The Miracle of Faith

Author J. Courtney Sullivan explains how an unexpected sighting caused her to expand her views on religion—and changed her for the better.


Photo by Ailbhe O'Donnell / Getty Images

In June 2003, shortly after college graduation, I was on vacation in London when my mother called with the news. “Something amazing has happened,” she said. “They’re even talking about it where you are.” Indeed, a story on the BBC News website revealed that a cloudy white image of the Virgin Mary had appeared on a window at Milton Hospital, two miles from my parents’ house in Milton, Massachusetts. Hospital officials attributed it to condensation inside the sealed window, but no matter: My hometown was abuzz. About 25,000 people visited the site in the first weekend alone.

I can’t say I shared their enthusiasm. For one thing, I was preoccupied with planning my move to New York City. And although my family was (and is) deeply Catholic, I have never been religious.

Even as a child, I was a recalcitrant churchgoer. I would secretly skip confirmation classes to watch General Hospital. And once I grilled a priest on all sorts of inappropriate topics over our family’s Sunday roast. So, true to form, when my mother told me about the visitation, I made a joke about the Virgin Mary’s tendency to pop up in bowls of soup and peanut butter sandwiches around the globe. “Really, where does she find the time?” I said, laughing. From my mother’s reaction (stony silence), it was evident she did not find this amusing.

My mother adores the Virgin Mary. No offense to the Father, the Son, or the Holy Ghost, but she raised me and my younger sister to worship the Blessed Virgin Mother most of all. My mom recites the Rosary in traffic on her way to work and is probably the only member of our parish’s Legion of Mary under the age of 80. In our yard, there is a statue of the Virgin. Her picture hangs over our kitchen sink. To this day, whenever I hear an ambulance siren, I reflexively say a Hail Mary in my head.

In my mother’s view, the vision on the hospital window (the office of an eye clinic) was a true miracle. That belief was shared, as it turned out, by many other people. Within a few days, the story was reported in the New York Times. The hospital, overwhelmed by the volume of spectators, decided to limit viewing to evening hours. The rest of the time, a tarp hung over the window. It didn’t deter a soul. They stood outside the hospital anyway and cheered when the tarp billowed up in the wind, allowing even the slightest peek.