MEXICO — Nestled in a valley on the Androscoggin River, Mexico bills itself as the Gateway to the Western Mountains. Now the town of 3,000 can make another claim to fame: Home of the latest Virgin Mary sighting.
Ever since an image that some believe is a likeness of the mother of Jesus was found on Veronica Dennis’ dining room wall after a fire at her home last week, residents have been abuzz.
Some wonder whether their sleepy little town will be turned upside down by an influx of pilgrims seeking miracles. Others hope the image is an omen of good things to come. Others are wondering what all the fuss is about.
Word of the sighting soon got out when the local newspaper published a story and photograph of the image that was beamed around the world by international wire services. Sue Bernard, spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, was quoted as saying the image was “amazing to look at.” By Thursday, Dennis had become a local celebrity and townspeople had begun to refer to her home as “the house.”
Overlooking Rumford and the steam-chugging Rumford Paper Co., Mexico appears largely unchanged from the Depression-era photographs taken on Main Street that line the hallway of the municipal building. The Catholic church around the corner, St. Theresa’s, shares one priest with four other parishes in neighboring towns.
Here, opinions appear to be divided about the significance of the image. Some said they already have been changed by its appearance. Dennis’ ex-husband, John, said he was not particularly religious before the fire. “I am now,” he said.
Renee Diconzo of Mexico, a clerk at the One Stop on Route 17, said there is some sort of miracle going on but she is not just sure what. “I think what is pretty amazing is that it has been on the front page of the paper three days in a row,” said Diconzo.
Fire department truck driver Marc Mayo, who was not at the fire, said the likeness has a perfectly rational explanation.
“It is just an image from foam and smoke,” Mayo said.
Others said they do not know what to think.
“Hopefully it will bring them good things,” said Leisa Young, eating lunch at Dick’s Pizza.
Dennis, a home health aide in her early 40s, said if nothing else, she hopes the image is a sign that a run of bad luck that struck on Jan. 13, a Friday, has finally ended.
On that day, she said, she was let go from her job. The next day her daughter’s boyfriend broke his leg delivering newspapers. On Sunday, as she and her daughter cleared ice off the driveway in anticipation of his return from the hospital, a fire broke out inside when a space heater ignited a bed.
Within minutes the house filled with smoke, flames crept up the walls and the heat started to melt the green siding.
When the fire had been put out by the largely volunteer Mexico Fire Department and the smoke had cleared, Dennis was allowed back in to collect a few personal items. The house was a wreck, filled with broken glass and burned furniture.
Dennis and her family started pulling down singed family photographs and other pictures from the walls to take away. What they found behind a framed print of a palm tree made everyone gasp: Etched into the wall was an image resembling the Virgin Mary.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Fire Chief Gary Wentzell.
Wentzell said the image was much clearer than the famous grilled cheese sandwich that some say is emblazoned with the image of the Virgin Mary. That sandwich fetched $28,000 on eBay.com.
He said it was even more eerie when one of the firefighters picked a statue of the Virgin Mary off the floor and held it next to the image. “And it was the same size as the painting,” said Wentzell, Mexico’s fire chief since the early 1990s.
For Dennis, the image has been a mixed blessing. She said she is amazed and stunned by it, which she fervently believes is a miracle. But she said she is terrified that pilgrims will descend on her house.
“I can’t have people running out and in,” said Dennis, a divorced mother of two daughters.
All week her neighbors kept a close eye on the place. Police stepped up patrols by the house, after a neighbor reported someone pulling down the plywood nailed over the windows. It turned out to be the insurance adjuster. But a steady stream of curiosity seekers driving by convinced Dennis to take action.
That is why she and her friends returned to the pitch black house Thursday night, rigged up a generator and cut the panel with the image free from the wall, with permission from the insurance adjuster.
That is how it wound up somewhat worse for wear in the back seat of her friend Meggan White’s Saab sedan Friday morning, protected by an umbrella and several blankets. The two tried to blow off some of the dust with a hair dryer. They said they haven’t figured out what to do with it yet.
Only a handful of people have seen the image in person. It appears reddish gold by flashlight and a smoky greenish blue by daylight.
Dennis had said she does not intend to cash in on the image. But now she’s apparently on the fence. The Sun Journal in Lewiston reported Saturday that she would consider selling the item. The article even included Dennis’ phone number for prospective buyers.
“I wouldn’t even know how to preserve the thing,” Dennis told the newspaper. “If someone wants it, why not share it.”