All Debbie Holt wanted to do yesterday was say a prayer at St. Joseph Church in Emmitsburg.
She knew that Gianna Talone- Sullivan, a woman who claims she receives messages from the Virgin Mary, would not be attending the usual Thursday night prayer service. She knew the Archdiocese of Baltimore found no basis for Talone-Sullivan's apparitions and discontinued the service.
Still, the 32-year-old mother wanted a chance to pray in the church where thousands have heard Talone-Sullivan's messages from Mary for seven years.
But the church doors were locked.
"If they didn't want Gianna, that was one thing, but not to have Mass is really sad," said Holt. "That service was moving because so many people came here. This whole place is a gift from God."
Yesterday, many others had the same reaction.
Several had driven hundreds of miles, knowing no service would be held and no message delivered by Talone-Sullivan, who remains in seclusion and determined to obey the archdiocese's edict.
They just wanted to pray in St. Joseph's.
Bridget Ganger traveled four hours from Hampton, Va., to "make a visit to a holy place."
Frank Kaiser brought several neighbors from White Marsh. Joseph and Betty Zeilmann came from Paulsboro, N.J.
"Are they trying to chase people away?" asked Joseph Zeilmann. "They might be frightened of Gianna's message, but can prayer hurt?"
His wife added, "Anything that brings people to prayer cannot be bad."
The Rev. James Kiernan, pastor of St. Joseph, promised the doors to the 160-year-old church would reopen today.
"We don't normally lock the church and we encourage prayer, but this decision was made in connection with the archdiocese's decision," said Kiernan. "It is just for this day."
Kiernan, who often celebrated the Thursday evening Mass, said the service became focused on Talone-Sullivan, so much so that the congregation lost track of the worship. After meeting with Talone- Sullivan and reviewing her messages, church officials "found no basis for the alleged apparitions," said Raymond P. Kempisty, spokesman for the archdiocese.
"We needed to stop the prayer service as it had been constituted," he said. "It centered on Talone- Sullivan's messages and in them were elements not in keeping with the teachings of the church, including predictions of the future."
"It became her platform," said Kiernan, who locked the doors after the 8:30 a.m. Mass yesterday. "Today, we wanted to ensure that this particular prayer group did not occur."
The prayer group had grown from a few who began meeting in the church rectory with Talone- Sullivan in 1993 to nearly a thousand every Thursday night. Initially, Talone-Sullivan's messages were gentle calls to prayer, but in recent months, many felt they had turned foreboding.
The pastor led the service July 13, when Talone-Sullivan predicted an apocalypse.
"Some people were concerned on that occasion, even for days after it," Kiernan said. "There was fear, and we don't like to operate on fear. "
Kiernan announced at Masses last weekend that the prayer service was canceled, but he was not surprised that so many arrived at the church as early as 8 a.m. yesterday. Many carried their prayer books and rosaries to the locked doors, where Kiernan had posted a sign, saying the church was closed by order of the archdiocese and directing visitors to a 1:30 p.m. Mass at a church nearby.
No announcement has made about when Thursday evening Mass will resume at St. Joseph.
Emmitsburg merchants said they saw a difference in town yesterday. A store selling religious goods was closed. The Ott House, a downtown restaurant, was nearly empty.
"On Thursdays, we are usually packed all day," said Sandy Feeser, a waitress there. "This will make a big difference for the whole town."
Kerry Shorb, whose barbershop faces the church, said he was surprised the services had stopped so abruptly. "I am used to seeing crowds gathering all day," Shorb said. "The lines would form outside in the early afternoon."
Ted Szymanski of Ashburn, Va., has spent Thursdays in Emmitsburg for more than six years.
"I have no reservations whatsoever that this is just a temporary thing," he said. "I will keep coming."