Priest backs man

The Repository, Mar. 7, 2003
By CHARITA M. GOSHAY Repository staff writer

A Kilgore man’s purported visions of the Virgin Mary have never been substantiated by the Catholic Church, but that hasn’t stopped one priest from believing that they are true.

Anthony Ray Fernwalt, 50, was arrested Tuesday by federal authorities who accuse him of possessing false identification.

E-mails to CNN that were forwarded to the FBI alleged he was trying to smuggle Pakistanis and Indians into the United States from Canada, and possibly planning a terrorist attack. No charges have resulted from those allegations.

In 1992, Fernwalt gained national attention by claiming to have discovered a weeping painting of the Virgin Mary at St. Jude’s Orthodox Catholic Church in Barberton, where he was the custodian.

After the Rev. Roman Bernard announced it, thousands of the faithful — and curious — flocked to the tiny church.

Fernwalt broke ties with St. Jude’s after Bernard accused him of spearheading an attempted takeover of the church.

Shortly thereafter, Fernwalt and some friends built a shrine in Kilgore. Later, he was accused by those same friends of trying to sell the property without their knowledge.

The shrine is now owned by Our Lady of Kilgore, an affiliate of St. Jude’s Catholic Church of Rochester, N.Y. Among the materials featured in the shrine is a document detailing Fernwalt’s alleged encounters with the Virgin Mary, Jesus, St. Joseph and Michael the Archangel.

Unity Publishing, a lay Catholic Marianist organization based in Portugal, lists Fernwalt’s apparition claims as false. But the Rev. John Steger, pastor of St. Jude’s Catholic Church in Rochester, said he believes in Fernwalt, adding he’s not capable of committing the crimes of which he is accused.

The two have been friends for 10 years.

“I think he’s quite a Christian, Catholic gentleman,” Steger said. “He’s a rather humble, simple man. I can’t believe that he’s involved with anything like this.”

Steger said he believes Fernwalt has indeed experienced apparitions, and that a spring on the shrine’s property has curative powers.

“Our Blessed Mother has been appearing to him for about 10 years,” Steger said. “She directed him to the spring that’s on the property.”

Steger said one of his parishioners was cured of melanoma after receiving water from the spring.

“It’s documented by the surgeons and doctors in Rochester,” he said. “He had quite a miracle happen. He’s still alive.”

Mike Sullivan, a spokesman for Catholics United for the Faith, a national Catholic lay organization based in Steubenville, said his organization has no report on Fernwalt or his claims.

“We have heard about the apparitions, but as far as I know, they’re a local thing,” Sullivan said. “People call us with questions about the Catholic faith from all over the country, really from all of over the world, but nothing about that.”

Steger said his church purchased the Our Lady of Kilgore shrine when Fernwalt got into tax trouble and was on the verge of losing the property.

“Some of my parishioners had made pilgrimages down there, and were very much taken by it,” he said. “They thought it was quite valid and quite beautiful; so much so, we formed a separate, religious corporation … and bought the shrine five to six years ago.”

Steger said a former bishop in the Steubenville Diocese was looking into Fernwalt’s claims, “but didn’t take it any farther.”

“Several priests at Steubenville University have visited the site,” he added. “They certainly have had no problems with it.”

A spokeswoman for the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican’s embassy in the United States, said any person’s claims of apparitions and miracles must first be investigated by the bishop of that respective diocese.

Bishop Daniel Conlon and Monsignor Gerald Calvoni, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Steubenville, were out of the office Thursday and could not be reached for comment.

Steger reiterated that he thinks Fernwalt is an innocent man.

“I don’t think he’s capable of doing such a thing,” he said.

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