ourselves, but
there's so many people out there who need it.' "
The Santos need it, too. The profusion of reported supernatural phenomena
nearly obscures the one miracle that hasn't happened: Audrey's recovery. In one
film, Audrey's aunt confides that she thinks Audrey was chosen as a victim soul
before birth, so that the backyard accident was merely one episode in a divine
narrative. She recalls a child who, from the moment she was born, had such an
unearthly beauty that "when I looked at her, it was as if I could not see her.
It was as if she were transparent." In another, Audrey's older sister recalls
that the toddler acted differently on the day she fell into the pool, "like she
knew something was going to happen." On her way back from a friend's house, the
little girl sat quietly in the back seat of the car, "which was very unlike
Audrey." Retold with the mysterious smiles of the great detectives, these
explanations are strange and heartbreaking; how, after all, do we get past
mornings like that one?
So the family waits in hope for Audrey to get out of bed. Meanwhile, strangers
gather, rapt, around a miracle that has no information to convey.
"You have all these people mobbing apparition sites to hear the messages,"
says Clote. "What's interesting to me is that all the same things are
happening at Audrey's, and yet no one is speaking. It's a little girl lying in
bed with tubes sticking out of her. She's not speaking. And yet people keep
Ellen Barry can be reached at email@example.com.
Little Audrey Santo -- a comatose Worcester girl whose family has
reported moving statues, weeping statues, bleeding statues, miraculous
healings, and bleeding communion wafers in her presence -- is only the most
recent miracle to attract official church attention in this densely Catholic
state. Here are some recent highlights:
Benedicta McCarthy. Last year, the Vatican officially accepted as
miraculous the recovery of two-year-old Benedicta McCarthy from an overdose of
Tylenol in 1987. Miracles are officially assessed by the Vatican as a means to
qualify candidates for sainthood; in this case, the girl's recovery was
attributed in part to the intercession of a Jewish-born nun named Edith Stein,
and resulted in her canonization.
Benedicta's father, Reverend Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, had requested that
friends and family pray to Edith Stein, and did the same thing himself on a
retreat in Minnesota. As McCarthy's retreat was ending, Benedicta made a
recovery that doctors at Massachusetts General could not explain medically.
The tribunal process, which involves a Church-appointed "devil's advocate" who
argues against the miracle, ultimately required McCarthy's doctor at Mass
General, Ronald Kleinman, to fly to Rome and testify that her recovery had
indeed been remarkable. In interviews after his trip, Kleinman described the
Vatican investigators as exacting and skeptical.
Medway. Three years ago, the Venezuelan visionary Maria Esperanza
visited this area to consult with Sister Margaret Catherine Sims on
establishing a spiritual center in the South Shore town of Medway. As she was
visiting the proposed site, Esperanza reportedly got off the bus, rushed to the
side of the road and picked up a stone with an image on it that appeared to be
the face of Christ.
Followers of Esperanza -- who says she regularly receives messages from the
Virgin in Betania, Venezuela -- began showing up in vast numbers at the site
and claiming that they, too, were having visions. This inspired the Most
Reverend Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston, to appoint a team of investigators
to look into the alleged sightings. Their report concluded that "none of the
events described to us were of such a nature that they could not be explained
by applying the ordinary laws of nature and psychology," and Law accordingly
prohibited public worship on the property.
Nancy Fowler. Although she's now living in Conyers, Georgia,
Cambridge native Nancy Fowler is one of the most well-known visionaries in the
United States today. In 1987, Fowler began reporting visions of Jesus and the
Virgin Mary, who would appear to her regularly on the 13th of every month.
The crowds at her house grew to such a size that, with the financial
assistance of her followers, Fowler purchased a 30-acre farm, where she would
broadcast Mary's messages over a PA system to huge crowds gathered outside.
Although the Virgin is now only appearing once a year, always on October 13,
Fowler has received such huge crowds that -- according to Jack Sweeney, who
puts out a newsletter devoted to Conyers -- local police "gained a lot of
experience that they used in the Olympics."
Despite Fowler's tremendous grassroots following, the Church has never
formally acknowledged her, and in 1991, Archbishop James Lyke of Atlanta issued
a memo discouraging priests from bringing parishoners to the site, invoking
this passage from Acts 5:38-39:
"Leave them alone, for if this plan and work of theirs is a man-made thing, it
will disappear; but if it comes from God, you cannot possibly defeat them."