The mayor of Passaic, New Jersey, may just have committed political suicide.
Last Wednesday, Mayor Hector Lora sent a crew from the Department of Public Works to a private shrine located on state property on the right-of-way along Route 21. The shrine, dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, has stood on this spot for 14 years while the city of Passaic, the Department of Transportation, and the state of New Jersey looked the other way. For that matter, so did the Catholic Diocese of Paterson (Passaic is within the diocese’s jurisdiction).
The shrine was about the size of a larger-than-usual garden shed. It was well cared for, with a faux red tile roof, and a pull-down steel security door such as shopkeepers in tough neighborhoods install. Everyday, visitors to the shrine brought flowers, lit candles, and left small holy statues of Jesus, or Mary, or one of the saints. The devout gathered for prayers at the shrine on Saturdays, and during May, the month in the Catholic calendar dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, there was a procession through the surrounding streets.
The origin of the shrine goes back to a day in 2003 when two Mexican teenage boys were clearing brush from the area. Amid the overgrowth was a tree stump, and one of the boys claimed he saw in the stump the face of Virgin Mary. As word of the “miracle” spread through the Spanish-speaking community, crowds gathered at the site. Eventually, the stump was removed, wrapped in scarlet cloth, locked inside a glass case, and placed inside the little shrine. Sammy Rivera, mayor of Passaic at the time, did not object. Neither did the Department of Transportation.
In time, the shrine was dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, after a 1531 apparition of Mary to a Nahua Indian, St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, at the foot of Tepeyac Hill outside Mexico City. To prove to church authorities that she had indeed appeared to Juan Diego, Mary left imprinted on his tilma, or cloak, a full-length portrait of herself. The tilma survives, and is enshrined over the high altar of the Guadalupe basilica.
Spanish-speaking Catholics throughout the Americas, especially Mexicans, are intensely devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe. As it happens, 71 percent of the population of Passaic is Hispanic, with Mexicans as the most numerous ethnic group in the city. In case you’re wondering, 77 percent of Passaic residents are U.S. citizens.
Mayor Lora not only tore down a popular local shrine, he also had the demolition crew confiscate the stump said to bear the “miraculous” image of Our Lady. Lora told the press that the stump, still in its glass case, had been moved to a “secure location.” He did not elaborate.
Here’s an interesting demographic about Passaic’s registered voters: a little more than 55 percent identify themselves as Unaffiliated. That could make a difference in the next election, because Lora ran as the Unaffiliated candidate.
The shrine became an issue for Lora in the last year when, in response to a vandal attack on the shrine, the group which cares for the holy place, the Mayordomia Guadalupe, ran electrical wires for security cameras, and placed a collection box at the shrine, ostensibly to pay for the upgrades and the resulting electric bills.
Richard Cowen, writing for NorthJersey.com, reported that, “A crowd gathered and watched in cold silence as a crew from the city Department of Public Works dismantled the shrine piece by piece.” One of the onlookers was Delfino Rocha, who said, “I feel so powerless just standing here watching them take it apart. It’s been here for 14 years and it’s not bothering anybody. Why do they have to remove it now?”
But the mayor’s office says that it warned the Mayordomia Guadalupe that the shrine would be dismantled, and gave the group six months to find a new location. The day after the six-month deadline passed, the Department of Public Works guys showed up.
More bad news came the next day, when every Catholic parish in the Diocese of Paterson received a letter from Bishop Arthur Serratelli discouraging them from accepting the stump and erecting on church property a new shrine to house it. “The belief of some individuals in an alleged apparition of Mary in a tree stump has led them to turn the site into a place of popular piety,” Serratelli wrote. “This is not a place of devotion officially recognized or sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson.”
The Catholic Church is cautious about reports of apparitions. And since the Church thinks in terms of centuries, church authorities tend to take their time about rendering a judgment regarding what may or may not be a miraculous manifestation. Even when the Church finally does come to a decision, the best it will say is that the report of an apparition is “worthy of belief.” Which means there is nothing in the reported apparition contrary to Catholic doctrine, and that visits to the shrine are likely to increase religious devotion among the faithful. It reads as a bit tepid, but it’s the best that even famous Marian shrines such as Lourdes, Fatima, and the original Guadalupe shrine in Mexico City can hope for. In fact, of the thousands of “apparitions” reported over the last 500 years, the Church has awarded “worthy of belief” status to only about 20.
The report of an apparition on a tree stump is the type of thing that makes a priest or bishop roll his eyes and sigh heavily. In my lifetime I recall “seers” who claimed to see the image of Our Lady in an oil stain on a garage floor and on a smeared window of a highrise building. From time to time, on a slow news day, you’ll read of a lady who, after removing a tortilla from the griddle, saw in the char marks the face of Jesus. This type of “miracle” falls into an odd category that we might call Rorschach Test Apparitions.
No doubt Bishop Serratelli’s letter has made some people unhappy. But the difference between Serratelli and Lora is bishops don’t run for re-election. One of the witnesses to the dismantling of the shrine was Esteban Dominguez. He told reporter Cowen, “The mayor is not going to like what the reaction is going to be.”
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of the newly released 101 Places to Pray Before You Die: A Roamin’ Catholic’s Guide.