Frederick County
Woman's Reports of Visions of Virgin Divide Faithful

By David Snyder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2003; Page C05

The Virgin Mary usually arrives about 7:30 in the evening. Every day but Friday, believers say, she appears at Gianna Talone Sullivan's home overlooking a golf course near Emmitsburg to dispense words of wisdom, advice and, sometimes, warning.

To believers, the details of Mary's apparitions are well known: She wears a veil, has brown hair and blue eyes, and emerges from a bright light. Her visits vary in timing and duration.

"It depends on what's going on," said Michael Sullivan, 53, Talone Sullivan's husband and spokesman. "If we're at home and were not going anywhere, it's usually between 7:30 and 8:30."

Sullivan, a tall, bearded doctor who favors polo shirts and tasseled loafers, does not see the Blessed Mother when she appears to his wife. Neither have the thousands who have flocked to Emmitsburg over the years to receive Mary's messages, transcribed by Talone Sullivan on spiral notebooks.

Roman Catholic Church officials, in Baltimore and at the Vatican, cast a skeptical eye on the alleged apparitions, recently ruling them definitively not supernatural. But many of Talone Sullivan's supporters remain firm in their faith. And even doubters acknowledge that the apparitions, real or not, have profoundly changed tiny St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Emmitsburg and, by extension, the Frederick County town, which has one stoplight, 2,300 residents and a long history of devotion to the mother of Jesus.

"I've been a priest for 45 years, and I had never experienced anything like this," said the Rev. Al Pehrsson, pastor at St. Joseph's from 1989 to 1996 and now a priest in Alabama. "There was a quiet joy among the hundreds of people who had come, from Rhode Island to Virginia. . . . There was no fanaticism at all."

Two years ago, the Baltimore Archdiocese ordered Talone Sullivan, 46, to stop her weekly prayer meetings at St. Joseph's, and archdiocesan officials announced last month that the Vatican had affirmed the decision, which held that the visions were constat de non supernaturalitate, or "consistently not supernatural."

The ruling "is the end of the process for the church," said archdiocese spokesman Steve Kearney. "It's over."

Sullivan said he and his wife stopped the prayer service at the church, but they won't stop spreading the Blessed Mother's messages by word of mouth and the Internet.

"Our position is to undergo whatever persecution or humiliation is required but remain obedient to the church," Sullivan said.

Talone Sullivan, a pharmacologist who as a child was a ventriloquist and acted in television commercials, has declined requests for interviews since 2000, when church officials asked her not to talk to the news media. Through her husband, she declined to speak for this article.

Emmitsburg is known among Catholics for having a connection with the Virgin Mary going back to the early 1800s. The nearby Grotto of Lourdes, which features a towering golden statue of the Blessed Mother, says it draws 500,000 visitors a year. Mount St. Mary's, one of the nation's oldest seminaries, was founded in Emmitsburg in 1808.

Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first U.S.-born saint, lived in Emmitsburg from 1809 until her death in 1821.

Talone Sullivan, a diminutive woman with an earnest smile, came to this haven for Mary devotees in 1993, after claiming to have her first apparitions of the Blessed Mother at her home in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1987.

In November of that year, Sullivan said, his wife started seeing the Blessed Mother at the St. Maria Goretti Church in Scottsdale while on a lunch break from work.

In January 1993, Sullivan said, Mary appeared to his wife in Emmitsburg while they were on a pilgrimage and told them to move to Emmitsburg.

Since 1993, the couple has lived in a rambling home with a basketball hoop at one end of the driveway and an automated security gate at the other. The house, in the hills near Fairfield, Pa., is about eight miles north of Emmitsburg. They came because the Blessed Mother asked them to, Sullivan said.

In 1992, Talone Sullivan founded Mission of Mercy, a nonprofit agency that provides medical care to poor and uninsured people across Maryland. Last year, the organization treated more than 13,000 patients at nine clinics in Maryland and Pennsylvania, according to the group's annual report.

At their peak in 2000, services at St. Joseph's in which Talone Sullivan claimed to be transcribing Mary's words typically attracted close to 1,000 people, Pehrsson said.

For the Roman Catholic hierarchy, Talone Sullivan's popularity tapped into a trend that has concerned church officials for years -- people claiming direct connection with God, often through the Virgin Mary. Images of the Blessed Mother, for example, are said to have appeared in a mosaic at Our Lady of the Pillar Roman Catholic Church in Santa Ana, Calif., in 1991, and on an Atlanta billboard in 1991.

Theologians say the number of reports of visions of Mary has ballooned in recent decades. Excerpts from the report on Talone Sullivan's visions issued by the Baltimore Archdiocese note "a growing addiction to the spectacular."

"[W]e think that the Church should not promote or encourage persons claiming to have extraordinary channels to God," wrote the archdiocesan commission, made up of three priests, that looked into the visions.

It is just that alleged contact with God that can attract crowds to people who claim to have supernatural visionary powers, said Joe Nickell, a senior research fellow at the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal and a columnist for the magazine Skeptical Inquirer.

"Instead of just sitting passively in church, being told how to behave, here is something in which you actually are participating, and miracles are going off like flashbulbs all around you," Nickell said. "This is experiential. . . . You could personally have hopes, at least, of experiencing these things yourself."

"The commission unanimously concluded that there is no evidence of supernatural intervention in the Emmitsburg messages," Cardinal William H. Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore, wrote in September. "Its members are concerned, however, about some alarming language, in evident conflict with traditional Catholic teaching and the Scriptures from which this teaching flows."

Keeler was referring to several apocalyptic visions, including one in which Mary, via Talone Sullivan, prophesied the death of all the world's fish.

There are several Mary apparitions that the church has come to accept: a 1917 appearance to three children in Fatima, Portugal, and an 1858 apparition at Lourdes, France.

To some whose lives lacked mystery and mysticism, Talone Sullivan's visions gave a hint of the supernatural.

"It really was one of the most amazing religious experiences of my life," said Marti O'Neill, 41, an accountant who lives in Upper Marlboro and attended two of Talone Sullivan's Thursday night prayer services.

"I met so many people who were sick. . . . People who really come looking for miracles. I dare say that everyone left with something," O'Neill said.

Part of Talone Sullivan's appeal, O'Neill and other supporters say, is her ordinariness.

"She's just like a soccer mom," O'Neill said. "She's just a normal person that has been given a great gift, as well as a great burden."

Her husband said she tries to avoid the limelight.

"We are just instruments," said Sullivan, seated in the living room where he, his wife and their 7-year-old daughter pray before an altar decorated with saint figurines. Behind him were photographs of his wife's deceased parents and a three-foot-tall crucifix.

"Gianna is just a messenger," he said.

2003 The Washington Post Company