Culture

The Bayside Apparitions

Unorthodox visits from the Virgin Mother

Editor’s Note: We honor our late former colleague, D. Keith Mano, by sharing over the next weeks several of his acclaimed columns, which were published in National Review every fortnight from 1972 to 1989. The following piece was first published in the June 20, 1975, issue.

For more than five years now, two or three times a month, the Virgin Mary has been visiting Mrs. Veronica Lueken. That’s pretty good: I don’t even have friends who visit me that often. The Holy Mother has been booked in advance for feast day eves, 9 P.M. sharp to midnight. She appears, at treetop level, over 56th Avenue in Bayside, Queens, with Jesus, St. Michael, Bernadette, all the really big names. Mary and Jesus over Bayside: It makes you think. Everybody’s getting out of the inner city these days.

It’s Ascension eve and a lovely night. Dusk blue-blackens around Venus. Police sawhorses form a cattle pen around one mall in the middle of 56th Avenue. “Mall” seems rather euphemistic: this is a traffic island with high opinions of itself, maybe five trees and three forsythia bushes, the place where suburban poodles leave cryptic love notes to each other. About four hundred locals have gathered with their placards and their paramilitary walkie-talkies. “BAYSIDERS WORK 6 DAYS, ON THE 7th THERE IS LUEKEN.” “VERONICA USED TO HAVE HER VISIONS IN CREEDMORE INSANE ASYLUM.” (Later the USED TO is x’ed out and SHOULD replaces it: Are there libel laws that cover poster writing?)

The middle-middle-class people of Bayside, more than half Catholic, are ornery as all get out. During recent weeks there have been violent moments. Veronica will draw eight hundred vigilers on important holy days, a good proportion busloaded down from Canada, ten hours round trip. They interdict quiet streets, crush crab grass, ring doorbells at midnight to take—borrow?—a leak. If the Lord has His Second Coming in mind, he’d better lease the Jersey swamplands. By comparison Golgotha is going to look like a volunteer firemen’s barbecue.

The church of St. Robert Bellarmine—now half school, half gym—stands two blocks up. There used to be a statue on the corner: large copy of those Virgins in telephone booths that wait outside Catholic houses. Veronica had her first visions here. But, as crowds grew, an unsympathetic Mother Church had the statue sledgehammered away. So much for mariolatry. You can still see the pedestal stump, cordoned off by wooden snow fencing.

I sound cynical. I’m not particularly: I’ve always wanted visions. The Lord works in my life, but with bureaucratic efficiency. I couldn’t get up a burning bush with Sterno and ten pounds of kindling. Yet an eerie thing has occurred. Only my wife and Andy, my militant Bayside cousin, know I’m coming to 56th Avenue. Nonetheless, three days before May 7, an NR reader calls me. “I was saying my rosary and your name appeared in my head. I don’t know why. Are you going to Bayside?” He’s an intelligent man; we talk for ninety minutes. One Sunday afternoon, he says, Veronica told a small group of followers to stare up into the sun. “My eyes teared a little. Then I saw a blue disk rotating in front of the sun. About two or three times per second. It lasted for 15 minutes. We all saw it. I don’t expect you to believe me. but go to Bayside with an open mind, something’s happening there.”

Not on this Ascension eve: Veronica doesn’t show. Perhaps the martial law ambience is a non-conductor; perhaps the Virgin feels uncomfortable two traffic islands down from her chosen turf. Veronica is fiftyish, poor, mother of five, a local resident, and a devout Catholic. She looks, well—one dumpy woman asks the man next to me what Mrs. Lueken looks like. “Ah. She’s short and dark and fat. Ah, she looks a little like you.” At nine o’clock three hundred vigilers are convoyed into their cattle pen. Superb police work protects them. The men wear white berets, rather like unleavened chef’s hats. They appear docile; certainly they’re impassive before vicious, threatening catcalls. It’s a Breughel group picture: ancient women, priests and nuns, the blind, patient children of six or seven. There are Quebec accents all around. For two hours they pray in front of a portable plaster Virgin, its face weird with jerking flashlights. Now and then they take Polaroid shots skyward. The images are blurred by press photographer explosions. These they read as phrenologists read your head, but it’s sorry evidence. Bayside Catholics heckle the Lord’s Prayer with “Old Macdonald.” A quack-quack here, a quack-quack there. One adjacent suburbanite starts his lawn mower at 10 P.M. That quintessential sound of our century rebukes another age, “. . . full of grace, blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, rrrroaahhhrr.”

I’ve read four months’ worth of Veronican revelations as collected in the “Catholic and Patriotic” Michael, a Canadian newspaper that calls for “social credit economy through the vigilant action of beads of families.” The Holy Ghost, I’ve always thought, was/is a master of prose. Believe me, Veronica’s style does not threaten St. John on Patmos. Her own words (in light print) tend to go like this: “Oh my! Oh! Our Lady has Her hands out now . . . they feel like they could lift you right off your seat! Our Lady thinks that is quite funny, but oh, my goodness!” Our Lady (in dark print) is more restrained. What She says sounds sensible and pretty depressing. “Unless you pray more for the conversion of Russia, a great war will soon be upon your earth. Socializing, my child, will avail nothing to mankind for the man who is not of God.” True enough. And most conservative, Catholic Baysiders would probably go along with it. If the message weren’t ruining their lawns.

What can I tell you? The Lord isn’t above using simple folk who say “Oh, my goodness!” Traffic islands aren’t unknown to Him either. Skepticism is easy; in this age few doctors, let alone Virgins, make house calls any more. In 1975 when you say, “he does it religiously,” you mean he does it on Easter and Christmas or, at best, once a week. Surely something’s afoot in Bayside. It could be a coming. More likely it’s just a yearning.

—  D. Keith Mano was a TV screenwriter and author of ten books, including Take 5, recipient of the 1987 Literary Lion award, and columnist at National Review magazine for 17 years.

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