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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
"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