Originally created 10/10/98

Heavenly visits

Linda Parnell, owner of Saintly Gifts, is not surprised when customers bring back rosaries and say that the ordinary metal links have turned to gold.

Metals can wear into a golden hue with handling, she said, so if it is an inexpensive rosary, it could seem to happen over time. "But I've seen it happen instantaneously."

Some see it as a sign of encouragement from the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ.

Accounts of phenomena such as waters with curative powers, the inexplicable scent of roses or the sun dancing have been linked to Marian apparition sites from Medjugorje, Bosnia, to Akita, Japan, and even to Conyers, Ga.

Stories of heavenly visits from Mary have become almost commonplace during the last twenty years. More than 300 individuals claim to be visionaries today. But as the millenium closes, the visions are becoming more sporadic. In some cases they are ending, like lights going out in a house.

The Virgin will reputedly give her last public message to the United States Tuesday, according to Nancy Fowler, the Conyers housewife who claims that she has received words from the Madonna since the early 1980s.

The Virgin has linked her Conyers visits to five earlier ones at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, according to published accounts of messages from 1987 through 1997, titled What Do You Ask of Me? Vols. I, II and III.

Mrs. Fowler does not give interviews, said Tony Jatcko, a spokesman. The visionary is not important but the message is, he said.

Like Fatima, the public visits at Conyers occurred on the 13th of the month. Also like Fatima, Mary has prophesized war because of humanity's offenses against God, according to Mrs. Fowler.

The story of Fatima is the story of the dancing sun.

During a series of six monthly visits beginning in May 1917, the Blessed Mother appeared to three shepherd children and asked them to pray the rosary daily as reparation for sin. The children, Jacinto, 7, Francisco, 9, and Lucia, 10, suffered severe ridicule and even death threats but refused to recant.

During the July apparition, the Virgin prophesied several events: the end of World War I, a second worse war if people did not stop offending God, and the beginning and end of the Communist revolution in Russia.

Before the Virgin left in July, the children asked for a sign. She promised that she would give one in October.

On Oct. 13, 1917, some 70,000 people stood in ankle-deep mud under a canopy of umbrellas, little protection from a constant downpour. The event was covered by the Portuguese press. The Blessed Mother, seen only by the children, pointed to the sun just before she left. The people, according to press reports, saw the sun spin to one side, then the other and back again, casting off multi-colored swirling lights. Suddenly the sun appeared to be falling to the earth, terrifying the people. The show lasted for 12 minutes. When the people got up, their clothes were dry.

Few countries outside of Portugal reported the occurrence.

The Communist Revolution started later that month. World War I ended in 1918.

The Rev. Allan McDonald, pastor of the Catholic Church of the Most Holy Trinity, went to Conyers about three or four years ago. People were gathered from many different cultures, ages and situations, he said. "We prayed the rosary. It was very subdued, very prayerful."

But when it comes to the supernatural, Conyers should be viewed with skepticism until, and if, the church authenticates it, he said.

Monsignor Peter Dora, vicar general of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, said that he has done hundreds of interviews about the Conyers apparitions. The media has come in waves, first from Conyers, then Atlanta and other cities in the United States, then places as far away as Australia and Japan, he said.

No one is questioning Mrs. Fowler's faith or her commitment. And her relationship with Archbishop John F. Donoghue is good and respectful, he said.

Although she and her supporters believe in the authenticity of the apparitions and the messages, there has been no official investigation by the church and none is planned, he said. "We view it as a claim of a private revelation by an individual."

The church could, hypothetically, declare the Conyers matter a hoax or dangerous, but Monsignor Dora doubted that the Archbishop would do that. The Archbishop has not solicited testimonials, but if people want to send them, the reports would be received, he said.

The vicar general said that investigations are detailed, strict and extremely lengthy. The one for Fatima was authenticated by the church as worthy of credence in 1930.

Inquiries usually don't start until after apparitions end but nothing about Conyers is "usual" because it has gone on so long. Whether or not there is an investigation, these things generally clarify themselves over time, he said.

Sharon Parr, a member of St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church, will be leaving on a chartered bus at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday. "Last year almost everyone on the bus saw the sun spinning and dancing and the pretty colors," she said.

Everyone around her tried to give her sunglasses to wear, though sunglasses aren't enough protection under normal circumstances to look at the sun. She didn't see the phenomenon, she said. "I think God gives you what you need. It is a mystery."

Cindy Dendinger, also a member of St. Teresa, will ride along with Mrs. Parr on the bus. She's never seen anything miraculous like the sun dancing at the Fowler farm but did experience a strong scent of roses once. "It did not last very long but it was very intense," she said. Others noticed it as well.

The Rockdale County sheriff's department is preparing for 100,000 people to descend on the Fowler farm on White Road, said Capt. Tommy Eaton, enforcement officer for the uniform division.

He has been to the farm during every monthly apparition, except one, since they started 8 1/2 years ago. "My concern is public safety."

Crowds have grown from 10 to tens of thousands. In the summer of 1994, police estimated 60,000 to 65,000 were there. Some 30,000 were present last October.

"It a peaceful crowd, NOT like a rock concert. Everything is orderly on the whole." When there are 30,000 or 60,000 people praying, something good is coming out of it, he said.

The biggest problem is traffic control. White Road is off of Georgia Highway 138, the main road to Athens. The city is trying to warn people to expect big crowds.

People have already started trickling in, he said. "It's the last one."

Virginia Norton covers religion for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (706) 823-3336 or vanorton@augustachronicle.com.


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