Witnessing Religious Trickery In America’s Heartland by Ken Taubert (December 1995)

Years ago, I was discussing miracles with a Catholic friend who asked me what it would take for me, an Atheist, to believe in miracles? My answer, “I would have to see one to believe.”

I finally got that chance in May of this year 1995.

A relative of mine, who lives in LaPorte, Indiana, called and informed me that a miracle was taking place in a small church in Michigan City, Indiana. I told her I would see her the following weekend. (WOW, I’m finally going to see a miracle.)

When I arrived at my relative’s home, she handed me a pile of newspapers, telling all about this great happening. I read every word. The following is an account of what took place.

You will note a number of conflicting details as the story unfolds.

The miracle is about a religious sacred icon. The Greek word for “image,” icon is the name of a religious image, painted or glazed on flat surfaces and used in Eastern Churches instead of statues. In the Orthodox Church, the image or picture of Jesus, Mary or the Saints is considered sacred.

A very small, very poor Orthodox Church, located on the outskirts of Michigan City, Indiana, has one of these icons. Michigan City is about 50 to 60 miles east of Chicago. The total membership of the church is about 45.

The name of the church is “Holy Trinity Orthodox Church,” Ukrainian Orthodox Church of America (Ecumenical Patriarchate).

This particular icon was supposedly painted in Greece about 100 years ago on olive wood of the figure of Christ, cut in the shape of Christ’s body, bolted to a cross made of pine wood. As the story goes, it came to Chicago from Greece in the 1920s, and was moved to a church in Benton Harbor, Michigan in the 1940s. Evidently that church was not much interested in the icon, because it sat for years in the attic until it was given to Holy Trinity in 1978. Another account indicates it is not clear how long the icon has been at Trinity Church.

On April 2, 1995, the icon, which stands behind the Altar Table of the church, began streaming an oily substance from the crown of thorns on the head of Jesus; from the nail wounds in the hands and feet; from the spear wound in his side; and also from the halo.

On Saturday, May 27, my niece and I ventured out, into a very rainy afternoon, to witness this miracle. The hours on Saturdays to view the icon were 4 to 9 P.M. We arrived just before 4 P.M. The parking lot was already very close to being filled, and a long line of people stood in the rain outside the church.

My niece looked at me, I looked at her, we both shrugged our shoulders, grabbed our umbrellas, and got in line. We were determined to see this miracle.

After about 45 minutes’ wait outside, we finally got to go inside. Only about 60 to 70 people were allowed inside at one time. We were lead into a small hallway adjacent to the church proper. There we were shown a video of the icon, and told that the oily substance had been seeping from the icon since sometime in March. The video was taken by the Pastor of the church.

Before entering the church, we were given a letter entitled, “The Precious Cross.” In the letter is stated, “On April 2, in the year of our Lord 1995, the Corpus of Christ on the Holy Cross behind the Altar Table began streaming Myrrh, a substance that has the fragrance of balsam mixed with flowers. This emission has not ceased since then.” The video indicated that the miracle started sometime in March, but the letter and the newspapers gave the date as April 2. The newspaper states, “The icon has been reportedly seeping oil from the wounds in the arms, feet and side since April 2 when Warnke, the pastor, noticed what was happening during the Sunday liturgy.”

There were signs, “No photos are allowed to be taken in the Church.” I asked a burly-looking guard, standing at the entrance to the church, if I could take a picture of the icon, in view of the fact that I was here from Wisconsin writing a story for a monthly periodical about the icon. His answer was very polite, but stern, “If you need a picture, you may purchase one on your way out.” I also found out that no specific process was used to verify the authenticity of what was happening.

The Pastor stated in the local newspaper that, “No scientific study of what could be causing the oil to seep from the painting is going to be conducted. For us, scientists are wonderful people, but their analysis will not change our faith.”

We were finally let into the sanctuary where the icon is located. As we stepped in we could see a long line of people, extending along the back of the room, along the right-hand side, and then across the front, where the painting stands.

As people pass in front of the icon, some would kneel and pray, some burst out in tears, some face the front with their arms outstretched as if they were embracing it, and some just look. Many finger rosary beads as they slowly walk. I see a person in a wheel-chair and three on crutches. A number of women have small children, and one holds a small baby at arm’s length as she faces the icon.

At the end of the line, a priest, (I think he must be a priest, because he has a funny looking hat on, and is wearing a black dress) is evidently anointing people on the forehead, and even blessing rosary beads and such.

As I look at the painting of the icon, which is encased in Plexiglas, I see no oil dripping or streaming from this piece of wood. I see no miracle.

I even tried to get closer and look behind it, but was stopped by two guards. The closest anyone could get was within 15 feet. It looked like a piece of junk to me. It surely was not a masterpiece. I was looking at a fraud, a fake, a huge scam, and my whole being boiled with rage, as it has many times before, when I have witnessed religious trickery being performed on hurting people.

The video I had earlier viewed shows how the paint had supposedly been eaten away by the oily substance, but here two months after the video was made it looks just like it did in the video. After two months of the oil eating away the paint, I should think the painting would be completely destroyed.

As we passed the icon, I told my niece I wasn’t about to let that priest bless me on my forehead or any place else. She was curious to see what he did, so she continued in line, and I left the sanctuary.

I walked into what this whole scam was all about. Money! There were stacks of pictures of the icon, selling for $10, $20, $30. Small wallet-size laminated icons, rosary beads, candles, and many other items for sale. People were lined up to purchase the expensive pictures. One woman was kept busy replenishing the stock.

Also, just before you left the building, you could not help but see, or stumble over, a large cardboard box with a sign: “DONATIONS.” A slit was in the top the box. I stood by the box watching what people poked into it. Most were $5, $10, $20 and more.

You must remember, this is two months after this so called miracle happened, and hundreds of people are coming today. In two months, tens of thousands of people have come to see this icon, and just about all have donated generously.

In just a very short period of time, this very poor, very small church of 45 members has miraculously (Ha Ha) turned itself into a very wealthy establishment.

As I waited for my niece to join me, I heard some very interesting, but troubling remarks. “This possibly is a miracle, it is time for one,” “It’s a miracle, a sign from Jesus that he is alive.” “Christ is making a statement, (I am alive and I am with you).”

A very sad thing happened when I was standing close to the donation box. An older woman stopped, fidgeted in her purse, and pulled out three bills to deposit in the box. She seemed to be shaking with emotion, and missed the slot. The money fell to the floor, and I said, “Let me help you, ma’am.” I stooped to retrieve the money, and noticed that her shoes were in dire need of repair. The money was not $1 bills as I thought, but three $10 bills. I handed her the money and said, “Ma’am, this is a lot of money.” Her reply, “This is not nearly enough for my dear Lord Jesus. I wish I could give him more.” Can you imagine? That poor woman really thought she was giving her money to her Lord Jesus himself.

My niece joined me. She told me the priest had a Q-Tip cotton swab, dipped it in some oil, made a cross on her forehead, said some mumbo-jumbo words, and that was it.

We stood for a few seconds, watching people put money in the donation box, looked at each other, smiled, and left the church.

I guess I’ll have to wait for the next miracle before I can say, “I believe.”

News Update

Latest news out of LaPorte–the priest in question has mysteriously disappeared.

Ken Taubert is Assistant Treasurer of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and an active volunteer.

Freedom From Religion Foundation