The Boston Phoenix
December 25, 1997 - January 1, 1998

[Miracle in Worcester]

The strange case of Audrey Santo

A comatose teenager in Worcester is reportedly setting off an escalating series of miracles. Some see God, some see fraud. And then there's the Catholic Church, which is officially not sure.

by Ellen Barry

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 since.

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 conversation.

"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 Vatican.

"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 years.

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 say."

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 coming."

Ellen Barry can be reached at ebarry[a]

Massachusetts miracles

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."