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Tears for Audrey

By Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 19, 1998

  Style Showcase


WORCESTER , Mass.—In the bed at the center of the room, beside a pink heart-shaped pillow,

"Audrey has become global. She is booked through 1999. She is beautiful. She is precious. She is not in a coma. She is very alive and alert."

beneath a crystal chandelier and a cheerful bouquet of red, white and blue balloons, lies the child. Her dark hair is shiny and fragrant, gathered at the crown by a red satin bow, cascading onto the pillow and three feet beyond. Her complexion is alabaster, without bruise or blemish. She is toasty to the touch. Her gray eyes have the luster of wet pearls. They are open. They march back and forth, slowly, as though she is reading Scripture.

She reads nothing. She says nothing. She does nothing. Her jaw lolls open in flat, dreadful stupor. From time to time spittle must be mopped from from her lips and tongue. A breathing tube enters her neck, attached to a ventilator.

Eleven years ago, when she was not yet 4, this little girl fell into the backyard swimming pool. She nearly drowned. Much of her brain died.

Weeping oil Roman Catholic faithful flock to the Santo home to view the comotose child through a picture window. (Dayna Smith/The Post)
   
Upon the foot of the bed are letters. They have been mailed by people around the world, people sick in body or in spirit, pleading for a cure. Later, these will be opened and read aloud to the child, one by one. She will not respond. Against the far wall is a dresser cluttered with religious statuary: crucifixes, Sacred Hearts, Virgin Marys, bleeding Jesuses with crowns of thorns. Scotch-taped beneath the chins of many of these effigies are little Dixie cups, to catch the weeping oil.

Yes, weeping oil. You can see it, hanging from plastic chins, beading up on wooden cheekbones, painting ceramic tunics with a bright, damp sheen.

Mysterious events have been occurring in this home. Communion wafers have been said to ooze blood.. Statues have been said to move on their own when no one is looking, pivoting to face sanctified objects. Chalices have been said to suddenly fill with sweet-scented oil. Sick people who have come here say they have been healed.

The girl's family claims to be mystified. For years word of these events has been slowly leaking out, like the oil that puddles on the eyes of the painting of Our Lady of Medjugorje out in the garage. The garage has been converted into a chapel.

Now tens of thousands know of this place. It has its own Web site, and a committed cadre of Roman Catholic volunteers who answer correspondence, organize Masses and call themselves the Apostolate of the Silent Soul. No money changes hands. No one's getting rich.

The events here have not been officially embraced by the Worcester diocese, but several area priests have become something of a kitchen cabinet to the girl's family, celebrating Masses before groups larger, and more needy, and more enthusiastic, than they have otherwise known.

Today is Wednesday, so it is Pilgrim Day. Eighty people who made reservations as much as a year and a half in advance arrive at the simple one-story frame house. In groups of 10 they are escorted into a small room beside the girl's bedroom. In the dividing wall, a picture window has been installed. Venetian blinds are drawn. The pilgrims wait with hushed expectation. The blinds are opened, and she appears.

Children crowd wide-eyed to the front. Someone points a disposable drugstore camera, and clicks.

Inside the bedroom, the girl's grandma fusses with the sheets.

"They have come to see you, Audrey," she coos. "Don't you look beautiful?"

Audrey does not respond.

Grandma takes a vacuum hose and suctions mucus from Audrey's nose. In the room next door, people fish for their rosaries, and hold them out. The beads drizzle against the windowpane. A woman with haunted eyes and a twist and swing in her step approaches a padded kneeler placed beneath the window, and painfully sinks to her knees.

After five minutes, the blinds are drawn again. This group shuffles out, and another is ushered in. At the end of the tour each pilgrim will get a souvenir, a Ziploc bag containing a little cotton swab, daubed in the oil of this holy home.

Spend time in the house at 64 S. Flagg St. and you are likely to be either appalled or inspired. One of two things is going on here: a monstrous fraud that exploits a grievously injured child, or a startling declaration by God Almighty that He exists – is here, right now, in this very place, working miracles.

One or the other. No in between.

Right?

dingbat

There is a scene in the movie "Oh, God" in which the deity – in the irresistible person of George Burns – arrives in court to testify as a witness in a trial of a good man accused of slander. The judge is, understandably, skeptical. Burns asks: What, you want a miracle? "I got a cute miracle," he offers, pulling out a deck of cards. With a pass of the hand, it disappears. Happy now?

The message is clear. God does not perform parlor tricks.

But consider this. If God chose to announce His presence one day by appearing in the sky, a face a hundred miles high – a bearded patriarch who waved His arms and turned cats into dogs and dogs into trees and angels descended in gossamer chariots – well, instantly, there would be no agnostics on the face of the Earth. All men and women would embrace the Lord with a fervor built on certitude, and awe, and terror for their mortal souls. Everyone would have God.

But no one would have faith.

Faith is the foundation of religion. After His death, Jesus appears to Thomas and chides him for demanding proof of His resurrection. You must simply believe, Jesus says. In your belief is salvation.

So might it not follow that a God given to tests of faith might choose to say hello to the world through what seems like a cheesy stunt – a stunt so trivial that sneering debunkers have gone on TV to duplicate it? Thus, the believer looks like a fool or a criminal, his piety tested through the derision of others. Isn't that possible?

This is the sort of dialogue one has with oneself after leaving the house on Flagg Street.

As the millennium approaches, there have been reports of an increase in mystical phenomena worldwide, weeping statues in particular. Believers offer this explanation: Mary is crying for humanity because we have become too selfish and secular, distancing ourselves from God.

Some of these observed mystical events are famously ludicrous: Mother Teresa's face in a sticky bun; Jesus in a bowl of spaghetti on a billboard. Some have been convincingly exposed as hoaxes: A man in Montreal who drew thousands of penitents was found to have coated religious figurines with a waxy mixture of pig fat and his own blood, so when people crowded around, and the room warmed, the liquid ran. Some alleged apparitions have never been convincingly dismissed. Hundreds of thousands still flock to the hamlet of Medjugorje, Bosnia, where the Madonna has supposedly made periodic appearances since 1981.

But mostly, in these cases, one is left with proof of nothing, only a feeling of unease: An obscure priest in a Lake Ridge, Va., parish briefly became a national celebrity in 1992 when figurines began crying in his presence. Was he a faker? Maybe, maybe not. Journalists discovered that, as a young man, he had once sought a sort of wacko fame by riding for days nonstop in a roller coaster. Soon after this was published, the figurines dried up. Eventually, the priest was moved to another parish. End of story.

Now comes Audrey Santo, a comatose girl in whose presence statues weep and in whose bedroom thousands congregate.

What in God's name is going on here?

dingbat

It is, as it happens, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. The back yards on Flagg Street are mostly communal, with few fences, just a broad band of grass with kids' swings and wading pools and the occasional vegetable garden. Then at the Santo home, a huge Virgin Mary stands sentry in a wooden grotto. The rest of the yard is a checkerboard of plastic folding chairs under a canvas canopy. The deck behind the house has been converted to an altar. Plastic flowers are taped to it. There are portraits of Jesus, and Mary, and Audrey.

Apostolate volunteer Mary Cormier is welcoming the Wednesday visitors.

"Audrey has become global. She is booked through 1999. She is beautiful. She is precious. She is not in a coma. She is very alive and alert."

In the audience, Joe Jardin, a sturdy man from Providence, R.I., is discussing the pilgrimage he made to Medjugorje in 1988. The woman in front of him turns around, delighted. "I went to Medjugorje in 1988, too," says Bici Turiano of Phoenix.

It seems there is something of a miracle circuit. People travel from one apparition site to another. Lourdes, France. Fatima, Portugal. Medjugorje. Audrey's house.

One wonders what Jesus might say to these folk, gathered here in drip-dry short-sleeve shirts and pastel trousers, chatting amiably, sucking Tic Tacs, patiently awaiting Proof.

Sitting on the grass is a woman named Laurie Wilkinson, from Wakefield, R.I. Her limbs betray a tremor. She is maybe 35, but she walks with a cane. Around her neck and dangling down as far as her hips is a handmade necklace of religious medallions, each commemorating some site where a saint is said to have appeared. Her expression seems forever caught between euphoria and despair. This is Wilkinson's second visit to Audrey's home. She carries a scrapbook of Polaroids taken from her first visit. In photos of the outside of the house, Wilkinson has detected the face of a kindly man – maybe the pope – in an angle made by the rain gutter and the roofing tiles.

Wilkinson is here to be healed.

"I have chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia," she says. "Also, I broke eight of my toes. I have autoimmune problems, and my sisters have dermatic myocitis and endometriosis and chronic fatigue syndrome and my husband has a bad disk and a bad knee. And I get head-to-toe muscle spasms and I get broken blood vessels, see?" she says, presenting the back of her hand. "I feel very close to Audrey."

Wilkinson arranges religious icons about her in the grass, facing the deck-turned-altar, where Mary Cormier is wrapping up.

"And now, this is our movie star!"

Linda Santo pads out from the house, to enthusiastic applause. She is a tiny, sprightly woman in her forties, 4 feet 11 in bare feet. In fact, her feet are, at the moment, bare. She wears stretch pants and a loose blouse and her chestnut hair has been hurriedly cinched in a banana clip. She walks low at the hip, the no-nonsense bustle of a harried mom. She warmly welcomes the visitors to her home.

In Audrey, she says, there is a central message: "God doesn't make junk – all life is valuable.

"Sometimes you will see Audrey crook her finger," she tells the visitors. "She is saying, 'Come, see my Jesus, come adore Him.' And He will bless you, maybe not as profoundly as He blessed Audrey, but He will bless you."

dingbat

Linda Santo runs this house. She is everywhere. She was there when the strange manifestations began occurring more than four years ago. If there is deliberate deception, she is almost certainly complicit. Yet, to many, she seems beyond duplicity.

She is aggressively likable. Twinkly. Funny. Self-deprecating. Down to earth. Above all, she is joyfully aware of how absurd this all must look. She tells how people have arrived at her home unannounced, having driven all night from places like Nova Scotia. "Nova Scotia!" she brays. "Why not call first, are ya stupid? I'm washing the toilet, gimme a break."

She sometimes watches, bemused, as pilgrims kneel and pray and then furtively pocket a scrap of carpeting or a clod of dirt from the back yard.

"Ya gotta roll with it," Linda Santo says. She speaks with the unpretentious blue-collar New England accent that sounds like a happy amalgam of Boston Brahmin and Brooklyn bleacher bum. "We're an ordinary family," she says. "This is a home, not a shrine. Nobody levitates here."

Linda says she has no idea why these things are happening. She knows it looks suspicious. But, she says, the quarts of oil that have been oozing into her home are from no source known to her. And she would have to know, she says reasonably, if someone else were doing it. Someone other than God.

In the shattering weeks after the accident, Linda's husband left her. Steve Santo was not a bad guy; he was an ordinary guy, a strapping loading-dock laborer whose little girl would never be the same. He just could not handle it. He spiraled into alcoholism, he lost jobs, he drove drunk, he went to jail. Linda was alone with her three other children, and Audrey.

"Where are you going to put her?" doctors asked, meaning, what institution?

"I will put her in my arms," Linda said.

And she did. She took Audrey home and lovingly administered round-the-clock nursing care. For years. Eventually she lobbied successfully for free 24-hour nursing assistance from the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind. Audrey has lived longer and with fewer health problems than anyone expected. Her arms and legs are stunted, but she continues to grow – last year, she entered puberty. She is kept immaculately clean, and beautifully groomed. At least once a day she is propped up in front of a TV.

Supplicants come to this house almost every day. Mondays are reserved for people with terminal disease. Many are children. Linda welcomes them herself.

Aug. 9 is the 11th anniversary of the near drowning. For the occasion, Linda is organizing a huge open-air Mass in a stadium at nearby Holy Cross College. As many as 20,000 people from all over the world are expected to attend. Audrey will be brought out, in an ambulance.

"I want one and a half million people!" Linda says, laughing, leaping nimbly onto a dining room chair. "Let's shut down Worcester. It's a Sunday! It's the Lord's day!"

If you have ever dealt with loss and have seen how it can break the spirit, if you value spit-in-your-eye stubbornness, if you are awed by selfless sacrifice, if you admire those who can find humor in the face of pain, then it is impossible not to like Linda Santo.

But what if she were making all this happen? Could you dislike her, then?

"If people only knew," she says, "what was in our dumpsters! Audrey makes five or six bags of trash a day. If I wanted to make a million dollars on this, I could sell the garbage!" She throws her head back and laughs, loud and cackly and unrestrained, straight from the gut.

Well, if she were making this up, could you dislike her, then?

"Ya want a sandwich?" she says.

dingbat

The hagiography of Audrey Santo has spread largely through word of mouth, but it got some help from the religious media. For years Linda Santo permitted no publicity. But in 1996 she opened her doors to a producer from the Mercy Foundation, a nonprofit Catholic organization that filmed a slick one-hour documentary called "Audrey's Life: Voice of a Silent Soul."

The tape has sold 2,000 copies, and has been broadcast several times on the Eternal Word Television Network, a religious cable channel. The video is clearly partisan. Inevitably, it points out that Santo means "holy one." It argues that Audrey is almost certainly a "victim soul," a person chosen to suffer for others; victim souls are said to speak to God, interceding on behalf of supplicants who petition them with prayer.

The documentary quotes a Boston chemist who says he analyzed the oil and found it to be a mysterious substance, not any known commercial oil. It interviews Audrey's pediatrician, John Harding, who says that her relatively good physical health cannot be explained by conventional medicine. Harding says the biopsy of an angry skin condition that once appeared on her legs revealed a rash typically suffered by persons undergoing chemotherapy, even though Audrey never had chemotherapy. The implication is that Audrey assumed into her own body the pain from some visitor being treated for cancer. And, most dramatically, the Mercy Foundation cameras actually filmed a Mass at which a priest held up the host – a Communion wafer – to discover it has a wet red spot on it roughly the shape of a cross.

His astonishment is captured right there, on tape.

dingbat

In some ways, religion is like abstract art. There is beauty and spectacle, but in both cases, one must reach into oneself to find meaning. And so it is that when outsiders behold the events at 64 Flagg St., they tend to see different things.

The Rev. Mike McNamara, a priest from the Boston area, says Audrey's survival speaks against evils of abortion, birth control and government-sanctioned gambling. Father Mike has no doubt that what is happening on Flagg Street is divine. He says he has seen a chalice in the home well up with oil, spontaneously; it was out of his sight for seconds only, and no one approached it.

Father Mike believes in miracles. He himself has traveled to Medjugorje. He stood on a hillside, he says, and watched as the sun spun in the sky like a pinwheel, giving off sparks. Then he felt some energy pierce his heart, so strong he doubled over and let out a yell. He felt it was "waves of God's love for me."

John Harding, the pediatrician, believes Audrey's message is meant for doctors. Her survival speaks against physician-assisted suicide, proclaiming that there is value in all life, and dignity in suffering.

Harding – former chief of pediatrics at Hahnemann Hospital in Worcester – notes that he first met Audrey not as a doctor but as a penitent, when he came to her house to pray and say a rosary. He once sat at her bedside and asked her to help a friend who had cancer.

Once, he says, a priest asked him to examine one of Audrey's Communion wafers allegedly containing blood. He brought his microscope, he says, but at the last minute he decided not to use it. Catholics believe the consecrated communion host is literally the flesh of Christ, and Harding says he felt uncomfortable "putting our Lord under the microscope." Instead, he says, he used a small magnifying glass.

He knows this sounds strange, but he is a straightforward man, and he is not embarrassed by his faith. What he saw in the bleeding host, he says, was "a Madonna and Child."

The Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, a genial Eastern Rite Catholic priest, was the cleric initially summoned by Linda Santo when she first reported the leaking oil. He remains a close family friend.

Father Emmanuel Charles looks like Santa Claus. A former attorney, he speaks with the engaging gravitas of a theologian-philosopher. He doesn't buy the "victim soul" thing, the notion that God would cripple a child to serve His purposes.

That turns God into a monster, he says. "God is not a monster."

The message of Audrey has been somewhat misunderstood, he says. She is not about physician-assisted suicide, or abortion, or gambling, at least not primarily. He says she represents a thunderous condemnation of war and murder.

This message – that Christians should not kill – is Father Emmanuel Charles's life's work. He first became interested in Audrey when he learned that her accident occurred on Aug. 9, 1987.

He explains: Aug. 9, 1945, was the date that an American bomber crew incinerated Nagasaki. Ground zero was a Christian church. The bomber crew was all Christian. "No Jews, no atheists. Christians killing Christians, y'see?"

Aug. 9 was also the date, during the Holocaust, that a nun named Edith Stein died. Sister Edith has since been canonized; in fact, one of the miracles ascribed to her was the recovery of McCarthy's own infant daughter, Benedicta, from a massive accidental overdose of Tylenol a few years ago. Edith Stein died at Auschwitz. "Auschwitz was totally run by Christians," McCarthy says. "The Nazis had Gott mit Uns on their belt buckles, y'see? 'God is with us.' Christians using the church to justify killing!"

It all fits in, says Father Emmanuel Charles: Nagasaki, Nazis, Audrey Santo. Plus, Aug. 9 also happens to be the date of his own ordination.

It's his life's work, and it all fits in.

dingbat

Boguslaw Lipinski is a Boston biochemist who appears on the Mercy Foundation tape, testifying to the mysterious nature of the oils. He says he ordered a chemical analysis, and discovered it to be without the characteristic chemical signature of any known commercial oil. As the legend of Audrey has grown, the description of this oil gets more and more supernatural. "Not of this world," is how pediatrician Harding now describes it.

This is not exactly right. According to Barbara Rybinski, the Kraft Foods chemist who supervised the analysis, Audrey's oil did not have the signature of any pure commercial oil. But it could have been a simple mixture of commercial oils, Rybinski says, and it could have been a partially hydrogenated oil, available under many labels.

Lipinski disagrees. His own analysis of the test results suggests that the oil would be very hard to duplicate through ordinary means. It is strange, Lipinski says, but he has seen stranger things. His hobby is scientifically documenting paranormal religious phenomena. A few years ago, he says, he went to Medjugorje and tested the air with a type of Geiger counter. He was surprised to discover an unusually high concentration of ions.

He tested the air in Audrey's house, too. Elevated ions, again.

Lipinski is a scientist, so he won't engage in conjecture as to what this all means. But like anyone, he has a suspicion: It is the thumbprint of God.

dingbat

Finally, there is the Rev. George Joyce, retired Catholic priest from Springfield, Mass. Father George is 83, a kindly man with liquid eyes. Of the four Communion wafers that are said to have bled in the Santo home, only one occurred directly in front of an independent witness. That was Father George, who was in the middle of a Mass in 1996, as the Mercy Foundation cameras were rolling.

In truth, when you rewind and replay the tape, you cannot actually see the wafer bleed. It is lying on a plate beneath another wafer. When the top wafer is lifted, the one with the wet red cross can be seen. Tests would later show it was human blood.

Father George says everyone denies having tampered with it, and he believes them.

What is happening in the Santo home, he says, is pure good.

He knows evil when he sees it. "I have dealt with the Devil," he says.

One day five or six years ago, the priest says, he trapped a man into revealing that he was demonically possessed. He did this by secretly blessing the salt in the man's home. That night, the man's wife used the salt on his food, and the man "ranted and raved" and ordered her to throw the food out. In a subsequent ritual, Father George says, he drove Satan away.

A priest can reliably tell when people are possessed, Father George says, because "when you throw holy water on them, they start screaming."

Audrey Santo, he says, is a victim soul. Of this, he is "100 percent certain."

dingbat

In the back yard, the Rev. Mike McNamara is celebrating Mass. Linda Santo takes a consecrated wafer on a brass plate and disappears into the house with it. Every day she gives Communion to Audrey. (Audrey has a feeding tube; the wafer is the only solid food she receives by mouth.)

A few minutes later, Linda returns. There is a peculiar look on her face. She is holding the empty Communion plate gingerly, and replaces it on the altar.

Liquid sloshes out and onto the tablecloth.

"Sorreee," she whispers to the priest.

After the ceremony, four priests crowd around the Communion plate. It is filled halfway with opalescent yellow oil, maybe three or four tablespoons of it, and on top of that is a large, floating bead of clear liquid. It smells of pure roses, eerily strong. It wafts up and out into the sweltering summer air.

Linda Santo meekly explains that the plate quickly welled up with this substance as she walked alone from Audrey's bed to the back porch, a trip of some 30 feet.

The priests nod. It is a miracle, everyone agrees.

dingbat

When paranormal phenomena are reported, lay people sometimes expect that Catholic church leaders will eagerly embrace them. After all, anything that brings people closer to God cannot be bad, right?

Actually, these things make the diocese uneasy. The Vatican is wary of lending its imprimatur to something that may, ultimately, be exposed as a chimera. The church wants to be the voice of reason, caution, restraint.

The Rev. F. Stephen Pedone is the judicial vicar from the Worcester diocese. He is overseeing an investigation, ordered by the bishop, into the events occurring at the Santo home. The investigation is headed by John Madonna, a local psychotherapist who has been asked not only to try to verify the occurrences, but also to see if there are any human pathologies afoot in the household that might explain what is going on. (Madonna says he and a team spent several days at the house, and even slept there overnight. So far, he says, he has found nothing to indicate deception or sociopathy. In fact, he says, he has observed physical events involving religious icons that cannot be readily explained.)

Father Stephen is a trim, square man with orange hair and piercing eyes. He says he does not want to prejudge, or prejudice, the investigation. He has, however, been to the Santo house, and has an observation.

"I was uncomfortable. The house was filled with people. A little girl was on display in a bed. One priest was bending over her, whispering intercessions in her ear." That means the priest was reciting the names of sick people, on whose behalf Audrey was to speak with God. "The grandmother kept saying, 'You remember Father Steve? Father Steve is here!'

"My impression," says Father Stephen, "was that it bordered on the bizarre. It seemed like an invasion of her privacy."

But isn't it good that the events in this house are giving people hope?

Father Stephen smiles painfully. Yes, he says, people are desperate for reassurance, and reassurance is good. "The downside is, if the faith lacks basis, it is going to quickly evaporate. The church is looking for more long-term faith. You don't draw a circle and say, "Okay, God, dance for me."

Sometimes, he says, people are so desperate for tangible miracles that they get blinded to miracles happening every day: "We wake up in the morning. That is a miracle."

dingbat

Outside Audrey's bedroom is a sign, made to resemble an old-fashioned needlepoint sampler. It says, "Shh – I'm talking to God."

Inside, with Audrey, is Pat Nader, Audrey's grandma. She is small and slightly stooped and determinedly cheerful, a woman who lost her favorite grandchild one day in August 1987, and then discovered she didn't lose her at all. Pat Nader found that Audrey was still around. Just different.

Nader spends hours every day at Audrey's bedside, as she is right now. She talks to her constantly.

"She is what you call a typical teenager," says Grandma Nader. "She is spoiled. She doesn't have to do anything for herself!"

Friends and family contend that Audrey is completely aware of her surroundings, alert, perks up when priests or family members are around, gets agitated when someone says something of which she disapproves. They say medical experts support this.

"They told us she understands everything," says Grandma Nader. "She's perfectly healthy. She'll come out of it one day."

A newspaper photographer bends and focuses.

"I think they want to take a pretty picture," Grandma tells Audrey. "Remember that you are gorgeous, remember that."

Audrey does not respond.

dingbat

Grandma kisses Audrey's face. The camera clicks.

"I'm the one she loves the best," says Grandma Nader. "I am the grandmother. She is the love of my life, aren't you, Audrey?"

Audrey does not respond.

Edward Kaye is a pediatric neurologist at St. Christopher's Hospital in Philadelphia. For eight years, beginning a short time after the accident, Kaye was Audrey's doctor. He has done extensive examinations of the girl's brain.

How injured is she?

"The cell death is about as bad as you can get and still be alive," he says. "Her EEGs are profoundly abnormal. She has brain stem activity, but very, very little above the brain stem."

Is she conscious? Aware of her surroundings?

"There is little objective evidence that she can respond to external stimuli. There is no evidence to suggest that something gets through and gets processed."

Dr. Kaye says he understands how a loving family, ministering selflessly to a terribly injured child, might take comfort from what it interprets as subtle signs of cognition.

What is Audrey's prognosis?

In such cases, the doctor says, "the prognosis is abysmal."

Is he saying she is dead?

dingbat

"She is not brain-dead because she has brain stem activity. From a cognitive standpoint, she is dead."

It is Thursday morning. The Santo family and some apostolic volunteers have assembled in the garage chapel for a Mass officiated by Father Mike. Mass is a daily event at the Santo home.

First, a brief, homey sermon. Father Mike tells an amusing story, at his own expense. He says he was about to host a family birthday party one Sunday when he realized there was not enough ice cream cake for all the children. So he stopped at a bakery. Several of his parishioners were there. He was caught red-handed, violating the Sabbath!

Linda Santo pipes up, offering the opinion that this is a forgivable transgression.

"It is like if you have kids in a burning house," Linda says. "You have to get them out, but they want to stay. So you tell them there are toys outside. So you lied to them, but it's okay."

There are two seconds of absolute silence.

"I'm not sure I like your example!" Father Mike says, finally.

Everyone laughs.

dingbat

"I know I seem insane," says Linda Santo. "I'm in good company. Half the saints were insane."

In fact, Linda does not seem remotely insane. She seems delightfully solid. Her youngest son, who still lives with her, is a happy, boisterous teenager who appears well adjusted, close to his mom, joyfully teasing her at every turn. It is a bracingly normal relationship.

Linda is seated in her side yard. Beside her is her husband, Steve. Steve came home to his family two years ago, after an eight-year absence.

Steve Santo is the sort of guy you would describe, affectionately, as a big lunk. He is cinematically handsome, thick through the chest, square-jawed. His accent makes Linda's seem like "Masterpiece Theatre." He, too, is instantly likable. Asked if anything in the house other than religious artifacts has ever wept oil, he laughs and says, "Yeah. The top of a pizza box."

He says at first he strongly suspected that his wife was doctoring the statues, until he saw some things he could not explain. Once, he says, an effigy hemorrhaged oil. Linda, as he recalls, was nowhere around.

Steve Santo had years when he abandoned God. But he is back for good, he says. "I like to say the rosary now."

He has to leave for work. But first, he has a question: What sort of results he can expect from this newspaper article?

"Will it be a made-for-TV movie?"

Well, maybe. Publicity is starting to pick up; "20/20" is planning to film the Aug. 9 Mass.

Linda says it is amazing, and a little sad, that God had to go to this extreme, to do this miracle thing, to attract attention. "If there weren't four bleeding hosts," she asks, "if there was just a child in a bed, would anyone pay attention to this?"

In retrospect, she says suddenly, all of it seems foreordained.

When Audrey was born, she says, she prayed not for a healthy child but for a saint.

"I can give life, but only God can give eternal life," she explains.

Linda also says that doctors once X-rayed Audrey's ovaries, expecting to find a tumor. Instead of a tumor, she says, they were astonished to find, literally, right in the X-ray, the figure of "a little angel."

She has this X-ray somewhere, she says, but when asked to locate it, she cannot.

Linda also says she once saw two moons in the night sky.

That was in 1988, when she took Audrey to Medjugorje. There was a clamor out in the street, she says. The townspeople were shouting that the little American girl's face had appeared in the moon. Linda looked up in the sky, she says, and there, unmistakably, in the face of the moon, was Audrey.

Then she looked again, she says, and there was a second moon, beside the first one. This one had the face of an old nun in it.

Linda does not apologize for, or explain, these things. God works in mysterious ways, she says.

And so Linda is asked this:

Let's say that someone in her house, unknown to her, is making these mysterious events occur. Let's say that this person looked around at the sorry state of the world, and saw good people far from God, facing eternal damnation, a billion children in burning houses without the sense to rush outside to safety. Could a little lie be so bad? Would such a person be a bad person?

"God might say that's not a lie," Linda says. "God might forgive it."

Silence.

But it would still be wrong, she says. "A lie is a lie," she says.

Silence.

If someone were doing it, she concludes, it would be a betrayal. She would probably forgive this person, but she would still have to dismiss him or her from her home ministry, she says.

Then she offers you lemonade.

dingbat

Linda Santo permits The Washington Post to remove a small sample of the mystery oil, to send to a lab for analysis. "I'd like to know what it is, too," she says.

According to Microbac Laboratories of Pittsburgh, the sample contained 80 percent corn or soybean oil, and 20 percent chicken fat.

Microbac chemist Tom Zierenberg says it is a simple mixture, reproducible in any American kitchen.

Which is interesting, but hardly evidence of deceit.

God, after all, makes corn. And soybeans. And chickens, too.

dingbat

The trial is over. God has given his testimony.

"I'm not sure how this whole miracle business got started," George Burns tells the courtroom, "that idea that anything connected with me has to be a miracle. Personally, I am sorry that it did. It makes the distance between us even greater. "

He walks to the door.

"I know how hard it is in these times to have faith. But however hopeless, helpless, mixed up and scary it all gets, it can work. . . . If you find it hard to believe in me, maybe it would help if you know I believe in you."

And then the door swings shut, and God is gone.

It is Aug. 9, 1987, at 11:03 in the morning. Linda Santo is at home. Her 16-year-old daughter Gigi is upstairs, on the phone. Matthew, 12, is on the floor, sorting laundry. Outside, 3-year-old Audrey and brother Stephen, 4, are playing in the driveway with a new toy, a remote-control truck.

Audrey is a lively little girl. She is already reading Garfield comics. She is all mischief and moxie. "I'm gorgeous," she says, all the time. And she is.

Like all young mothers, Linda is doing 12 things at once. Suddenly, she looks up with a vague sense of dread. What?

Gigi is coming down the stairs from her bedroom.

Matthew is still on the floor.

Stephen is coming in from outside.

The German shepherd, Sting, is usually patrolling the yard. Sting protects Audrey. When Audrey strays off the property, Sting grabs her butt and yanks her back.

But Sting, for once, is inside the house.

Where is the baby?

"She's outside," says Stephen, out in the driveway.

But she is not in the driveway.

Matthew and his mother race out back, toward the pool.

No. No.

It is a 36-foot above-ground pool. There are retractable steps leading from the top to the ground. The steps are supposed to be up. But someone left them down.

No. No.

Two seconds. Three.

Matthew is in the air, spread-eagle, launched toward his baby sister, who is face down, at the far end, floating, arms spread, like a snow angel, motionless.

Linda hears a bloodcurdling scream.

It is, she realizes, coming from her.

dingbat

Eleven years later, Linda is preparing for a gigantic Mass of the faithful in honor of her daughter, who is not a dreadfully brain-injured child, but a living saint, selected from birth, anointed by God, nestled in His lap, whispering in His ear.

Week after week, Linda is visited by admiring priests.

Week after week she is applauded by a hundred penitents.

To some, she is a modern-day Mary.

Statues are weeping. Oil is flowing. Wafers are bleeding.

It's a miracle, says Father Mike.

It's a miracle, says Dr. Harding.

It's a miracle, says chemist Lipinski.

It's a miracle, says Father Emmanuel Charles.

It's a miracle, says Father George.

Linda Santo has defied conventional wisdom and kept her child alive through heroic love. She has stayed strong and resolute in the face of unimaginable tragedy. Her joy and spirit have inspired thousands. She has given solace to the sick and dying. Her fortitude outlasted her husband's despair, triumphed over it, brought him back to the home, and to God.

Okay.

It's a miracle, says The Washington Post.


Special correspondent Lisa Valianti O'Brien, a freelance writer from Boxboro, Mass., contributed to this report.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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