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A search for miracles on Pioneer Avenue

Saturday, April 14, 2001

On a day when trees once dead to the world pushed green flowers through gray branches, and bulbs once asleep in the ground troped buds toward a sun that poured life into a spinning, blue rock called Earth, people looked for miracles on a closet door in Brookline.

A visitor, right, tries to make out the image of the Virgin Mary and other religious symbols on a wall and door in the Brookline home of Frank Semplice. (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

"It's gettin' to the point where there's too many people out there," fretted Marc Semplice. It was Semplice, a 25-year-old laborer in the city's Public Works Department, who first noticed the illuminated figure of the Virgin Mary as he tapped at an electric keyboard on the third floor of the family house on Pioneer Avenue.

Now, morning had come after a night in which the faithful, the curious and the people with a strong affinity for the powers of the unknowable had tromped through the Semplice home, prayed, wept, ogled, asked God to cure their ills, blessed the home of perfect strangers and, on occasion, instructed Marc to enter a seminary. The Semplices hugged coffee mugs and struggled to be gracious to daytime pilgrims who continued knocking on their door even though the Virgin, being a specter of light cast through an upstairs window, appears only after dark.

"Does anybody know who that guy is?" Marc asked his sister, Dana. A gangly man who looked like an R. Crumb cartoon, decked out in oversize sneakers and a Virgin Mary T-shirt, had been loping through the Semplice house all morning before it occurred to the family that he wasn't with anyone.

"He has cancer," Lynn Semplice told me earlier.

Actually, he thought he might have had stomach cancer, but did not, and was grateful for the miracle and had come to pay homage at the closet door.

This is not as silly as it sounds. The Virgin Mary has a habit of turning up in improbable spots. In 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared at a dump near the French village of Lourdes, where Bernadette Soubirous, a semiliterate child, dug into the earth and uncovered a spring. At the time, the church scoffed and the local police chief threatened to beat her.

Twenty-one years later, Irish peasants in the village of Knock spotted the Virgin hovering in midair outside the parish church, accompanied by St. Joseph and St. John the Evangelist. They stayed long enough to create a revolt over land reform and a major tourist site.

The pope has visited Lourdes and Knock, and the infirm leave behind crutches in both places.

Neither Marc Semplice nor his mom, Lynn, are expecting miracles, nor declaring anything more substantial than hope and perplexity.

"I don't know what it is," Lynn said. "It's a peaceful thing. I know that. A lot of people feel very peaceful when they leave. Some people are crying."

Marc slumped at the dining room table. A beefy young man in scapulars and a World Boxing Council title fight jersey, he was puzzled, troubled, but mostly sleepy.

"I wish the Catholic Church would at least send someone to take a look at it, so we could know if it's true," said Marc.

"Well, they don't, Marc," Lynn said. "How are they going to verify it?"

"They got a team that does miracles all the time," Marc said. "They do it all the time. Don't tell me they don't."

In fact, they don't. Local bishops must assemble teams from scratch when a miracle must be investigated. It's rarely done.

We went upstairs to inspect the room. The Semplice home is a rambling, spacious, brick affair, agleam with white paint and lacquered wood. When they moved in seven years ago, the family scraped and refinished the woodwork, including the closet door.

The image, a milky, white glow, projects into the room through a window that opens sideways. When the window is closed, it disappears. Visitors, let in seven at a time, have left behind a bunch of tulips, some lilies and a potted hyacinth.

The most logical, earthly explanation is that light is refracting through the window from the street lamp outside and the image, when seen by believers, is taken to be the Virgin. The other explanation is equal parts obvious and improbable.

"It's definitely a reflection of light," Marc said. "I don't know how we explain a Mary image."

I was returning to my car when the Semplices' next-door neighbor, Rich, pulled alongside. When the image was first seen, the Semplices phoned Rich's wife, Terry, to come over. She has lung cancer and, after three years, praying away death no longer seems vain.

"It was kind of like an odd feeling," Rich said. "If it's a reflection comin' through the window or whatever you want to call it, well, so be it. Then why is it in the image of the Blessed Mother?"

Was Terry any better after she prayed, I asked him.

"No. She was the same," Rich said. "We've made it this far. It's only because of our faith."

He looked hard at his steering wheel. He looked down the street. Magnolia and apple blossoms were bursting from branches a thinking man would, three months ago, have taken for dead sticks. He drove off believing in miracles. Who was I to argue?

Dennis Roddy's e-mail address is droddy@post-gazette.com.

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