- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

SYDNEY, Australia, Feb. 1 (UPI) — Thousands of pilgrims are flocking to Sydney's Coogee Beach to see what they believe is an apparition of the Virgin Mary that appears on a fence post just 200 meters from United Press International's office.

The apparition is visible only if you stand outside the busy Beach Palace Hotel and look east towards a headland after 3 p.m. where, above the sparkling sandstone rock pool known as Giles Baths, a chest-high white Madonna can be seen at the end of a white post-and-rail fence.

The sick, the crippled, the devout, the mildly touched and the simply curious have been drawn to the site. Some come on crutches and in wheelchairs, hoping for a cure. Others come in bathing suits and flip-flops.

"Some people say it's a trick of the light, but I don't know," Nadia Giltinan told UPI. "The fence has been up for a long time, so why has the vision only appeared now?"

Mrs. Giltinan's mother, Maria Piazza, is convinced she knows the answer. "It's a sign," said Mrs Piazza. "People need to pray for peace because the world is heading for doom."

Mrs. Hanna Fraser, who describes herself as a pilgrim, said that the mother of one of the women killed in last year's Bali bomb blast has been coming to the site for a week and has found strength and a sense of peace through the apparition. "It is the only thing that has brought her some peace," said Mrs. Fraser.

Of course, seeing is not necessarily believing.

The official line from the Catholic Church is that alleged apparitions are only investigated if requested by the local pastor. But Father Denis Holm of the Coogee parish of St. Brigid's says the daily appearance of the Madonna is no more than an optical illusion.

"I'm not putting a great amount of store on the significance of it," he told local media. "However, if people are experiencing a sense of peace by being there, then I see it as a good thing."

Tim McCarthy, the parks and beaches manager for Randwick City Council which looks after Coogee Beach, was similarly unmoved. "I suspect it's not a visitation but just a kink in the fence," he told UPI.

Baptist minister, Mark Tossell agreed. "I saw a shape that you could imagine was the Madonna. I guess you could interpret it any way you like, but I'd call it a freak of nature."

Tossell said people had come for some kind of healing, but doubted whether they would find it at Coogee. "I believe Christ can bring healing through faith, but I don't believe it will happen through a shadow of a fence post."

Dr. Steven Faux, a local rehabilitation physician who had come for a swim with his family, mixed skepticism with medical experience. Astounded by the crowds in this normally quiet park, he said, "I think it's incredible, but sometimes if you believe it will work, it will work."

While the apparition has brought out the skeptics, that's not stopping the pilgrims from treating the hip-high whitewashed fence post, where they see the Madonna, with a degree of solemnity not usually seen in these parts.

The fence post has become a shrine, adorned with flowers, rosaries, pictures of Christ, crucifixes, and bottles of baby lotion and coconut oil. A baseball cap hanging from the post says: Jess, Grace, Helena, Amy Beck witnessed Mary 2003."

People take turns to kiss and touch the post. Some cry, some pray. Most appear deeply moved.

So, thanks to a white fence post, Coogee Beach, which means "place of rotting seaweed" in the local Aboriginal tongue, has for now taken its place on the pilgrimage trail alongside Rome, Lourdes, and Our Lady of Fatima.

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