For years, Gianna Talone-Sullivan has relayed what she said was the word of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Frederick County woman spoke of seeing a loving mother figure who wanted her children to pray and live in peace. Later, the messages took on a darker tone, with Mary saying she "was about to meet Satan on his own turf and extinguish his ways forever."
"A great test," Talone-Sullivan warned, "is at hand."
Until a little more than two years ago, the woman many simply know as Gianna delivered such messages to overflow crowds at a small church in Emmitsburg. Now she distributes them by e-mail because the Archdiocese of Baltimore, concerned about the increasingly apocalyptic prophesies, barred her from using any church as a platform.
But her followers have launched a movement to establish her credibility, and an international cast of clerics is asking the archdiocese to take another look at her case.
"I have a good impression of her messages. While it is difficult to say if they are authentic, there is nothing objectionable in them," said the Rev. Edward D. O'Connor, a retired theologian at the University of Notre Dame and a member of the Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton in Ohio. "The mere fact that there is an apocalyptic tone should not exclude the messages."
O'Connor has written to Cardinal William H. Keeler to criticize the findings of an archdiocesan commission that found "no evidence of supernatural intervention" in Talone-Sullivan's messages. A petition with hundreds of signatures - including those of a half-dozen Marian scholars - was delivered early last month to archdiocese offices in Baltimore.
And although an archdiocese spokesman said there are no plans to reopen the investigation into the case, Talone-Sullivan's supporters say they will continue to collect signatures and push for more study.
The Rev. Thomas A. Thompson, library director at the Marian Research Institute, said his organization hears daily from people claiming to have ethereal visions, but although they often draw media attention, they lack proof. And each claim seems to spawn a series of others, he said.
World events can also prompt increases in reports of apparitions, said O'Connor of Notre Dame. "Our Lady is warning us of the evil of our times and that if we don't reform, we are going to be punished."
'Simply an instrument'
Against this backdrop, Talone-Sullivan, 45, kneels in prayer every day in a chapel in her home near Emmitsburg, a town revered by Catholics. She claims she receives messages daily and is told which to share.
"I'm simply an instrument, and I live life for others and do not interpret Our Lady's message," she said several years ago in an interview. "I unite with her in prayer."
These days, Talone-Sullivan does not give interviews, keeping a promise she made to Keeler. The only way her followers can receive the messages is through postings on the Internet and through a chain of about 4,000 e-mails.
Not long after this year dawned with threats of war in Iraq and rising nuclear tensions in Southeast Asia, another purported message was posted:
"Even though it seems that there is much embarking upon the world, even if it is war indeed, allow me to tell you that the splendor of God's light brings hope and those who look to a new tomorrow and those who are disciples of God's love will be victorious in his light."
Talone-Sullivan claims Mary has told her that cataclysmic events will occur and that her authenticity as a visionary will be established in the year that her daughter reaches a particular age.
According to a recent message, Mary said: "I have mentioned publicly that my daughter Gianna would have a child the age of 7 before the world would know about my appearances here." Talone-Sullivan said she received that message Jan. 12 - her daughter's 7th birthday.
Talone-Sullivan has said her visions began in 1987, when she was living and working as a pharmacist in Phoenix, Ariz. Church officials there studied the matter and found no signs of the supernatural.
She said that after she and her husband, Michael Sullivan, visited Emmitsburg's Grotto of Lourdes, a replica of the more famous grotto of the same name in France, she received a vision from Mary telling her to move to the town.
Tucked away in the Catoctin Mountains, Emmitsburg was once the home of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint, and is the site of a seminary that is said to have educated more bishops than any other in the country.
The couple moved to Emmitsburg in 1993, and a year later Talone-Sullivan founded Mission of Mercy, a mobile health clinic.
For many years, Talone-Sullivan, who attends Mass daily, participated in Thursday evening services at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Emmitsburg. The faithful came by the busload from as far as Canada and Florida to pray with her. She would fall on her knees in an apparent state of ecstasy. Claiming to have received a message from Mary, she would later share it in writing with the congregation.
The purported messages from Mary, venerated as the mother of Christ, usually carried a maternal tone - for instance, "My little ones, live the messages of God. Only those who observe and live his words will be justified."
In 2000, Unbridled Mercy, a videotape that details the history of Emmitsburg and the events surrounding Talone-Sullivan and her Mission of Mercy, was produced by a nonprofit religious organization. In the film, Talone-Sullivan spoke of God "purging the world of its crimes."
Alarmed, officials at the Baltimore Archdiocese - who had remained neutral on Talone-Sullivan's claims - initiated an investigation. Talone-Sullivan was barred from using church properties as a platform to disseminate the messages.
After a three-priest commission - which included a canon lawyer, a psychiatrist and a cleric who has investigated petitions for sainthood for the Vatican - interviewed Talone-Sullivan at length, the archdiocese wrote to her in September and said that the investigators found "negative elements present alerting us to warn the faithful not to be led astray by your apocalyptic prophesies."
Thompson, of the Marian Research Institute, said the Catholic Church has investigated thousands of claims of apparitions and messages over the centuries. The conclusion reached by the Baltimore investigators is not uncommon, he said.
"There has to be some solid evidence that something is taking place that cannot be explained," Thompson said.
The Catholic Church has approved eight apparitions, including those at Lourdes in the 19th century and at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917.
On Jan. 3, O'Neill delivered nearly 600 signatures on a petition to the cardinal's office, asking Keeler to reopen the investigation.
The petition will carry no weight, said Stephen J. Kearney, spokesman for the archdiocese. The commission, he said, "has made a final determination that it sees nothing in Catholicism supporting the positions taken in the Emmitsburg messages."
But Talone-Sullivan's followers are not giving up. They say the petition drive will continue.
Mission of Mercy
One factor the church looks for to validate apparitions is the fruits - such as prayer, good works, even purported healings - that flow from them. Defenders of Talone-Sullivan say Mission of Mercy provides ample evidence of such benefits.
"Mission of Mercy continues to grow in spite of all this negativity from the archdiocese," said Talone-Sullivan's husband, an internist who is the clinic's paid medical director. "God continues to protect Mission of Mercy in spite of obstacles."
The mission operates nine sites in Maryland and Pennsylvania and another four in Arizona. It has cared for more than 36,000 patients.
Talone-Sullivan works for the clinic in Maryland, filling prescriptions for indigent patients who otherwise would not find treatment.
When 53-year-old Jim Comer stumbled on the steps of the clinic's RV on a recent morning in Westminster, Talone-Sullivan put her arm around the homeless man and helped him recover his balance. She filled a prescription to treat his bronchitis and sent him on his way. "God bless you," she said. "Be careful."
At noon each day, Talone-Sullivan and her husband lead volunteers in a prayer service.
Dr. Courtnay Bartholomew, professor of medicine at the University of the West Indies, AIDS researcher and the author of four books on the Virgin Mary, has prayed with Talone-Sullivan at her home as she claimed to have a vision. He is the force behind the petition drive.
"I am a ruthless scientist," he said. "I examine carefully. I do not fall for falsity."
Bartholomew says the commission failed in its investigation. "There is such poor theology in their arguments that is obvious even to laymen," he said.
John Wang, a Marian scholar and retired priest who holds degrees in canon and civil law, has described Talone-Sullivan as "a chosen soul of our Lord." He says her messages are "consistent with the content of church-approved messages received in apparitions" such as those at Fatima.
Wang has asked Keeler to reopen the investigation, writing in an e-mail, "The moral certainty of the miraculous and exceptional occurrence beyond human explanation cannot be denied."
Clerics from Italy and France have also thrown their support to the cause.
For his part, O'Connor points out that the church reversed its initial denials of authenticity for the Lourdes and Fatima visions.
"Gradually, it became apparent with so many people and so many good works that these apparitions were authentic," he said. "I fully expect that will happen here."
Said Bartholomew: "I would rather err on the side of God's mother and not deny her presence."