Riddle of the Glowing Statues
Two women noticed it first, about August 4, 2003: the eyes of the Virgin Mary statue on the church’s bell tower had begun to glow; so had the statue’s halo and Sacred Heart. Subsequently the same features of a Jesus statue on the tower’s opposite side were also observed to shine mysteriously.
Soon, thousand of pilgrims and curiosity seekers had flocked to the site, St. Joseph the Provider Catholic Church in Campbell Ohio, just south of Youngstown (Horton 2003; Kubik 2003).
I decided to take in the spectacle and conduct an investigation. Donning a suitable disguise as a pilgrim which included an ostentatious cross hung from my neck-I drove to Campbell on Saturday, August 16, 2003. As I neared the site I occasionally stopped to ask for directions and thus get feedback from local residents.
At my first stop, at a fast-food restaurant in nearby Hubbard, Ohio, I asked a workman about the “miracle statues.” Climbing down from his stepladder he said he had not heard about them but cautioned, “I wouldn’t put much faith in statues.” Closer to the church, a convenience store clerk was familiar with stories about the supposedly miraculous phenomenon but offered a condescendingly skeptical smile while giving directions.
Arriving at the church in the afternoon, I decided to change quickly into the persona of investigative journalist-complete with photographer’s vest, camera, and notebook. In this way I could freely go about my business of taking numerous photographs, making experiments (more on which presently), and conducting interviews.
As luck would have it, I was able to catch St. Joseph’s busy young priest, Michael Swierz, as he was hurrying into the church. I identified myself as a writer with “Skeptical Inquirer, the science magazine.” He flashed a smile and repeated what he had recently told the Associated Press, that there was a ready explanation for the phenomenon. He stated that during the 1970s the pair of statues had their halo, eyes, and hearts covered with gold leaf. He thought that rain might have washed away the grime or that some chemical reaction might have taken place, causing the gold to shine more brightly ("Priest” 2003; Swierz 2003).
Rev. Swierz told me the real miracle was that the phenomenon-which had apparently only been noticed recently-had brought together so many diverse people from various places.
It seemed easy to confirm the priest’s basic explanation. During the afternoon I was able to observe that the gilded areas, especially those of the Sacred Heart of Mary statue (which faces west) were shining brightly while the sun was out, but they dimmed whenever clouds obtruded. Several other statues on the grounds-all lacking gilding-failed to shine. (Local photographer John Yavorsky shared my observation and, equipped with a telephoto lens, kindly shot an extra roll of film for me. See figure 1.)
Figure 1: One of two supposedly miraculous statues at an Ohio Catholic church whose eyes, halo, and Sacred Heart reportedly began “glowing.” (Photo for the author by John Yavorsky.)
A few people were insistent that the phenomenon occurred even at night, supposedly disproving the shining hypothesis and indicating the statues were indeed glowing. I resolved to return in the evening when a crowd was expected to gather.
After securing lodging and eating supper, I returned for the evening gathering-or “show,” as the Cleveland Plain Dealer termed it (Horton 2003). I brought along a pair of binoculars and a flashlight and joined the latest crowd of pilgrims trampling the grass of the church’s east and west courtyards.
After dark, the two statues continued to shine much as before (albeit without the fluctuations caused by waxing and waning sunlight). However, there were obviously streetlights and church security lights as sources of illumination, as well as significant ambient light. I observed that the shining changed with the angle of viewing. Also, when I played the beam of my flashlight across each statue’s gilded areas, there were distinct flashes of light. These practical experiments clearly demonstrated that the light was being reflected, not transmitted. In other words, there was no glowing, only the shining expected from the areas covered with gold leaf.
The following day, I made my third visit to the church grounds. I talked with a volunteer who was loading a vehicle with supplies for a church picnic. He said the gilding on the statues dated from about 1973 or 1974. He had thought it might have been redone about 1991, but says he was told that that had been judged too costly and had not been carried out. He stated that he had noticed the effect for years but thought nothing of it until recently when it began to receive attention.
He thus confirmed the suggestion of Monsignor Robert Siffrin, vicar general of the Youngstown, Ohio, Catholic diocese. Monsignor Siffrin said that the shining areas of the statues may have always reflected light and that some people had previously noticed it without drawing attention to it. He agreed with Father Swierz “that light is reflected off the gold leaf” (Kubik 2003).
I spent much time studying the two statues with binoculars which gave me a good look at the shining areas. Having been a professional sign painter in my youth (Nickell 2001), with hands-on experience in applying gold leaf, I recognized its distinctive appearance on the church statues. It was surely genuine gilding and not the “gold leaf paint” mentioned in some news accounts (e.g., Kubik 2003). ("Gold” paint is typically made with bronze powder as a pigment and it soon tarnishes [Owen 1958]. Only genuine leaf has the look and brilliance of gold like that on the church’s statues, and it is widely used for such outdoor applications, including the famous gold dome of the Denver, Colorado, capitol [Green 2003].)
A brief discussion of the process of surface gilding (distinct from glass-or window-gilding) will be instructive. The process involves the use of either a “quick” (varnish-based) or “slow” (linseed-oil) size, the latter permitting “a more brilliant burnish” and enhancing durability. The size is brushed over a suitably primed surface and allowed to dry to “a hard, dry-feeling tack,” whereupon incredibly thin squares of beaten gold are then laid on (Owen 1958, 57). The leaves may be purchased “loose” (interleaved between the pages of a book) or in “patent” form (lightly adhered to a paper backing); patent gold is preferred for gilding in the wind (Owen 1958, 57-59; Duvall 1952, 52, 65-66; Sutherland 1889, 6-7).
Finally, after the leaves have been applied in overlapping fashion, they are burnished and then covered with a protective coat of varnish. “This will cut down on the brilliance of the leaf somewhat,” notes one authoritative text (Owen 1958, 59), “but durability will be insured.”
My observations of the supposedly glowing statues in Campbell revealed that, not unexpectedly, the gold was missing in places, and where it was present some areas were brighter than others. I suspect that some of the protective overcoating is still on the duller areas, but that it has largely worn off the rest, causing them to shine even more brightly.
I found nothing that seemed even remotely supernatural at the site, although much miracle mongering was going on. Some people claimed, for example, that reddish streaks below the Jesus statue were evidence of miraculous “blood,” even though these came not from the body (e.g., the heart or areas of Jesus’ crucifixion wounds) but from the very bottom of the box-like base. I thought it much more likely that they were rust stains from the hardware that secured the statue to the bell tower.
Emotional belief is not easy to counter with dispassionate reason and evidence, however. One woman, who saw me taking photographs and scribbling notes, asked my opinion of the “glowing” phenomenon. When I explained my findings and concluded that the gold was merely shining, she managed a smile and said: “I prefer not to believe that.” Such is the way some minds are inoculated against disproof.
In addition to those already mentioned, I am grateful to John Gaeddert for tipping me to this case in time for me to alter my weekend plans.
- Duvall, Edward J. 1952. Modern Sign Painting. Wilmette, Ill.: Frederick J. Drake & Company.
- Green, Mike. 2003. Colorado Capitol Walk, June 22. Retrieved October 13 from www.angelfire.com/co3/avaconvention2003/taw/denvercapitolarticle01.html.
- Horton, John. 2003. Skeptics, believers flock to statues. Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), August 14.
- Kubik, Maraline. 2003. Campbell statue: It’s no miracle, but it’s nice, officials say. The Vindicator (Youngstown, Ohio), August 9. Retrieved August 18 from www.vindi.com/print/278677665434201.shtml.
- Nickell, Joe. 2001. Adventures of a paranormal investigator. Chapter 17 of Paul Kurtz, ed. Skeptical Odysseys, Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 219-232.
- Owen, Robert E. 1958. New Practical Sign Painting. Milwaukee, Wisc.: The Bruce Publishing Company. Priest offers explanation for glowing statue. 2003. Retrieved August 15 from www.onnnews.com/story.php?record=26055.
- Sutherland, William. 1889. The Art & Craft of Sign-writing. Reprinted New York: Crescent Books, 1989.
- Swierz, Michael. 2003. Interview by Joe Nickell, August 16.