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Something About Mary

An Emmitsburg Woman Receives Messages From Above. Not Everyone Is Happy About It.

Gianna Talone Sullivan in a scene from one of her DVDs.
Photos by Frank Klein
FROM TOP: Peter and Mary Blanchard; Michael Hillman; Susan Torborg

By Chris Landers | Posted 12/24/2008

Not quite an hour after the usual scheduled appearance of the Virgin Mary, Janet Freeman steps

out of a cutting December wind in Emmitsburg and into St. Peter's Books, which is located between a sub shop and a Chinese restaurant in a strip mall near the intersection of Routes 15 and 140.

Inside, Peter and Mary Blanchard, the owners of the small Catholic book store, are sitting around a coffee table with a reporter and their friend Jim O'Brien.

Freeman is one of a handful of people who have been waiting outside the nearby Lynnefield Event complex for the monthly prayer meeting to begin at 3, and it falls to the Blanchards to explain that it has been suspended by order of the Archbishop of Baltimore. Mary Blanchard reads an excerpt from a letter--officially, a "pastoral advisory"--that was sent by Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien to all churches in the Baltimore Archdiocese in October. The letter regards an Emmitsburg woman who says that she has been receiving visions of the Virgin Mary almost daily for the past 21 years. These visions have been the centerpiece of the monthly meetings, and have drawn between 500 and 1,000 people to the Lynnefield Event complex to witness them.

"I also strongly caution Mrs. Gianna Talone Sullivan," O'Brien writes, "not to communicate, in any manner, whatsoever, written or spoken, electronic or printed, personally or through another in the church, public oratory, chapel or any other place or locale, public or private, within the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Baltimore any information of any type related to or containing messages or locutions allegedly received from the Virgin Mother of God."

"It's the strangest thing," Freeman begins. She speaks quickly, and her sentences run together. "I'll have to share it with you. I was up camping with my son, who's in college, and my husband, in August. We were in upstate New York, outside of Ithaca--we've been there before, it's a beautiful place to camp. I had a dream--I think on either a Wednesday morning or a Thursday morning, the last week in August. In my dream, I'm waking up, it's about 7:30 in the morning, and I see this beautiful, beautiful place in the mountains. It's all green, it's like you're going up a path with trees and such and you hear running water. All of the sudden I hear what sounds like an angel's voice, and he says 'Hold up your rosaries.' And all these arms hold up their rosaries.

"And then all of the sudden, this beautiful lady," Freeman gestures to the wall. "I'm looking at her picture right here. She comes forward and just," she make a quick shushing sound, "and just appears with her rosary."

Peter Blanchard interrupts, pointing to a framed sketch on the wall behind the sofa: "This picture?" Unlike the other pictures cluttering the store, this one isn't for sale. They've had offers, as well as requests to take it down. It represents the Virgin Mary as Gianna Sullivan describes her--blue eyes, pale skin, and long dark hair.

"Yes," Freeman continues. "And I had seen it in the past--I have a devotion to Our Lady of Fátíma, but I had to think a minute, and I thought 'Oh, that's Our Lady of Emmitsburg.' Is she telling me to come to the prayer meeting?"

The prayer meetings centered around Sullivan may have stopped, but DVDs are still available, at least of the highlights. In one DVD, the congregation prays the rosary together, and all eyes are on Sullivan. She is in her 40s, with short dark hair, and looks more soccer-mom than visionary. During the prayer, she falls suddenly to her knees. Everyone else follows suit. In the DVD Unbridled Mercy, made by Sullivan supporters in 2000, she describes what is happening: "Before our Blessed Mother comes, there's this light, that is emanating around, you know, right in front of me. Then, when our Blessed Mother comes, there's a force--she just appears and there's this force that just draws you to your knees."

In the footage, Sullivan's lips move soundlessly as her visions commence, her eyes grow wide, and a smile spreads across her face.

"I'm just so drawn onto the beauty of her eyes," Sullivan says on the DVD. "I'm lost for words. Even if I have a whole agenda of things I want to tell her or ask her, everything goes blank. I'm so absorbed by the tremendous love that emanates from her."

After the vision is over, she delivers the message to the congregation. They often concern what she refers to as the virtue of "littleness," which seems to translate into a sort of childlike wonder and surrender. In Unbridled Mercy, she says: "Our Lady speaks much about plunging into the magnitude of the littleness of the Christ Child, and the way we do this is to become little ourselves. We must become like Jesus, imitating his littleness."

Peter Blanchard says he has a simple test when he talks to people about Sullivan and her visions: If they ask him "What did Gianna say?" he knows they are unbelievers. It isn't Sullivan talking, he says. She's just delivering the messages. For the believers, who pack the prayer meetings, the message comes from above. Unbelievers, though, who include the leadership of the Catholic Church and at least one influential and tenacious Emmitsburg man, just want her to knock it off.

For the church, October's pastoral advisory is meant to be the final word on the matter. Back in 2000, after a review of Sullivan's visions and the messages she said she was receiving, they found "no basis" for the apparitions, and ordered an end to the Thursday night prayer groups, which were then held at St. Joseph's Church in Emmitsburg. In a wording that was seized on by believers in the visions, the church "found it impossible to permit, in a Catholic church, the continuation of prayer services centered around apparitions [Sullivan] alleges to experience with the Blessed Virgin Mary." The meetings were moved away from church property--first to a farm owned by supporters, then to the banquet hall.

The following year, Cardinal William Keeler, of Baltimore's Archdiocese, convened a commission of three priests to interview witnesses and examine Sullivan's alleged visions. The commission's full report has not been made public--for privacy reasons, according to Baltimore Archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine--but excerpts of the report have been released. The report takes issue with the six-volume series of books I Am Your Jesus of Mercy, which purport to be the words of Jesus and Mary, as told to Sullivan. "In what seems to be a free association of ideas, the lessons and messages consist of a bland repetition of basic Christian spirituality," the report observes, adding, "it would be pastorally irresponsible to promote a diet based on the regular reading of these lessons and messages alleged to be from a divine source, claiming indeed to be 'the Word of the Lord.'" In another finding, the commission takes issue with the messages' portrayal of Christ returning as a child: "the Church does not look forward to the return of this child, lovable though He was. Jesus Christ will return in glory as the crucified, risen Lord, not as a child." Elsewhere, the commission finds the messages disconcertingly apocalyptic--"the prediction of forthcoming catastrophic events, such as the death of all the fish in the world."

It was an apocalyptic message related by Sullivan earlier this year that caused the church to issue its pastoral advisory, strengthening and clarifying its position against the visions. The message has become known among believers and non-believers as "the message of the two suns."

The Catholic Church maintains for itself the power to approve religious visions. In finding that a vision does not meet the standards for approval, the Church has a couple of choices. It may be that there is no evidence of the supernatural at work, or "non constat de supernaturalitate." This ruling allows for the possibility that some evidence will appear at a future date, or that there is simply insufficient evidence to conclude either way. The second, less flexible ruling, is similarly worded, but with an air of finality: "constat de non supernalitate." Found to be non-supernatural. This was Cardinal Keeler's decree on the visions of Gianna Talone Sullivan.

Peter Blanchard begins an interview by saying "There are some things going on I can't tell you." This is his way of saying that, while the Church may think things are settled, the issue is far from over for Sullivan or the Foundation of the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary, a group formed by supporters to disseminate her messages. Peter Blanchard is the foundation's treasurer, as well as a member of the foundation's board of directors. Though Sullivan has publicly asserted that the foundation operates independently, Peter Blanchard says he and his wife speak to Sullivan almost daily, and it is through them that she declined to be interviewed for this article.

Peter has known Sullivan for about 17 years, since he went to Arizona from his home in Kansas City to visit a prayer group in Scottsdale. Blanchard and a friend were seeking guidance in setting up a young-adult prayer group, and had heard that the Scottsdale group was successful, and wanted to check it out. The Arizona group had achieved some fame in Catholic circles, due to the presence of the "Scottsdale Visionaries," a group of young adults who claimed to receive divine visions. Sullivan was the most prolific of the group. She relocated to Fairfield, Pa., just outside of Emmitsburg, in 1993 because, she says, the Virgin Mary invited her to. Peter Blanchard followed in 2000 after visiting her in Fairfield. He quit his job as an electrical engineer and found a similar job in Maryland.

Blanchard says the prohibition against holding the meetings on Church property "is clear. It's the only thing that's clear that I've seen from the Archdiocese. The rest of it is obfuscation. People have fled and people have scattered based on what the Archdiocese has not said."

"There are two things," he says. "Number one, the Archdiocese has never found, or never said, that these things are contrary to faith or morals. Nobody's ever proven that. Number two, nobody has ever proven Gianna to be a fraud. Some people have accused her of being a fraud, but no one has ever proved it. The Archdiocese has never accused her of being a fraud. There are some priests who have been reported to have said she's a fraud, but they've given no proof. . . . What the problem is, what's really causing the confusion and division, is the way this has been handled."

Blanchard has written the 78-page Encyclical Insights on Our Lady of Emmitsburg, written letters on Sullivan's behalf, and even visited Rome twice to plead her case.

"There's no recourse to appeal," he says. "How do you appeal something in the Catholic Church?

"What recourse to justice is there for someone who believes there's been an injustice? I don't know what recourse there is. . . . This store will, I'm sure, be called disobedient, or in contravention of some implied directive. I told them 'This is my position,' and if they take issue with that, they can contact me."

He points to a phrase in the pastoral advisory: "Further," O'Brien writes, "I strongly caution those who participate in any activity surrounding these apparitions or who seek to disseminate information and promote them here in the Archdiocese. To do so is a great disservice to the Church and creates further confusion and division among the faithful."

Blanchard, who parses the statements from Baltimore like a constitutional lawyer, takes issue with the phrase "strongly caution."

"What does 'strongly caution' mean? I spoke to Bishop [Kevin] Rhoades recently, [and] he said basically 'strongly caution' means 'strongly caution.' I asked the people I visited in Rome, and they couldn't tell me."

In the meantime, he says, the pastoral advisory has turned people against him, and damaged business at St. Peter's Books. They come in to tell him he shouldn't be selling the Our Lady of Emmitsburg books, or that the picture on the wall of the Virgin Mary as described by Sullivan should be removed. The dissension, Blanchard believes, is the work of a few people, who have lobbied against the Emmitsburg visionary. Blanchard is reluctant to name names, but it's clear who he's talking about. He means Michael Hillman.

Michael Hillman grew up mostly in New London, Conn., but moved around a lot. He was a Navy brat. He is an energetic man with a scientific bent and a love of history who is unafraid of taking unpopular positions. He is exactly the type of person you would want in charge of inspecting nuclear power plants, which he did for both the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy after a career that included an electrical engineering degree and five years as an officer on nuclear submarines ("You've seen The Hunt for Red October? That was me.") Still working for the Department of Energy, Hillman devotes his spare time to his horses, and to a web site he started in 1998 with the domain name emmitsburg.net.

The site started with four organizations--the local fire company and veterinary hospital, the Emmitsburg Dispatch newspaper, and the Emmitsburg Historical Society (which Hillman heads)--agreeing to create a single community web site. It now hosts around two dozen local institutions, including churches, businesses, and the town government of Emmitsburg, and consists of some 9,000 different pages--announcements, news, gardening tips, and humor articles. Hillman does not accept ads for emmitsburg.net and pays the annual $96 hosting fee out of his own pocket.

Hillman, through his web site, fills the role that was once held by the publisher of a small-town newspaper. He is a shaper of opinions. It's a power he is aware of, but says he tries not to abuse. He demonstrates the reach of the web site by typing "gardening articles" into Google. Emmitsburg.net is the third hit.

"It's a great vehicle for me to get a message out," he says, "but I have to be very careful."

Hillman is sitting at his desk in his renovated farmhouse. When he needs to illustrate a point he connects to the internet through a cell phone attached to his computer.

"The old saying was 'knowledge is power.' Well knowledge is no longer power," he says. "Power belongs to people who enable the sharing of knowledge. That's why companies like Google or Yahoo are so powerful. I mean, they have actually no knowledge. They enable people to access the knowledge. That's what I'm trying to do with Emmitsburg.net."

After he agreed to become the head of the Historical Society, which, like town webmaster, is a volunteer position, Hillman was asked by the mayor to research the founding of the town. He had already worked on the area just outside the borders, where his own house is. He had seen "founded in 1757" on the signs leading into town, on the town seal, even the Emmitsburg flag, and never given it much thought, but once he started examining the story of the founding, it unraveled. The town was first laid out on paper, Hillman argues, in 1785, with construction starting in 1786. The incorporation of the town came decades later. The earlier date had been a fabrication. When Hillman presented his findings to the Town Council, they received the news poorly.

"They went crazy," Hillman says. "I was very nice. I said they made a mistake, but basically they lied. But the people who falsified it were the parents of the town council members. To say that I was run out on a rail would be the understatement of the century."

That avenue closed, Hillman changed emmitsburg.net, adding an article to the front page which laid out his research, with maps and newspaper clippings proving his point.

"I was able to say 'OK, fine. If you don't believe me, then read it yourself,'" he says. "It took about three years, but in 2006 when there was an election in the town, they brought some new commissioners in, and one of them was an historian. He said, 'Obviously you are correct. Let's fix it.' And I think I've got it here"--he reads from the web site--"'on August 7th, 2006, the Emmitsburg Town Council voted to remove 'Founded 1757' from its seal. Henceforth the only date the seal will  carry will be 'Incorporated 1825.'"

Hillman, who describes himself as a returning Catholic, first became aware of Sullivan around 1999. He went to St. Joe's Church to see the visionary and watched from the outside. There had been a growing controversy surrounding the meetings, mostly because of the traffic and litter they brought to town. What he saw amazed him--people crawling in on their hands and knees, or carrying water bottles to place on the altar to be blessed. "I thought it was a little bit on the hokey side," he says, "but I wasn't going to really pass judgment."

In 2002, he says, the local newspaper began running Sullivan's messages, which then appeared on his site. The site was also in discussions to host pages for local churches, some of which expressed concern about being linked to her messages. One priest called him in to make sure he wasn't a follower. The newspaper ended up leaving the web site.

"To me, these were actually members of the dot-net community," he says. "And I had to do what the members wanted. . . . To be honest with you, I never gave a rat's fart about what she did." Yet the Our Lady believers remained an issue for Hillman, partly because when he typed Emmitsburg into the search engine, the prophecies would show up near the top.

Last June, the search came back with a page titled "Important Message to the World." Hillman has probably only looked at the Our Lady web site three times, but that caught his attention.

On June 1, 2008, Gianna Talone Sullivan delivered the so-called "message of the two suns," which is contained in a "Special Issue" of messages available for free at St. Peter's Books. It begins, as most of her communications from above do, with the words "My Dear little children, praised be Jesus!" After a few pleasantries, the message reads:

I can tell you this: Even your governments and the Church authorities already have knowledge of the stars aligning and its implications upon you. You must not fear but must be prepared, primarily spiritually.
After awhile, you will see a time when there is another body in orbit around your solar system, coming between Earth and the Sun and leading to tremendous devastation. Approximately 60-70% of the world’s population, as you know it, will cease. Of those who survive, 60% of them could die of disease and starvation.

"I thought, Oh my God, what a whack job," Hillman says. "This is a doomsday cult."

Hillman's first article on the subject for emmitsburg.net, entitled "Does Emmitsburg Have Its Own End of the World Cult," was written mostly tongue in cheek, about the possibilities of another celestial body catching us unawares. He contacted a few astronomer friends, who assured him that this was unlikely. Later that night, Hillman woke up and added a second section, on doomsday cults who had committed suicide.

"I put that up, thinking it was done," he says. "I get barraged within 24 hours by--the best way to describe it is there must have been this giant boil, waiting to be pricked of everyone who had been waiting to go after this cult, but just had not had a vehicle. People just wanted to stop it."

Some of the responses came from priests, who had been watching the visionary. They brought up theological points. One of them, writing under the pseudonym Father X, authored a detailed debunking of Sullivan's messages, which Hillman posted on his web site. Former followers contacted Hillman to tell their stories.

"You start listening to all these stories," Hillman says, "and there's an awful lot that's wrong there that I was completely unaware of."

The e-mails he received weren't all positive. Many of them he divides into e-mail folders labeled Wackos, Wacko Material, Semi-Sane, and Sane. One correspondent accused him of ignoring the fact that the space shuttle Columbia was shot down by the United States government because it was bringing back evidence of Planet X, which follows an orbit perpendicular to the Earth's, and will eventually collide with our planet.

A response to Sullivan's July message was posted on Hillman's web site:

For well over 15 years now, Gianna Sullivan has filled the minds of her followers with rambling dribblings allegedly given to her by Mary, the Blessed Mother, without public challenge, save the September 2000 rebuke by the Archdiocese of Baltimore. These pretend messages can be found on countless web sites, posted by duped followers who consider them holy words above and beyond the bible.
As of now, Gianna's ability to issue her messages unchallenged is over.

"This was my first putting them on notice," Hillman says, "that we were not only going to deconstruct everything that she had said before, but we were going to hit her on everything new that she came out with, and we were going to just deconstruct every one of her new messages.

"I don't think she ever saw it coming," Hillman says. "She had gotten away with putting out so much crap and fluff for so long, that she never saw it coming. Especially from emmitsburg.net. When I put that first article up, I made a very conscious decision, much like I did with the founding date--this has got to end. And the best way to end it was to use the Emmitsburg web site, because everything said Our Lady of Emmitsburg, what would be a better way of ending it than if the community web site came up and said 'This is bunk.' I put the web site in harm's way, I didn't know how the members were going to respond, and I did not consult any of the members. I said if I end up destroying the web site, this is worth it to do it. . . . Everyone stood by it."

Susan Torborg doesn't see what the big deal is. She lives in Fairfield, across the Pennsylvania line, with her husband and four children, and has known Gianna Sullivan for 15 years, since she joined the Scottsdale prayer group. She credits that group, and Sullivan's visions, with pulling her back to the church.

"I grew up Catholic," she says, "but it was never real to me. I went, but I didn't want to go."

She left her native New York to go to college in Arizona, where, she says, "My priorities were more . . . boyfriends, going out every Friday and Saturday night, getting drunk, you know, like most college kids do. Eventually it just led to emptiness inside."

One night in 1992, she asked God to teach her to pray the rosary. A few weeks later, all of her personal-training clients at the gym canceled on a Thursday night. She was excited--maybe she would go out and party. Then she remembered that there was a Thursday night prayer group at St. Maria Goretti Church in Scottsdale. She had been to the church before, but wasn't aware of the activities of the young-adult prayer group, which included Gianna Sullivan, and the other Scottsdale visionaries.

"My history goes back to where it started--in Scottsdale," she says. She is sitting in her living room, which is decorated with statues and pictures of Catholic saints. Her children are playing outside. "The Blessed Mother said, in Scottsdale before I got there, that this would be the center of Jesus' mercy, and she would bring people from all over, especially the young, and they'd be going through conversions."

There were about 700 people in the church that night. "I saw all these young people that looked normal," she says, laughing. "I thought these young religious people would be like, not fun or something. I had a weird stereotype in my head about what religious people were like.

"Gianna was out there," she says. "She was one of the eight visionaries that were out there. It was through the messages that she was receiving, that was teaching me about this stuff. I wasn't going to church regularly, so a priest couldn't teach me these things. What taught me in those days were [Sullivan's] message books . . . the Blessed Mother was giving these messages to Gianna, and they were in the message books I was reading.

"The Blessed Mother was leading me back to church. She wasn't leading me to be, like they say, a Gianna follower. She was leading me back to the Catholic Church, and that's what happened. My focus is the Catholic Church, and the Eucharist. The message was that She was going to be bringing young people, and that's what happened to me."

Torborg moved away from Scottsdale to Minnesota and got married, then on to rural Virginia with her husband and children. Two or three times a year the Torborgs would take the kids to Emmitsburg for a camping trip, and maybe make a pilgrimage to the nearby Lourdes Shrine. They looked at a school in Gettysburg and loved it. The Torborgs put their house in Virginia on the market, said a novena to St. Joseph, the house sold, they found a place in Fairfield that suited her husband's job, and moved in 2006. She's homeschooling her kids, and takes them to mass with her every day.

Torborg and her family attended the recently halted prayer meetings, but says the visions were never the focus of her faith.

"Gianna's my friend," she says. "I have friends up here who are believers in the messages, some who don't, and some who don't care. I even know people who are anti, against it. Our focus is love. It's not about who's right and wrong and you should believe this or you shouldn't. I mean, I could care less. My focus is to live as God wants me to live, but the only reason I can say that today was my experience 20 years ago [when] the Blessed Mother guided me through Gianna's messages. And I'm a completely different person."

Torborg still goes for walks with Sullivan, she says, where they exercise and pray the rosary, but she doesn't ask about the visions, and Sullivan doesn't offer.

"It's sad for me sometimes," Torborg says, "when people are mean to Gianna, because I know her. . . . The Blessed Mother, from what I know, still comes to see her, but she won't speak about it, even to her closest friends." Torborg acknowledges that she's curious, but "it's OK. Mary gave me the tools I needed 20 years ago. The sad thing is that there is grace available through the Blessed Mother here," she touches one of the message books on the table next to her, "and that won't be available."

Back at St. Peter's Books, Janet Freeman is going out to spread the word. There are a few people still waiting for the cancelled prayer service, but she sent them to the nearby Shrine of Elizabeth Ann Seton--the first American to be canonized--to get out of the cold.

"Now tell me again," Freeman says, "she's been advised . . ."

Mary Blanchard goes over the pastoral advisory again.

"It's just ridiculous, the treatment of this," Peter Blanchard says. "We've also written the diocese."

Mary Blanchard hands Freeman a copy of the advisory and Sullivan's response.

"If you have pilgrims who still want to come, tell them they can come to the store," Peter says.

"I'm just really disappointed," Freeman says. "I had been with the group the last time they prayed. I didn't know it. Maybe that's a sign that what's coming is coming fast."

"Yep," Peter Blanchard agrees.

"Yes. Get Ready," adds Mary Blanchard.

"Get ready," Freeman says. "I tell everyone that."

"Our Lady says that things are going to spiral down until everyone is on bended knee," Peter Blanchard tells her.

"I just got the chills," says Freeman.

"That's how the Holy Spirit confirms in me too," confides Mary Blanchard.

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