The Virgin Mary – Iconic Parkside Folklore Revisited

by Michael Burch

Virgin Mary Bush as it appears today.
Virgin Mary Bush as it appears today.

In a little over two weeks from now, the World Meeting of Families Conference will be held in Philadelphia (September 21-27), and as we all know Pope FRANCIS will be in our city as part of the festivities. Since there has not been a papal visit to the City of Brotherly Love since 1979, I wonder if the current pope is aware of the strange occurrence which reportedly happened here in Parkside.

As a long time Parkside resident, I remember hearing stories about the Virgin Mary Bush. Back in the 1950’s there was a sizable Catholic population living here in the Parkside area. Over the years, the Catholic population in Parkside has declined and Catholic schools in our area have closed, but in the 1950’s the Archdiocese of Philadelphia operated several churches and schools in Parkside.

According to this particular story, one September day in 1953, three young girls created a firestorm of religious activity along Parkside Avenue near 51st Street. The three girls, all 14 years of age at the time, said they had witnesses a vision of the Holy Mother standing near a bush in Fairmount Park. According to them, the vision of Mary wore a blue veil and a white gown.

The following day, the word spread throughout the neighborhood about the apparition the girls claimed to have seen. The three girls returned to the bush with friends and neighbors. Some of these friends said they also saw the image of Mary in the branches of the bush. Others in the group said they also detected the smell of roses coming from the vicinity of the bush. (The scent of roses and other flowers often accompany these types of phenomena).

The picture above shows faithful believers at the iconic Virgin Mary Bush in 1953.
The picture above shows faithful believers at the iconic Virgin Mary Bush in 1953.

Word soon spread that the bush allegedly had healing powers.. This generated even more interest. Increasing numbers of onlookers visited the bush in the days that followed. By some accounts, as many as twenty thousand people visited the bush.

According to this particular story, one September day in 1953, three young girls created a firestorm of religious activity along Parkside Avenue near 51st Street. The three girls, all 14 years of age at the time, said they had witnesses a vision of the Holy Mother standing near a bush in Fairmount Park. According to them, the vision of Mary wore a blue veil and a white gown.

As the crowds grew, a new story spread that the Virgin Mary would make ‘another’ appearance about a month later on October 25th. According to official reports of that time, more than fifty thousand people showed up on that date for what they hoped would be a ‘return appearance’ of Mary. However nothing appeared that night or any of the following nights. Despite this, however, the faithful adorned the bush with crosses, rosaries, and large monetary offerings to the Virgin Mary. The money was collected and used to build a nearby gazebo (and probably the fence) that still surrounds the bush.

More than 60 years later, the bush is still there along with a large wooden cross and plastic statue of Mary which is attached to the bush. While no one can state or prove with certainty whether or not an apparition of the Virgin Mary ever appeared, it is a fact that thousands of Philadelphia area residents believed it did happen. Even today there are people who continue to discuss “memories” of what was an emotional event for them.

At the time this occurred, the official statement from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was that this was all a mass hallucination. Since there have been no reports of the image of Mary appearing since 1953, I am inclined to agree with this official response. Although there is no undisputed “proof” that an apparition of Mary actually appeared, I believe this story should be regarded as a part of Parkside’s diverse religious heritage and rich cultural folklore. However, I think it should be noted that the bush and the shrine dedicated to it were posted on Philadelphia’s tourism materials until 1983.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s