October 9, 2003
For These Believers, the Visions Endure
By COREY KILGANNON
ne recent Saturday evening, several hundred Roman Catholics wearing white gloves and clutching rosary beads gathered in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens for a candlelight vigil. They knelt before a makeshift shrine: a granite bench covered with candles, roses and banners of Catholic saints surrounding a portable statue of the Madonna illuminated with a large flashlight. The pilgrims, including busloads from Maryland, Boston and Pittsburgh, chanted the rosary together as cars sped past on the Long Island Expressway.
The site is a monument to the Vatican Pavilion from the 1964-65 World's Fair and was blessed by Pope Paul VI during his visit to New York in 1965. But these devotees consider it sacred ground for another reason. It was here, they say, that a Queens homemaker named Veronica Lueken relayed hundreds of messages and prophecies from Jesus and Mary.
It is known as the Our Lady of the Roses shrine, or the Lourdes of America, and it attracted thousands when Mrs. Lueken appeared there regularly. But since her death in 1995 at age 72, her followers have split into two factions, waging legal battles and disputes that continue today.
Regular attendance at the shrine has been dwindling, so it might not seem the best time to be a Luekenite. But there are a lot of knowing, told-you-so smiles around the Flushing shrine these days. After years of enduring ridicule, followers say, Mrs. Lueken's far-flung vision of doomsday redemption seems to be coming true, as witnessed by the terrorist attacks on the United States, the recent blackout, economic recession, abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, hurricanes, and the war in Iraq.
Mrs. Lueken said that because the world had become so engulfed in sin, a "great chastisement" — an apocalyptic nuclear war, earthquakes and a comet acting as a "ball of redemption" — would come, killing billions. According to Michael Mangan, a leader of one of the factions, there is every indication that the end is near.
"Nine/eleven was awful, but that's what Our Lady prophesied," said Mr. Mangan, 44, president of St. Michael's World Apostolate, which includes a lay group of celibate men who guard the shrine and lead regular prayer services there. "We kind of knew it was coming. But 9/11 is going to pale in comparison to what's coming down the pike, and it's imminent."
Gary Wohlscheid, of Lowell, Mich., runs perhaps the most popular shrine Web site, Virgin Mary's End-Times Prophecies: tldm.org. "You can see it coming true now," Mr. Wohlscheid, 63, said. "Look at the tornadoes, the hurricanes, earthquakes, blackouts. She predicted all this. It's coming, believe me." The Web site prints, among other things, some of the messages that Mrs. Lueken said were relayed to her. One message, dated Oct. 1, 1988, is transcribed as follows:
"My child and my children, I must ask you this evening to remember that there are many messages that have not been read by all. It has been 18 earth years since I first appeared here, and much has been given and much has been forgotten. Therefore, we ask all of our children to obtain copies of the back messages from Heaven, because we are now in repetition. Because what can we say, my children and my child? If I could show you what is in store for mankind, you too would be shedding tears of sorrow."
Frank DeRosa, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes Queens, said on Tuesday that the church investigated Mrs. Lueken's claims years ago. "It was determined that no credibility could be given to claims by Veronica Lueken that something of a supernatural nature was taking place," he said.
But her followers scoff at this, saying the church has grown overly tolerant of a society grown rife with sin. Examples of this, they say, include pornography, homosexuality, the wearing of slacks by women, abortion and rock music. God specifically chose to appear in New York City, they say, because it is an especially sinful place.
Mrs. Lueken lived a quiet life with her husband, Arthur, and their four children in Bayside until Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated on June 5, 1968, in Los Angeles. Mrs. Lueken said that as she prayed for Kennedy's soul, she had her first visitation from the Virgin. Soon after, she said another came — the head of Christ with a crown of thorns — as she pushed her shopping cart down Springfield Boulevard in Bayside.
She began repeating what she said were the Virgin's divine messages onto tapes and selling them. Followers began coming in droves to St. Robert Bellarmine Church in Bayside to meet the woman they called the "voice box" for Jesus and Mary and to witness what they believed were her ecstatic visions. In May 1975, the group grew too large and moved to the Vatican Pavilion site, where Michelangelo's "Pietà" was exhibited during the World's Fair.
Mrs. Lueken would sit in front of the shrine and, followers believe, slip into a trance and repeat the Virgin's words into a public address system powered by a car battery. Remarkable individual visions have become part of the lore, as have testimonials from followers who say they were miraculously cured of cancer or regained their sight or hearing at the shrine.
After Mrs. Lueken's death, her husband, Arthur Lueken, won a court decision to become president of Our Lady of the Roses on Christmas Eve in 1997. Mr. Mangan, who was Mrs. Lueken's main assistant, was ousted from the group and formed his own group. After Mr. Lueken died last year, Vivian Hanratty of Flushing became the leader of Our Lady of the Roses. Each group claims to be Mrs. Lueken's posthumous favorite.
Mr. Mangan maintains that he was "prepared by Heaven" to lead her believers ("I have 99 percent of the following and she has nobody"). Ms. Hanratty countered that membership numbers mean nothing, adding, "How many people were at the cross when Jesus died?" The city's Parks Department has played referee by allowing each group to gather at the shrine on alternate Sundays, while the other group prays nearby. The occasional evening vigils are also split.
At a recent vigil, two women, Mary Hilton and Lita Conaman, stood together chanting the rosary, along with the shrine guards. Ms. Conaman, who lives in Los Angeles, learned about the shrine in a newspaper article in 1988 and has been coming frequently since. Mrs. Hilton, 78, from Topeka, Kan., said she heard about Mrs. Lueken on a radio program and "came here to disprove it to myself." Instead, she said, the shrine cured the chronic arthritis in her right shoulder.
Rosemarie Sibley, 56, a retired secretary from Eagleville, Pa., said she had been coming to the shrine monthly since she became a believer in 1983. The shrine cured her mother's ovarian cancer, she said, and cured her own knees so she could walk without leg braces. "My doctor said, `Your knees are cured,' but he didn't believe it was Mary who cured them," she said.
Ms. Sibley held a Polaroid Land camera with rosary beads wrapped around
it. Mrs. Lueken advised followers to take photographs of the shrine
with Polaroid cameras and examine pictures that come out distorted,
with streaky flashes of light and color. "We call them miraculous photographs,"
said John Benevides, 33, a shrine guard with St. Michael's. "The Holy
Ghost works through the person with the camera to send a message," he
said, leafing through an album of photographs showing pictures with
light streaks resembling doves and various letters and faces of saints.
"That's the miracle," Mr. Benevides said. "It's the hand of God working
in the background."