The Virgin Mary appeared on a garage in the Corcoran neighborhood of Minneapolis this summer, rising out of a bouquet of painted roses at the crook of a dog-legged alley.
Hers is the classic visage of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the iconic symbol of Mexico, believed to have first appeared miraculously on the front of a peasant's cloak in 1531.
I'll let you decide whether divine intervention played a part in her appearance in Corcoran.
Let's start the story a couple of years ago. That's when Anna-Marie Byrne first noticed that her garage had become the target of vandals. What she believes to be gang members had tagged the garage, which sits behind a tidy yard where the clotheslines are strung with colorful ribbons that flitter in the summer wind.
Byrne, a teacher, got paint remover from the local fire station and spent a day trying to scrub off the graffiti. But the paint was stubborn.
Next, Byrne paid $200 to put vinyl slats on the garage, hoping it would make tagging more difficult. That lasted a year. But last summer the taggers came back, and her garage was once again marred by scrawls.
That's when a friend suggested she consider painting Our Lady of Guadalupe on the garage. The owner of a local Mexican restaurant said he had painted one on his property, and that taggers have since left it alone. No one is sure whether they have stopped out of deference to the art, or his faith, but it didn't really matter. It worked.
"We are Catholics, lay Dominicans, and we are devoted to the Virgin Mary, so I thought this was a good idea," Byrne said.
It's not the first I've heard of this strategy. A few years back I spent more than two months driving around Mexico. Someone suggested I hang an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe from my mirror for protection. So I stopped at a little stand outside a church and bought a plastic card bearing her likeness, rimmed in red fringe. I added a baby Jesus and a scapular. I parked my car on the street every night and no one touched it.
Well, that's not entirely true. One day I came out to find a man with a bucket of hot, soapy water. He was washing my car. He had been cleaning the sidewalk in front of his store and noticed my car was filthy from the dirt roads. I tried to give him a couple of bucks, but he refused.
Back to Anna-Marie Byrne. She hired an artist, Douglas Karger, who said he would paint the image for half his usual price. He started last fall, then the weather turned and he had to stop. This summer, the image began to take shape again. He got the roses done and the Virgin, resplendent in her red dress and blue robes. Then a job change for the artist interrupted Our Lady of Guadalupe again.
But just when Byrne thought she had a solution to the tagging problem, someone came along and put horns and a moustache on the Virgin Mary. Byrne was upset, but not as upset as she would be at the sacrilege yet to come.
A couple of weeks ago Byrne got tagged again, this time by the city. A letter arrived saying that her garage had been cited and that she should clean it up, or else. The form letter concluded by saying that if she thought the paint on her garage was art, she could appeal.
"I mean, would anybody going down the alley not see this as art?" Byrne said, her voice rising slightly. "I was angry."
When I mentioned the bureaucrats who tagged the garage to Byrne's mother, Frances, she said something I hadn't heard in a while.
"Oh, my aching back."
Byrne started making phone calls, back and forth. She got a little exasperated. It turns out she had to fill out a Mural Registration Form. "Some government workers can get a little officious," she said. "I said, 'You mean I can't do what I want with my own garage?' "
Byrne eventually asked to talk to a supervisor.
We pause here to let the clouds part and the sun shine through. This is where you get to decide if you believe in miracles.
"The supervisor actually listened to what I had to say," Byrne said. "She knows we want to beautify the neighborhood. I said, 'Please don't send somebody out to scrub it off and then make me pay for it.' They promised not to. They said they put it in the computer. As of now, I think it's settled."
So there she is, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Corcoran, tucked away at a bend in an alley in south Minneapolis. Her face serene, her eyes closed, her head bowed in devotion, or perhaps relief.
The artist has promised to come back soon. So Our Lady watches over neighbors and passing cars, and waits patiently for her background to be completed. And after that, we hope, she'll just be left alone.
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