by Edie Clark
copyright 2002 All rights reserved.
Sometime after noon on a hot August day in 1999, the ambulance stops in front of Christ the King Church. Police barricades have stopped the noon-hour traffic on the busy main road that cuts through the heart of Worcester, Massachusetts. The road is already congested. Huge tour buses muscle the shoulders of either side of the street and satellite trucks from various Boston news organizations monopolize the corners. A crowd stands in a long line behind barriers. Many of them arrived five hours ago, folding chairs in hand. Photographers, who have been sitting beside the church shrubbery for what seems like hours, leap to their feet and elbow into position.
“She’s here,” runs through the crowd. Though they number in the thousands, they have formed an orderly line, two and three abreast, that snakes well out of sight. A rope and two guards is all it takes to hold them back. Those who are able rise and stand on tiptoes to see if they can glimpse her. Love is in the air.
The ambulance backs up the wide slate path that leads to the big double doors of the catholic church. The backup lights beep in rhythm, a shrill prelude to the arrival of 16-year-old Audrey Marie Santo, or Little Audrey as her admirers love to call her, the most famous “victim soul” in this country in this century. Little Audrey Santo is what the Catholic Church refers to as an intercessor -- through the suffering of this innocent child, they believe, their prayers reach their God.
Audrey! they call. Audrey, darling! They wave as if to a teen idol or an adored political icon. They have come in hopes of being healed, mind, body, or spirit.
A group of men and women close ranks around the back of the ambulance. They wear name tags and sunglasses. “Stand back, please,” they say to the jostling crowd of photographers and reporters.
The doors to the ambulance open and the men and women wearing sunglasses and name tags join hands in a circle and, as the gurney is lifted from the vehicle, they stand close around their Audrey, whose mouth hangs open, tongue exposed, and whose eyes gaze skyward. The gurney is edged in lace. Audrey’s famous four-foot length of thick shining brown hair is gathered with lace. The pillow on which her head is laid shimmers with pink ribbons.
Thus surrounded, the burly ambulance drivers wheel their charge into “the crying room,” a small, glass-enclosed room at the rear of the sanctuary which is traditionally used during mass by mothers and their crying children. Today, on the twelfth anniversary of the accident that struck Little Audrey dumb and motionless, the crying room will be Audrey’s tiny sanctuary. For the next five hours, she will be available to her followers from behind the glass wall.
Inside the sanctuary, the music begins. Accompanied by his electronic keyboard, Bernie Choiniere wails out Little Audrey’s Song, which he has written and recorded and which is available on tape by mail order. A nun who has traveled here all the way from Illinois in order to read for Audrey begins the litany. Hail Mary, Mother of Grace. . .
The rope is untied and the people begin to file into the church. Silently, apprehensively, they approach the glass behind which Audrey lies, like a fallen leader or a slain head of state. A tracheal tube provides her with air. A tube in her stomach provides her with food. But these obstructions are covered with the blinding whiteness of the sheets. They have waited all year for this. A heavy-set woman with a huge sunflower painted on her t-shirt clutches her rosaries and walks, eyes nearly shut. A black woman with turban made of colorful fabric makes her way toward Audrey, her hands folded as if in prayer. Some are in wheelchairs, some lean on crutches or walkers. The sick, and those who are apparently healthy but who may bear illnesses in their hearts, stand and wait. Many of them believe that Audrey, surely more gravely afflicted than any who have come today, can bring them peace and perhaps even heal them of their suffering. Some have come every year “to see Audrey.” While standing outside, a woman in black told me, “I think it’s about time something like this happened. Yes, I believe in miracles!”
Last year, Audrey celebrated her anniversary outdoors, at the football stadium at Holy Cross College. It was a blistering hot day. She wore sunglasses and a tiara. Her sheets were lace. A small house had been constructed for the viewing. Air conditioning was provided through one side and on the other side, a big glass window was installed. Bulletproof glass was used because of the fear, oh, very slight, but still, the fear that there might be a nut out there, the fear that someone might take Audrey’s life.
Ten thousand people came. They wiped tears and knelt in prayer. They swooned in front of the little house, sought shade beneath the big scoreboard and beneath the huge blown up photographs of the four communion wafers that reportedly bled during a Mass for Audrey two years ago. The bleeding communion wafers are only one of the many miracles that followers and priests believe have occurred in the presence of Audrey.
Into the microphone, the nun continues: Blessed are the fruits of Thy womb. . . .
Audrey Marie Santo, the daughter of Linda and Steve Santo, a housewife and an automobile mechanic, was born on December 19, 1983. This much we know is true about Audrey’s life. The rest is apocryphal and perhaps can never be verified. Around Little Audrey, there exists a membrane of belief and disbelief. Around Little Audrey, there exists a mystery.
Such is the life of a legend. Is Audrey’s life a miracle? If you assume that Audrey’s parents might be the source of “the truth” about Audrey, you are leaving much to faith. Reporters who are seeking the truth are quizzed on their religious affiliation and whether or not their publication is “spiritual.” I was told by the family spokesperson that Linda Santo “would not be available” for an interview. But while I was there, she was busy with reporters from television’s 48 Hours, which does not, that I know of, have a spiritual inclination. However, these are private decisions that the family can make, managing Audrey’s spiritual career, exposing her when they wish, withdrawing her at their own discretion.
The elements that comprise Audrey’s story have been told many, many times in newspapers and on television shows, and in a book that Audrey’s parents sell from a back room of their house. In God’s Hands, by religious writer Thomas W. Petrisko is Steve and Linda Santo’s authorized version of the events that comprise what they call “the miraculous story” of Audrey Santo. But their version is heavily corroborated by outside sources, albeit faithful followers of Catholic doctrine. Priests such as Monsignor Donato Conte, a priest from Rome, Italy, who provided the lengthy forward to this book, concur that Audrey very well might be “the finger of God.” Whether or not she is a miracle is currently under investigation by the Roman Catholic Church.
If she is a miracle, it’s been a long time coming.
As a toddler, Audrey was well known to the priests at their neighborhood church, Christ the King. John Riley was a priest in training the year that Audrey turned two. “A live wire” is how he remembers the pretty little girl with the long hair and penetrating brown eyes. Audrey was the youngest of four children and, by all accounts, a normal little girl. Except that she suffered from apnea, a breathing disorder that required her to wear a heart monitor. Since her three older siblings all suffered from various forms of heart disease, perhaps this did not seem out of the ordinary to Audrey’s parents.
In spite of frequent hospital stays and doctor visits, Audrey was, according to her parents, “lively,” “fun,” “precocious.” Linda Santo was fond of calling Audrey “the Energizer bunny.” The little girl enjoyed telling stories and singing songs while accompanying herself on a toy piano. That was before “that day.”
That was the ninth day of August, 1987, when Audrey was playing with her older brother Stephen in the driveway of their Worcester home. Everyone else was inside. Linda was doing laundry. The older sister, Jennifer, was upstairs, on the phone. At some point, they all converged inside. Except for Audrey. Where was Audrey?
Minutes later they discovered Audrey floating face down in the family’s above-ground swimming pool. She was blue by the time they pulled her from the water. Certified in CPR, Jennifer tried to revive her lifeless little sister while Linda called 911.
The aftermath of these horrible moments in the otherwise tranquil summertime backyard becomes heavy with recrimination -- Linda continues to maintain that, after Audrey was revived, the doctors gave her an overdose of Phenobarbital. Linda also maintains that several months later, physical therapists broke both of Audrey’s legs and dislocated her shoulder. In their official version of these events, the family does not mention Audrey’s existing breathing disability or how that might have factored into this tragedy. A subsequent lawsuit was dismissed but Linda’s bitterness toward the doctors remains apparent.
In the midst of all this, Linda’s burden was compounded manyfold: Steve walked out on Linda and the family, leaving her to make the decisions that followed.
Whatever it was that happened in the hospital following Audrey’s accident might never be known but what is known is that Audrey lapsed first into a coma, which lasted several days, and then she progressed to a netherworld known medically as akinetic mutism, which can only be loosely translated as a persistent vegetative state. In the opinion of most doctors, Audrey was a vegetable. In the opinion of most doctors, Linda should find a suitable institution for Audrey where she could be cared for until her inevitable death.
Linda, however, a devout Catholic who believed in the sanctity of life, all life, no matter how compromised, would not, could not hear what the doctors were saying. Audrey was her daughter and she would care for her at home, whatever it would take to accomplish.
Linda’s religion provided her with the hope that the medical establishment could not. She read about a place called Medjugorge, in the former Yugoslavia. There, in 1981, miraculous apparitions of the Virgin Mary had appeared to three teenagers. Since then, in spite of an escalating civil war, millions of Catholics had come from all over the world to this rustic Bosnian village in hopes of seeing Mary. The Marian apparitions had come again, and again, to certain visitors. According to Petrisko’s book, “Linda began increasingly to believe that on the one-year anniversary of her accident, Audrey would be healed.” Where best to be on that date but in Medjugorge?
And so, in July of 1988, nearly a year after the accident, Linda set forth on her pilgrimage. Having secured a loan of $8,000, which she estimated would be the cost of transporting Audrey to Bosnia and back, Linda Santo, accompanied by a registered nurse, loaded the immobile child and all the necessary medical equipment into the back six seats of a jet bound for Dubrovnik. To some people, taking a nearly comatose patient on this journey, which required passage over rough roads in substandard vehicles, might seem like the wish of a crazy person. Even her mother said to her at the time, “That’s impossible!” But to Linda, this was the only logical step to be made toward the healing of Audrey.
They not only survived the flight and the three-hour journey from Dubrovnik to Medjugorge, but, by special permission of the church, they wheeled Audrey into the church and shouldered her upstairs into the “apparition room.” Along with the rest of the paraphernalia, Linda carried Audrey’s sandals, “So that she could put them on and run up the mountain afterwards.”
After two visits to the church, Audrey did appear to come to life, however, not quite enough to don her sandals and cavort across the countryside. Back in their hotel room, Audrey moved her head and her hands. Her eyes seemed to come alive. Linda went into a swoon of joy, which turned abruptly to horror as Audrey fell back on her bed and had a heart attack.
Medical care in Bosnia was less than what we expect here in the United States. Far less. Antiquated equipment and no oxygen greeted them at the first hospital they could reach. For long hours, they zigzagged across the region, looking for something better, somehow keeping Audrey alive. Finally, Audrey was Med-Evaced to Frankfurt and then home, still alive, still Audrey. A $25,000 mortgage had to be taken out on their house, to pay for these unexpected expenses, and Audrey did not receive a healing, as they had hoped. Utter despair might have followed such a devastating experience but instead of despair, Linda felt joy. Now the miracle was that Audrey had lived through this grueling experience. Not healed. But alive. God works in mysterious ways.
It was after the journey to Medjugorge that things began to happen. Inside the house, statues in Audrey’s room began to weep oil. And then blood. The odor of roses permeated the house, even though there were no roses present. Communion wafers bled.
Of course, in accordance with such seemingly miraculous events, people began to make their way to see Audrey. A few at first. They had heard of strange occurrences, “a beautiful presence.” Visitors would go into Audrey’s bedroom and kneel beside the motionless child and pray, put their hands on her forehead, kiss her luxuriant auburn hair, which flowed across her stillness like a flag of life. Some reported healings. A man claimed to have been cured of throat cancer. Another said that the pain of her cancer had decreased after seeing Audrey. None of these “healings” have ever been verified, but in response to these rumors, the number of visitors grew.
Linda claims that Mary spoke directly to Audrey at Medjugorge and asked her to become a “victim soul.” This is a special term given sparingly to those who take on the suffering of others. The church does not concur with Linda’s claim but that does not prevent Linda from calling Audrey a victim soul at every opportunity. Though Linda has never provided photographic evidence, Linda and her nurses claim that Audrey developed the stigmata -- marks on the hands and feet that represent the wounds Christ received on the cross. Linda even reports that her daughter has shown the marks of the crown of thorns on her forehead. Twice.
Eight years passed before the church slowly turned its massive head toward Little Audrey. It’s such a fine line between faith and insanity, between religion and the paranormal. The Roman Catholic Church does not want to risk sanctifying an event that might turn out to be a hoax. Or a supernatural event, unexplained by faith or science. So for many years, they let the spectacle of Audrey pass without their notice. Bishop Daniel Reilly of the Worcester Diocese is supervising the ongoing investigation, the next phase of which will include analysis of the blood, tears and oil that has invaded the Santo household over the past 12 years. The first phase of the investigation was completed in 1998 and the investigative panel (which consisted of two psychologists and one theologian) concluded that there was no apparent evidence of fraud. Lab tests on the blood and the tears remain to be done by the diocese, however, tests already done by independent sources have revealed that the blood was human blood, the tears were human tears and the oil was 80 percent olive oil and the rest, “an unknown substance.”
Word spread. The visitors increased. They came from all over the world. Seeking Audrey. Neighbors complained about the extra traffic. Problems escalated, inside the house. A pilgrim tried to cut a piece of the rug from Audrey’s room. Someone else yanked a hair from her head. Restrictions had to be enforced.
The Santos turned their one-car garage into a chapel. They put carpeting on the floor, covered the walls with wallboard and painted them white. They built an altar and moved an old pew into the space which used to house the family car. On the walls, they hung shelves and placed statues of Jesus and Mary on every available space. This is the manifestation now of Audrey’s soul, they said, as the statues oozed oil and the legs of Jesus ran blood.
Even as recently as a year ago, visitors could step from the chapel into a space where a glass window would let them see their Audrey. No more. A little bureaucracy has grown up around Audrey. A group of volunteers who call themselves the Apostulate of the Silent Soul, Inc., now man the phones and schedule time to “see Audrey.” Three days a week, for four hours at a time, volunteers open the chapel, hand out information on Audrey, and patrol parking violations on the street near the Santos’ home. Once a year, they “guard” Audrey at her public appearance. John Riley, the priest who knew Audrey as a toddler, is one of the Apostulate. He agrees that Audrey leads people to Jesus. “It’s really biblical. You see people coming to her mass and it could be 2,000 years ago. The religious authorities are threatened but they were back then, too.”
Those who want a real visit with Audrey, at her bedside, just like they could in years past, are told in dulcet tones that this can not happen for at least a year, as Audrey’s schedule is booked. Through the Apostulate, followers or the curious can buy videos about Audrey’s life, the book that tells the family’s version of Audrey’s story, or subscribe to their monthly newsletter. Seekers can also request the oil, but only by mail. It will come to them absorbed into a cotton ball and safe inside a Zip-loc bag. For the oil, there is no charge. “A gift from God,” they say.
The oil can supplant the need for a visit. A man from Long Island claimed that, using the oil-soaked cotton ball provided him, his sister-in-law recovered not only from lymphoma but also from a stroke-induced coma. Her coma lasted five months until he applied the cotton ball to her arm, while praying. “I believe she has made a miraculous recovery,” he wrote to the Santos. Apparently, healing can be achieved without a visit, without the oil -- just through the miracle of television. One person from Quebec, identified only as “S.K” in the family’s newsletter, wrote the family after watching a story about Audrey on television and reported “my extreme pain from cancer of the bones was relieved.”
Mary Cormier, a neatly dressed woman in her sixties, first visited Audrey two years ago. “Just coming into the house was an experience I couldn’t explain,” she said recently. “I found that I just kept coming back. I spent more and more time here.” At that time, Mary was living in Salem, New Hampshire. “Pretty soon, I was just here all the time.” Mary left her family in Salem and moved to Worcester. “I’ve devoted my life to this now. I’m here seven days a week. I miss my kids, I miss the beach,” she says, somewhat wistfully. “But we formed the Apostulate to help the pilgrims and to help the family. This is an honor. I felt that God called me down here. Audrey has changed my life, most definitely.”
Mary is now the spokesperson for the Santo family, who are as difficult to talk to as Audrey.
But the chapel is open to all comers. No reservations are necessary. Priests arrive spontaneously from all over the country and say mass. “You never know what is going to happen,” Mary Cormier says, delighted. “Every day is different.”
On a late summer day, inside the little room, a couple of dozen men, women, and children gather. The air is close, in spite of the efforts of a fan that turns back and forth, back and forth. The faint scent of roses hangs in the air. Beneath our feet, the carpeting is stained with oil and the surface of the altar is pooled in oil. Certain surfaces are covered in plastic, a halfhearted attempt to protect what apparently cannot be protected. Even the big red bible on its stand runs oil out of its cover and the picture on the wall of the Last Supper is stained with oil in the shape of a chalice. Mary Cormier points this out to us, in case we miss the shadowy likeness of the Holy Cup. “It’s a mystery,” she says.
The question of what, exactly, is miraculous, hangs in the balance and the Bishop’s commission continues to probe. “The presence of oil is not proof, direct or indirect, of the miraculous,” the Bishop’s statement reads. “Paranormal activities in and of themselves. . . .do not provide a basis for proving the miraculous.. . .One cannot presume that the inability to explain something automatically makes it miraculous.”
Mary often introduces the story of Audrey to visitors to the chapel. Her talk goes on for ten or fifteen minutes, as she explains the various strange phenomenon familiar to Audrey’s followers. Toward the end she says, “We believe that Audrey does two things: We believe she is a statement of life in a culture of death and we believe that she brings you to Jesus.” The visitors listen in silence, occasionally shaking their heads, sighing or muttering exclamations. “Audrey hasn’t said a word to you but she has brought you here and it seems as though God speaks volumes around her.”
A small boy places a quarter on the oil-stained table and then steps back next to his mother. Donations come, large and small.
The Bishop’s investigation has stated that there does not appear to be any financial gain for the family through the events that surround Audrey. According to the family, contributions and donations collected for Audrey are used to help with her medical bills, which includes round-the-clock nursing care. The Bishop’s lengthy report came to one conclusion: “The most striking evidence of the presence of God in the Santo home is seen in the dedication of the family to Audrey.”
Tied to the feet of the crucifix that hangs over the altar, a small plastic cup captures the dripping oil. A large statue of Jesus stands in front of the altar. His feet are cloaked in red plastic and from the tip of his pointed beard, a large drop hangs, about to fall into another small plastic cup, tied around his neck. Statues on every shelf are wet with oil. A woman in a wheelchair clutches the hand of the woman who has brought her. Tears run from her old eyes.
From inside the crying room, Audrey Marie Santo looks out. Her glistening eyes appear to watch as each hopeful visitor reaches the window and gazes in, hands on the glass. Some leave roses. One leaves a small stuffed teddy bear. Others turn away and weep. A police woman stands beside the window. The ecstatic pilgrims want so much to linger but they must not. They have been told: keep moving, please. There are thousands more outside, waiting in the hot sun, many of them too sick to stand. But they inch forward in line.
For long moments, Audrey’s eyes seem to focus on the faces that file past her. With her wide eyes and open mouth, she seems to wear a look of surprise, to see her admirers. A white-haired woman in a tailored suit stops and puts her hand on the glass: “Hi, Audrey,” she says. “Darling Audrey!” A young Asian man carries his brain-damaged daughter in his arms. They stop, gaze raptly and then wave to Little Audrey. Touching the window with their fingertips and signing the cross, the pilgrims shuffle past obediently, with their secret needs, their silent prayers. Photographers balance on the tops of the pews, for better perspective, and their lenses wheeze.
The nun continues her litany.
For the sake of His sorrowful passion. For the sake of His sorrowful passion. For the sake of His sorrowful passion.
“An innocent, bed-ridden girl,” is how Bishop Reilly characterizes Little Audrey. But, a miracle? He is not ready to verify that claim. “This will take significant time and resources.” A victim soul? “One would have to determine that Audrey, at the age of three was, and presently is, capable of making a free choice to accept the suffering of others,” his statement reads.
Healing Audrey seems to have been lost in all that has occurred since her trip to Medjugorge. There is a peculiar logic that pervades all who surround Audrey, so that whatever it is that will happen bends back toward Audrey, as the source. The idea of Audrey’s recovery is not mentioned in their literature or in their video but, when asked, Mary Cormier told me, “We pray every day that she will get up and walk. There is always hope. You just look at her and you feel hope.” But the reality of Audrey’s celestial celebrity seems to have completely sunken in. When asked recently whether or not she wished that the terrible drowning accident had never happened to daughter, Linda Santo was hesitant to reply. “I’m not sure,” she told the reporter.
A pink, lace-edged vision, Audrey’s lifeless body communicates nothing to the unaffected observer. To the faithful, she communicates everything that they can possibly imagine. Lying inside her unexpressed, unknown life, she is the very embodiment of faith, a mustard seed, a grain of sand. What is a miracle? “An extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs,” explains Webster’s. Perhaps a miracle is simply what we are willing to believe. Apparently thousands of people are willing to believe in Audrey, without the official sanctification of the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps that is all that faith is.
The nun has intoned the rosaries for hours, with hardly a break. She has sung, a capella, the soothing Oh, Maria and the pilgrims have joined with her in song, the verses going round and round.
Outside, on the green lawn beside the big church, Linda and Steve Santo hold a press conference. Last year, Steve returned to Linda and the family. They have called this “one of Audrey’s biggest miracles.” Today, they are upbeat and appear to shine from all the attention given to their Audrey. Audrey, they say, “knows everything,” and people are “constantly” being healed through Audrey’s intercession. All life is precious, Linda Santo says.
In the crying room, a nurse vacuums the inside of Audrey’s mouth and from the pulpit the nun starts the wheel again:
O My Jesus, save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy.