Our Lady of Toronto
by David Kimberly
TORONTO. It was 4 p.m. when the miracle happened. In Champlain Roundabout, one of the Good City’s many beating hearts, a light descended from the sky. A white light, resplendent. Everyone stopped. Stopped their cars, stopped shopping, stopped asking each other about their elderly mothers and their elderly dogs and their honor students, stopped everything. And then they looked up.
They saw—it has almost universally been agreed upon by eyewitnesses—a woman descending with the light, as though she were emitting it. Her exact appearance remains a matter of some debate. The most popular depiction has her naked, white as the light surrounding her; ice-blonde hair pours down to her thighs in wide streams. In others, she is more matronly, creased robes on creased skin. Sometimes she wears a hood. Always, she folds her hands pleadingly, and she opens her mouth to speak. There is no agreement on what it was she said.
Above no fewer than 900 thunderstruck Torontonians, the lady hovered. No one below her dared to move. No one looked away. Her bright light blotted out a billboard advertising ginger ale, glittered in the windows of a dozen high-rise apartment buildings. The apparition lasted for ten minutes.
And then, she disappeared. The white light went dark, and the lady went with it. It is said that when this happened, everyone beneath her blinked, as though suddenly waking. Some of the people in the roundabout clamored for an explanation, screamed at one other, started fights with words and fingernails. Grown men and women collapsed and cried into the sidewalk. Some children in the vicinity are said to have taken off running, never to be seen again. But most people just got back into their cars and went home, or back to work, like nothing happened. Like it was any other Wednesday in October.
The story I have just told is not a single story, but the condensation of many. In the five years since her apparition, many “eyewitnesses” have come forward purporting to tell the true story of the lady of Toronto. Many of them are similar, with only slight variations. Setting aside the matter of her appearance, the most frequent point of contention concerns what she is supposed to have said. The testimony of several then-college students asserts that she bore a plea for global peace, whereas a certain Tory politician claimed to have heard her voice her approval of the state of Israel. But not only the Tories have a monopoly on the lady—the Liberals too, monarchists and republicans, the young and the old and the black and the white, First Nations and Secondary, all have appropriated her image. Her appeal is universal.
For further proof, one need look no further than her birth-site. Since the Eighties, Champlain Roundabout has been a kind of third-tier business hub, which is to say that no one went there by accident. But now, the area has become a mecca for the aimless, the disaffected, the young. Children of all ages have roved across the nation to stake their claim to the Madonna’s legacy. You can see them sleeping on the streets at every hour, huddled with their heads between their knees like fetuses, dozens of them, up and down the stoop of the Prudential Bank, the DelChamp building, the Cosmopolitan Museum. They appear to be hungry for something.
And to be fair, there is much to hunger for. Third-tier or no, we live in the age of CCTV, with the average Canadian city-dweller being photographed at least six times per day, so of course there’s footage of that fateful Wednesday in Champlain. I personally have watched the event from seventeen different angles. Not that it matters. No matter how you block the set, the story always plays out the same.
For the most part, the footage depicts the story as I told it. Commuters stop their cars, people on the benches put down their magazines. Everyone looks up. One lady in a pink sweater takes special care to tie her cocker spaniel to a shrub before doing so. Ten minutes later, they either scream in terror or pretend like it never happened.
But then there is niggling matter of the lady. Never, not once in any frame of footage, does she herself appear. Never comes the bright, white light. The sky is always clear, all seventeen of them. It appears as though the people in the roundabout are panicking over nothing.
The experience is eerie, watching those tapes. Like being haunted by an unseen spirit.
Upon the revelation of these tapes, five days into November, Phillip Algernon, the managing editor of skeptical-inquiry-up-north.org, pronounced the apparition of the lady of Toronto “heretofore the greatest hoax in Canada’s short history.” “It’s rather obvious, isn’t it?” he asked me during a recent telephone interview. “It’s obvious that what we’re dealing with is mass hallucination.” Between sentences, Algernon would either breathe deeply or cough. It was obvious that he was smoking. I never saw him face-to-face, but the face I found on his website had deep-set eyes under wireframe glasses, and the craggy jowls of a man pondering for the camera. “It’s Fatima all over again. You’re familiar with the Portuguese turn-of-the-century quote-unquote miracle?”
I told him that I was. In my research, I had uncovered many references to the so-called “Miracle of the Sun,” during which the Virgin Mary purportedly appeared before a large crowd in Fatima, Portugal, at the beginning of the 20th century. The story goes that she made the sun come crashing into the crowd, and after it became clear that they had survived, she told them that the world would surely end in such a blaze unless the Catholic Church could “consecrate” the Soviet Union. Skeptics have long maintained that the crowd suffered from mass hallucination, induced by a solar eclipse and religious mania. Catholics, even a century later, maintain that it is evidence of God’s continued investment in our affairs. The story has often been evoked, of late, in comparison to the events at Toronto.
“It is a proven fact, very well-known,” Algernon continued, “that freak solar phenomena cannot be fully processed by the human eye, and this difficulty inhibits the translation of images by the brain. Hallucination is quite a common side-effect of staring into the sun at any phase.”
It’s a good enough explanation for one vision of a shining, flying nude. But how does he account for the other 899 people in the roundabout, all of whom saw more-or-less the same thing?
“There have been several interesting studies by I believe Magnussen, Crabbe-Jones, and a team at the folklore department at the University of Moose Jaw. Basically it all comes down what Crabbe-Jones calls ‘vocal-intellectual impression.’ What that means, in a nutshell, is that if someone in the crowd screams ‘Look at the flying, naked woman,’ then others in a state of hallucination will perceive the phenomena in much the same way.”
I told him this would account for variations in the appearance and demeanor of the lady.
“Quite right,” he said, “The Moose Jaw project, which synthesized data from a variety of mythologies—but with special attention to the Inuit—you know how they are in the northernmost latitudes—contrasted the depiction of various solar deities, and the commonalities were quite convincing. For example, I think—”
Hold up! In all of my research, I did not once come across any reference to any abnormal solar activity. I broached the topic.
“Yes, well, admittedly this is a weak link in the theory,” Algernon responded, his breathing at its heaviest. “But in fact, the stereotypical phenomena you are doubtlessly thinking of—eclipses, coronas, flares and spots—all these are unnecessary. What I think happened—and granted, I don’t have any empirical evidence to back it up—is that the sun must have hit one of those great glass panes on the Prudential Bank and created a prismatic effect. A sort of ricochet of light, bounding from pane to pane. Can you imagine it? How dazzling it would be?”
I told him I could.
Aiming as I was for a different spin on the events at Champlain, I was fortunate enough to obtain an interview with the Archbishop of Sudbury, Richard Barbitol, lately raised to the rank of cardinal. I was also fortunate to have been able to interview him in person.
Cardinal Barbitol has an interesting look. The scarlet and purple robes of his office are so striking that it is almost possible to ignore his more permanent features. Oddly, he is a very young man. He wears a tight blond beard that almost obscures the fact, but the Cardinal is in fact no older than thirty-five. The rest of his hair is kept short, and mostly hidden beneath what looks like a mauve yarmulke. He clearly works out.
Before attaining his lofty position, the Cardinal was a virtual unknown. Despite this, his website lists a number of achievements: several lengthy apologias, one in defense of transubstantiation, another attacking contraception; a two-year term as nuncio in Colombo; a degree in theology from the prestigious University of Moose Jaw; several testimonials toward his good behavior and deep faith in providence; and most importantly, a chair in the successful canonization committee of the lady of Toronto. On paper, he is undeniably illustrious. Meeting him for the first time, however, one gets the impression that his uncle might have been friendly with the pope.
My interview was scheduled for 9:00 a.m., but I waited a full two hours before his eminence arrived to greet me in the palatial offices of the Sudbury archdiocese. His sleeves audibly swished as he strolled into the room, clipboard-wielding priests at heel. He led me to his chambers, where he apologized for his tardiness by offering me a cigarillo. From his tone, I discerned it would be rude if I accepted. Happily, he lit it for himself and descended into an armchair of gleaming leather. I remained standing.
I decided not to waste any more time, and brought up the lady.
“A blessing and a privilege,” he deemed it, “being called upon by the Holy Mother Church to spread such news. An apparition of the Mother of God, here in the secular stronghold of the Great White North. The signature miracle of our age.”
I asked if that was all there was to it. The question made him smile, and the smile made his lips thin and vanish into his blond beard. I suddenly felt the need to shift my legs.
“What else should there be?”
The question seemed rhetorical, but I followed it through with references to the multiplicity of the visions and their varying details. I did not mention nudity.
“If you are suggesting that the Blessed Virgin appeared naked before the crowds, I assure you, you have been quite misinformed,” he responded anyway. “The Aquarian thinking of this country’s leftist elite never fails to amaze me. Imagine: ignoring the real and present incarnation of Mary, Mother of God, while touting the nonsensical idea of a flying harlot. It’s very well-known that one of my subordinates, the Monsignor Bonifant, was excommunicated for professing as much. I find the very idea pornographic. We aren’t Lutherans. We do have standards.”
He paused, and reached into to folds of his robe for another cigarillo.
“Anyway,” he continued once it was lit, “the committee more than proved that the apparition was Marian. Certainly, there were dissenters, but every such committee has its devil’s advocates—in this case noted secularists Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry, who were unable to provide any conclusive evidence to the contrary. Even several proponents of the—let’s call it ‘nude theory’—recanted their testimony under our questioning, which I think rather neatly encapsulates the singularity of the Catholic Church in discovering the truth of such matters.”
To say I was less than convinced by the Cardinal’s seeming incoherency would be an understatement. However, I did take time for a brief aside about what Stephen Fry was like before I resumed my discomfort and asked about Algernon’s theory concerning mass hallucination and solar activity. Cardinal Barbitol knew immediately about whom I was referring to. Curtly, he told me that:
“The next time you see Mr. Algernon, inform him that the rising of the sun is as much a miracle as the apparition of Mary, Mother of God. And really, Mr. Kimberly, if you think you’re going to get me to admit that the miracle of our age, upon which I have laid the foundation of my own career as well the full faith and credit of the Church, is an hallucination, then you have placed your faith in the wrong power. Good day.”
He rose from the chair, cigarillo clenched between his teeth, and moved toward the door. We knocked shoulders when he passed. In the hallway, the clipboard-bearing priests returned and encircled him. Leaving, they all swished.
Before I left, I asked a desk assistant in the lobby for Mr. Bonifant’s address.
The walls were made of cinderblocks, painted an unnecessary gray. They were all bare. There was no furniture, save our chairs and the desk between us. It was colonnaded by books with Old World titles: Kaufmann’s Assyriology, Chamberlain’s Ko-Ji-Ki, two Hesiods and several Homers, even The Golden Bough. In his tiny office at the University of Moose Jaw I met with the former Monsignor, now Professor, Gabriele Bonifant. He asked that I call him “Smokey.”
Though he is no longer a man of the cloth, he still retains an air of clerical civility. “The department of folklore has been very kind in furnishing me this job, considering my circumstances,” he made certain to say. “I was, after all, trained as a theologian.”
Smokey is old and thin, no younger than 65, his bald head speckled like a robin’s egg—hardly the sort of man you would expect to be starting a new career. And yet there he was, gainfully employed for a little less than six months in Canada’s leading folkloric research center. What’s more, it was the university that found him.
“I suppose I owe that to my position at the eye of the storm, on the sainthood committee. It certainly brought me quite a lot of negative attention—fortunate, then, that it should draw the notice of so generous a patron. Here at Moose Jaw, I am free to work on the issue of the lady of Toronto completely uninhibited by the prurient revisionists of the Sudbury archdiocese.”
The then-Monsignor was the only representative of the Catholic Church to vote against the measure for canonization, joining his voice with such skeptics as Stephen Fry. “The evidence just wasn’t there,” he recounted of the proceedings. “Certainly something happened, some . . . momentous event. There just isn’t any proof that the event was Marian.” Rather than going along with the verdict, Smokey continued to voice opposition to Church-sanctioned adoration of the lady. Last April, two weeks after leading a protest against the construction of a chapel in Champlain Roundabout—during which he called the recent appointment of the Archbishop Barbitol to cardinal status “an old mistake, egregiously compounded”—he was removed from his priestly office. This failed to silence him, and in June of that year he was formally excommunicated from the Church.
“Of course it was political, and an indelible stain on hieratic authority,” he maintained, peering over his bookstacks. “No stomach for dissent, no matter how reasonable. Of course that goes back to Luther, doesn’t it?” Without giving me the chance to answer, Smokey went on to complain about his Tory critics deeming him a “hippy.”
Desperately in need of a change of subject, I asked him about his current research, and how it pertained to the lady of Toronto. “My current work . . . is . . . a sort of secular continuation of my previous engagement during the lady’s canonization. The story of her appearance has, in such a short span of years, become our nation’s leading fable. Certainly . . . it is much discussed. The plethora of permutations that is has accrued over time is a testament to this. My work aims to assemble some sort of synthesis and, in so doing, establish just what it is about the myth that strikes a chord with so large an audience.” He added: “This is as exciting as the field of folklore has been in a very long time.”
Assuming I understood him correctly then, it would seem that while the Church and the scientific community have more or less settled on their own conclusions about the lady of Toronto, the academic position is that her meaning is fluid, never to be concrete. While this is oddly refreshing, in light of my previous interviews, it also feels maddeningly indecisive. If the event is, as it has traditionally been framed, either a miracle or a natural event, then surely its meaning is relative only to those parameters. All this talk of permutations seems a distraction from the real issue. Surely the truth matters.
I asked Smokey what it was he thinks happened at the Champlain Roundabout. The question made him pause for a long minute. He touched his forehead, licked his lips. It appeared this had not been asked of him in a very long time.
“I am not a scientist,” he said after he had gathered his thoughts, “and am no longer a godly man. But in the past six months, wherein I have gradually exchanged my faith for folkloric expertise, I have come to regard world mythography . . . as the study of our collective hallucinations. The bevy of solar deities, for example, drive their chariots across the sky, racing with the moon, reducing the whole course of life on earth to one long pursuit. Mortals journey to the land of the dead and leave empty-handed, symbolizing the ineffability of death. Humanity in toto is haunted by these images because our tiny brains are unable to fathom the enormity of existence. That’s all meaning is. A hallucination.”
In the days to come, I would ponder Smokey’s words more deeply, and come to accept, despite a difficult struggle, that he was, in a very important way, correct. But at the moment I first heard them, I could not keep the skeptic inside me at rest. I had to ask him, if the shining nude of Champlain Roundabout was indeed a Jungian manifestation, then what did she mean to the many Torontonians who simultaneously envisioned her?
“That, I am still trying to discover.” He paused, touched his forehead again. “But my suspicion is . . . everything.”
I was halfway home from Moose Jaw when I received a phone call. I was not safe in answering it, for there was ice in the road and snow on the air, but I had been so disoriented by my interview with Professor Bonifant that picking up the device made little difference. The number was unlisted.
The voice on the other end, a soft masculine voice, spoke almost immediately upon answering. “You’re doing research on the lady of Toronto?” He offered me no greeting, and would not say his name. I said yes to him, eventually, and before I could go on, he told me to meet him inside Champlain Chapel in two days’ time, after the evening service. “I’ll tell you everything,” he promised, “nothing but the truth.”
I tried to respond, but did not know what to say, and only sputtered. This was when he hung up.
In the short span of our conversation, the snow had grown much worse. There were banks along the road twice the height of my car. I kept driving.
At the appointed time, I returned to the roundabout. It was snowing again—a different storm. Milder. The sun was going down above the little rows of fetuses.
The chapel, a tiny gothic triangle made of cement and sandwiched in a small lot between the Prudential Bank and the Joseph Brant Tower, was full of orange light. I could hear the sounds of mass inside: the priest booming out the order in French, the nervous people in the pews scraping their rubber heels against the stone floor. I waited outside the door for them to finish.
As the daylight grew scarce and the priest louder, I found I had grown restless. A block down, one of the vagabond children of the roundabout sat placidly behind a foldout table, paintings all around her. She was a pretty black girl of not twenty-five, with teeth that looked good from far away. I decided to introduce myself.
Rashida, her name was. She told me that she was an American, a recent graduate of Ann Arbor in the field of graphic arts. She was a recent transplant, having moved here straight out of university—despite having been admitted into several prestigious graduate programs—all to chase after the lady.
“I was coming out of a rough spell. A couple of bad relationships, couple of black eyes. You know, the kinds of mistakes you make when you’re aimless. I was top of my class back in the Arbor, had a present and a future that everybody else seemed to want—but I couldn’t care less.”
Regarding her apathy, Rashida chalks it all up to destiny. “I just wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t going to be happy until I was where I needed to be. It was like I was living somebody else’s dream.” But she woke up when a friend posted about the Lady of Toronto on Facebook. “It was some stupid article on, I think, Jezebel. Stupid. But the idea of the lady, more than the article, really spoke to me. Spoke to me and told me what I needed to do.”
So she loaded up everything she could afford to take into her car and set out Canada-way, the day after her graduation. “I kissed my folks goodbye, and then my life,” she put it, neatly skipping over the touchy subject of her family. As for life in Toronto, even in the snowstorm, Rashida said it’s “the warmest place on Earth. We look out for each other in Champlain.” She gestured to those around us. The snow was piling up beside them.
We spoke again of destiny, and she told me she was not religious. What then, I asked, was the appeal of the lady? How can she be a sign, if not a miracle?
“Like this,” she said, lifting up one of her paintings. It looked somewhat like Picasso’s golden nude descending a skyline. I realized, half a beat too late, that it was a picture of the lady. Despite being vaguely impressed, I told Rashida that I did not understand what it meant.
She smiled with those teeth of hers. The icy wind played in her hair. “It doesn’t mean anything. At least, it doesn’t have to. It just has to be beautiful. Do you think it’s beautiful, David?”
I told her I did.
By now, the parishioners were filing out of the chapel. I noticed and did nothing. I decided not to go to church. It was too warm out.
Instead, I asked her if she still felt aimless, now that she had found her beauty.
She laid the painting face-down. “No.”
In a little café, two steaming cups between us, we talked of beauty and life and living. And much more, all of it meaningless. Practically nothing of that bears repeating, nothing except that we talked so long and so loud that I never heard my cell phone ringing. An unlisted number, all three times. I received no further communiqués, and it was noon before I noticed what I’d missed.
And so my search was ended, my quarry vanished beneath the underbrush and into the snow. Longtime readers expecting closure, expecting journalism triumphant, will be disappointed, I expect. I expect everyone will be disappointed, in time. Not I, though, not now at least.
I do not know what I intended to discover in accepting this assignment. Perhaps I thought that on some wondrous day, if I dug deep enough and said my prayers the night before, I might have been blessed to meet the lady, to interview her, and to be assumed into heaven shortly thereafter. A real miracle story—but then again, I’ve never been very religious. Certainly, I thought I’d find the truth. But what is truth? A pretty story, with a moral at the end? Or something more?
I did meet a lady once—a different lady, though it was in Toronto—who was on a similar search. Killer smile. As to what she said, that’s a story I have learned by heart. I think it is the story I prefer—I find it does not strain the credibility quite so much.