MILTON, Mass. -- Prisca Uwimbabazi kneels outside on the curb of a hospital parking lot. Her back is straight, her hands are clasped in front of her face, and she prays for the family she left behind in Rwanda seven years ago. That is, the ones who survived the massacre.
Jim Cavanaugh III, a burly school janitor with shiny black rosary beads around his neck, stands nearby with a Polaroid camera. In his pocket he carries a silver crucifix that once belonged to his father, and he prays for his mother, resolves to himself not to cry. She is 79, with Alzheimer's.
Mary Kenney, a CPR instructor, clutches two medical textbooks and prays for her sister, who suffers from emphysema and has been attached to a ventilator for two years.
They pray, and they pray, and all eyes gaze upward. Up to the third story of a nondescript medical office building with a narrow lawn by the parking lot. Up to a rectangular window that looks as though it is sprayed with artificial Christmas snow, but to many definitively resembles an outline of the Virgin Mary holding her baby son.
"It's amazing," says Kenney, 50, as a security guard on the building's rooftop lifts a bright blue tarpaulin to reveal the window and its frosted image. "I don't see how that could just have happened. It looks impossible for that not to be real."
Maybe, Uwimbabazi, 41, wonders aloud, "she has come to tell us something."
The faithful call it a miracle. The skeptics call it coincidence, the uncanny result of condensation trapped in a double-pane window whose silicone-type sealant reportedly cracked several years ago. In any case, some 40,000 people have journeyed to Milton Hospital outside Boston since the first reported "sighting" by a hospital employee more than two weeks ago. It is a Lourdes-style avalanche of attention, with devout Catholics and others traveling hundreds of miles to lay their eyes on what they believe is a religious visitation and to press their palms against the red brick wall as if this were Jerusalem itself.
Sightings of the Virgin Mary have been reported for hundreds of years -- most famously by believers in Guadalupe, Mexico; Lourdes, France; Fatima, Portugal; and Beauraing, Belgium, but also by small-town Americans who are convinced that her image materialized on a linoleum tabletop or in the gnarled knot of a tree. Massachusetts, with its heavily Catholic population, has not experienced such an outpouring of mystical spiritualism since word leaked in the 1990s of religious statues weeping oil and moving around on their own in the home of a comatose girl in Worcester.
The window at Milton Hospital is in the rear of an ophthalmology clinic, on the other side of a wall of drywall built to block light from an examination room, so there's no way to reach it from the inside. White blinds hang behind it, accentuating the simulacrum's paleness as dusk falls. Some believe it glows.
This small community hospital, which employs 600 people and happens to be celebrating its 100th anniversary, has taken extraordinary measures to accommodate as many as 5,000 visitors each day. It hired more security and placed a flashing traffic sign at the entrance to announce visiting hours between 5:30 and 8:30 p.m., the hours when the hospital now lifts the blue tarp.
The hospital also consulted the Boston Archdiocese and awaits its guidance, spokeswoman Susan Schepici says. Hospital officials say they respect the expressions of faith but decline to take a position on the holy veracity of the image. However, in a statement, they said that "if there is a special message, it is believed by many that the purpose is to affirm the charitable mission of Milton Hospital to continue to serve the sick."
The Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, recently told reporters that the church would not discourage that which inspires faith. "Something like this ... if it leads to a deepening commitment to a life of faith, it's a good thing," he said.
The Rev. Harvey Egan, a Jesuit priest and Boston College theologian, agreed. To a point.
"If people came to me and asked if they should go see the window, I would say no. I would say: 'Go visit somebody in a nursing home. Go visit somebody in jail. Treat a street person to lunch,"' he said. "My advice is to ... do something good for the hospital. Keep out of their way."
It's common for sightings of Mary, the holy intercessor, to coincide with periods of personal or national distress, such as a poor economy or war with Iraq, says University of Kansas professor Sandra Zimdars-Swarz, author of "Encountering Mary: Visions of Mary From La Salette to Medjugorje."
"In a way, they are crisis apparitions," she says. "The belief is that Mary is responding to some perceived need."
The scientific explanation for some people is pareidolia, or the human ability to see shapes or make pictures out of randomness. Think of the Rorschach inkblot test.
"People all the time see things, like a pattern in the clouds. Does it look like a ship, or a dolphin, or something else?" said Kevin Christopher, a spokesman for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal in Amherst, N.Y. "It gets a little more attention if they see something of a religious nature."
Whatever the explanation, there's no sign of interest in Milton Hospital abating soon. Word spread this week that someone had spotted a cross in the soot of the hospital chimney.