St. Lucy's Well

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These are the days when cold chills run through a Catholic's heart. All those rumors and slanders that papist-bashers have been braying for years have become the truth. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has engaged in an evil so insidious that even some of the true believers are drifting away.

If this religious institution is to survive, however, the savior will not arise from behind the golden curtains of Rome or St. Patrick's Cathedral. What might save the Catholic Church is small parishes?like the Bronx's St. Lucy's?where the saints of yore are trotted out and the faithful come for healing and solace not from a priest but from prayer and water believed to have miraculous powers.

The area around the intersection of Bronxwood and Mace Aves. in the Bronx may be one of New York City's most integrated. The Latinos rule?with Puerto Ricans and Dominicans being the old school and Mexicans the new jacks?but stand on the corner and you'll see an Orthodox Jewish couple stroll by an Irishman who is talking with an aging Italian who moves out of the way of a Jamaican talking on a cellphone.

I was on Bronxwood Ave. to visit what is known as "The Lourdes of America." In 1932 the founder of St. Lucy's parish, Monsignor Pasquale Lombardo, visited the real Lourdes, and got himself an idea: Why not bring the miracles of Lourdes back to his parish in the Bronx? It took him a few years, but by 1939 the parish?which was then predominantly Italian and thick with incredible stonemasons?had a Lourdes-like grotto featuring a statue of St. Lucy kneeling in front of a 20-foot stone wall with a niche for a statue of the Virgin Mary, or Our Lady of Lourdes. Plumbing was put in so water could gently cascade down nearby rocks.

From the start this aqua was claimed to have miraculous healing powers?none of which have been documented other than in oral history. The water at St. Lucy's grotto is nothing more than good old tap water, but that fact never stopped any true believer from going there.

The grotto at St. Lucy's was an immediate local attraction. Then it caught on with Catholics far and near: thousands would?and still do?flock there every week to put the water on ailing body parts or fill bottles with the miracle liquid for later use.

Now, all this is going on without any sanction from church officials, which is probably why it is still attractive to the faithful. St. Lucy's is engaging in a form of guerrilla Catholicism?the archdiocese of New York has never bothered to investigate whether there is some miracle going on up in the Bronx. I talked to a priest?who wouldn't let his name be used?who laughed when I asked if there was any truth to St. Lucy's water having healing powers.

"None that I have seen, but the power of prayer works in strange ways," the priest told me. "Who knows? Maybe there is something there, although you'll never get anyone at the archdiocese to talk about that."

The local scuttlebutt on St. Lucy's is that the founder of the grotto had something more in mind than miracles when he had it built. St. Lucy is one of the most mysterious Catholic saints, and what she has to do with Our Lady of Lourdes is not known. Lucy lived in the Greek Sicilian city of Syracuse around the fourth century and was killed for her Christian beliefs. The legend is that she was tortured to death and may have had her eyes ripped out, which must be why she is the patron saint of the blind and those with eye disease. When the grotto opened in 1939 the Catholic Church was at its zenith of power in America. Some say that Monsignor Lombardo saw what a moneymaker the original Lourdes was and wanted a piece of that for his working-class Bronx parish.

Whatever, it worked. Parishioners claim miracles have happened and the grotto, with its $3 devotional candles and a bookstore?with more jewelry and statues of saints than books?is a cash cow. St. Lucy's may be one of the few parishes in New York that is still doing well financially during this most recent scandal.

I visited St. Lucy's on a hot weekend and watched as scores of the faithful lined up in the shaded grotto to get at the water. A sign read: "This is a place of prayer. No food or drink. Please respect church property." The grotto has six benches and is beautifully landscaped with azalea bushes and sweet-smelling lilacs. At the front people walk by to rub the statue of St. Lucy kneeling as she looks up to the niche for the statue of the Virgin Mary. Behind Mary is netting to keep out pigeons. Water pours down the rocks and falls into a little pool. In the middle is a small altar and candle lighter that has spikes on it to keep off the rats with wings. Behind the altar is a gold plaque with about 200 names In Memoriam?names as diverse as the parish: Blancas, Donovans, Bibbos, Pedros, O'Neils and Pumas.

A woman waiting on line holding an empty Sprite bottle for the water says her name is Luz and tells me, "This is my favorite saint, and this place is the only thing that has ever worked for my arthritis. I take the water home and rub it in at night and the next day I move better. God bless St. Lucy."

I look down into the small pool at the base of the rocks and see that it's full of pennies and pebbles. I make a comment to a man, Anthony Thomas, and he says, "Pennies are all you'll see in there. I don't care how holy this place is, it's still in the Bronx. If someone throws silver down someone else will take it."

On the line I asked Joe Sosa, a longtime parishioner, what brings him here. "I don't know if miracles happen here," he answers, "but people?at least I do?find solace here. People come here to get the faith restored."

I walk out to the street by the black wrought-iron fence where a middle-aged man, who would only say his name is Bill, laughs as he tells me, "I can't believe people drink that water. I wouldn't drink it. No. I've seen some kids late at night pissing in there through the fence. Maybe that's where the miracles come from. I read somewhere once that urine has incredible healing powers."

I shake my head at that image and go back into the grotto to sit on a bench and talk with Jim Morey. He tells me he has been coming to the grotto for years, not for the water or miracles, but to pray, just pray.

"I come from a very religious family. My mom's 76 and still says a rosary a day. I come here to sit and pray. I don't know about any miracles. I haven't seen any. An old man used to be the groundskeeper here and he used to tell stories about how people would walk in with crutches and just drop them after they drank the water. But I've been coming here my whole life and never seen it."

Behind the grotto is the impressive "Scala Sancta," which has more land than the grotto and looks like some kind of Disney World for Catholicism. There's a slate walk, lined with the Stations of the Cross, leading up to stairs. The last station is a huge crucifix. Off to the side are small stone huts that house various saints. A fat man sits in the shade selling red and white devotional candles for $3. I chuckle when I hear he's listening to the song "The Great Pretender" on the radio. When I ask him why the candles are so much money, he just grunts. I walk away reading from a souvenir pamphlet, " your daily struggles, when life seems sad and desolate to you, when your eyes are filled with tears, turn always to Mary."

I turn to walk out and realize I do feel better. Better than after any Sunday Mass I ever attended.


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