Believers, skeptics take a look
HOBOKEN, N.J. – For more than 25 years, Julio “Sly” Dones tended his cobbled-together collection of religious relics at Third and Jackson Streets, unknown to all but those who had reason to happen past.
But this week, people who had no business in Hoboken, let alone a gritty section of this North Jersey city, were steering down Jackson in search of a miracle. Hundreds of them – a constant flow – at all hours of the day and night.
What they came to see was a crumbling plaster statue of Jesus – with wires poking skyward where fingers once were – that Dones, 52, said he fished a year ago from a Jersey City trash can. They came because the plaster Jesus’ right eye, once not visible, can now be seen.
“How are you going to explain this right here?” Dones asked, pointing to the statue at the center of the shrine on a patch of grass below twin 10-story apartment buildings.
“Look at his eye, blue as the sky itself,” said Dones, who is blind in his left eye. “It’s a miracle.”
The apparent eye-opening on Jackson Street – a block from the birthplace of Frank Sinatra – is one of a string of purported supernatural events that have drawn the faithful, spurred mocking from the skeptical, and left others seeking explanations.
Other well-publicized apparitions include:
The legs of a plaster statue of the Virgin Mary at a church in Italy were said to have turned the color of flesh and moved.
A stain on an underpass wall in Chicago appeared to many to be an image of Mary.
A glass office building in Clearwater, Fla., looked like a massive image of Mary.
Closer to home, a window in Perth Amboy, N.J., appeared to have a Marian apparition that washed off with cleaning. And from 1989 to 1994, a Marlboro, N.J., man drew crowds to his backyard for his Sunday-evening visions.
Some, though not all, of the visions have been tied to profit motives. In one case last year, a Florida woman sold for $28,000 on eBay a decade-old grilled-cheese sandwich with an image that appeared to depict Mary.
Church officials, leery of being seen as questioning people’s faith, are very cautious in their judgments of such sightings. Although reports of apparitions are on the rise, few are officially investigated by the church. And most that rise to the level of Vatican review are rejected as invalid.
Sites of other apparitions, such as a church in Lourdes, France, continue to draw pilgrims and the encouragement of the Vatican without being proclaimed miraculous.
“You let things proceed on their own time,” said Jim Goodness, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark. “You never want to discourage or dampen anyone’s faith.”
The archdiocese is leaving the Hoboken case to the parish priest to determine whether further investigation is warranted. Goodness said no request had been made.
“What may have happened here is the circumstances of the weather,” he said, alluding to the recent intense heat. The apparent eye-opening was first noticed July 28.
A Catholic scholar said that time – and either the disappearance of the apparition or waning interest – usually makes moot the need for the church to issue any sort of proclamation.
“The church never declares this one was a miracle,” said Timothy Matovina, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at Notre Dame University.
“My basic sense of these things is, for those who believe, no evidence is needed; for those who don’t, no evidence is enough,” he said.
Professional skeptic James Randi said he had become frustrated with the ease with which people suspend disbelief.
“They’re looking for magical solutions. Life just isn’t satisfactory,” said the founder of the Randi Educational Foundation, which works to debunk paranormal claims. “They’d much rather have the delusion than any explanation.”
Those who stand together before such apparitions just serve to egg each other on, he said.
In Hoboken, though, not all who came left convinced.
Brandon Soto, 12, brought his aunt, Carmen Velez, from Reading to see the statue. Soto, who lives up the street, said there was no question that the statue’s eye was closed when he saw it previously.
He said he wasn’t quite sure what to think. Velez, who prayed at the shrine and had her picture taken there with her nephew, pronounced herself skeptical. She, too, suggested the weather might have had something to do with the change in the statue’s appearance.
But Aida Rosanieves of Hoboken was convinced by what she saw.
“It’s a miracle,” she said. “Maybe something good is going to happen in the projects.”
Rosanieves said that her arm hurt and that when she prayed to the statue and applied holy water, she became pain-free.
Vinnie Dunn of Montclair, N.J., said he came in the hope of finding something to believe in, but left still looking.
“I try to be an optimist, but the pessimist in me says there’s not much,” he said.
Dunn said he was still glad he had traveled here to find out.
Meanwhile, Dones, wearing a T-shirt, shorts and a Yankees cap, with the seemingly boundless energy to preach about miracles and finding God, tells the story to anyone who asks. It isn’t a coincidence, he said, that both he and the plaster Jesus only have their right eyes open.
“He’s seeing what I’m doing here,” Dones said.