Temple University Libraries. Urban archives. Mcdowell Bulletin Collection
LIKE A VIRGIN: Sixty years ago this week, five schoolgirls’ vision of Mary in a privet bush sparked a religious craze. By Oct. 25, 1953, 70,000 people had visited the shrub in Fairmount Park.
Sixty years ago this week, the Virgin Mary “visited” West Philadelphia. And, in one of the more bizarre chapters in the city’s ecclesiastical history, so did 70,000 pilgrims. The epicenter of the religious frenzy? An unremarkable, if oddly placed, privet bush in Fairmount Park near 51st Street and Parkside Avenue.
This shrub’s unlikely turn in the spotlight began on the afternoon of Sept. 18, 1953, a sunny and hot one according to Farmers’ Almanac. Three girls were walking home from class at St. Gregory’s Roman Catholic parochial school, located near 52nd Street and Lancaster Avenue. Tracing the perimeter of Fairmount Park, Margaret Keville, Mary Hagerty and Roseann Pinto, all 14 at the time, stopped to chat on a bench. There, in the privet bush, the three saw a vision of Christ’s mother in a blue veil and white gown.
Or so they said.
They returned the next day with friends, sisters Mary and Carol Burns, who, this time kneeling before the miraculous bush, also claimed to see a face amid the tangle of branches, according to a Life magazine article from the time. All claimed to detect an inexplicable breeze and the scent of roses emanating from the plant. But church officials dismissed the apparition as a “mass hallucination,” while others said a recently released movie about Portuguese children witnessing a Marian apparition had fueled overexcited imaginations.
Not that it really mattered: Word spread that the bush had healing properties. And a rumor purported that the Virgin would appear again on the evening of Oct. 25. Over the next month, a trickle of gawkers from the surrounding Parkside neighborhood turned into a deluge of worshippers as more residents of Philadelphia’s Catholic wards came to inspect the mysterious plant — just in case.
When the night of Oct. 25 finally rolled around, 50,000 people had assembled for an encore performance from the apparition, according to newspaper accounts. By this time, 20,000 visitors had already passed by the bush, now festooned with rosaries, prayer cards and lots of money — about $53,667 worth, adjusted for inflation. The now-disbanded Fairmount Park Guard erected “in” and “out” signs to direct the flow of visitors, and six guardsmen stood in formation around the shrub. Visitors claimed that they could already see the outline of the virgin in tree branches above the bush. One man keeled over and died in anticipation, according to a story in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.
Perhaps it goes without saying that Mary never showed up that night, but the cash left by the plant was collected by park guards and a court case ensued. Eventually, the court decided that a shelter and benches should be constructed with the money in order to accommodate future onlookers. But despite the construction of a handsome stone gazebo and picnic tables, the crowds dried up within a month. Still, park planning maps marked the “Vision Bush” up to at least 1983.
Amazingly, that wasn’t the first time the Virgin Mary was spotted in West Philly. In 1881, The New York Times reported that an 18-year-old blind girl had claimed to have seen Mary on the wall of her bedroom, at 4058 Market St. Others also witnessed a crowned figure on the wall, though the reporter was warned by a doctor that “the girl is in a state of diphtheria and is liable to imagine anything.”
But Today, 60 years after the sighting in Fairmount Park, a lot has changed. Parkside’s Catholic community has scattered. And St. Gregory’s is gone. It closed long ago, and the building was destroyed by a fire in 2012. The girls left the neighborhood decades ago. The bench they sat on is gone, and Evening Bulletin reporter Henry Darling, who broke the story, died last year.
But the privet bush, improbably, is still there — and so is Mary. Someone has erected a massive wooden cross in front of the bush and tied a plastic lawn ornament of the virgin to the crucifix with a piece of wire. Hand-carved into the cross is an inscription, “AT THIS BUSH ON 9-18-53 MARY OUR BLESSED MOTHER APPEARED.” The gazebo still stands, but someone has scrawled a lewd message on its side.
Six decades haven’t put an end to visitors either; at least, not completely. Now in the shadow of the Mann Center, two individuals crouched before the Vision Bush on a recent afternoon, with a cat carrier in tow. Wynnfield resident Sharmond Lane, with his girlfriend Kim-ber-ly, said they like to bring their cat to the spot to “let her run around.”
“It makes you think,” said Lane. “I was born in 1953 myself, and I sort of identify with this, because my mother’s name was Mary Magdalene. I’m her only son and I was raised in the church.
“And I do have visions,” he said.
Lane first related a fairly literal “vision” to help the city’s troubled school system. But later, he said that, at times, he thought he had seen more miraculous things — like the girls said they did 60 years ago. Even so, he said, “I don’t believe in this statue and all that. I believe in God being spiritual rather than physical. That there is just an idol.”
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