At the corner of Oceanside Avenue and Gotham Walk, the house inherited by the elderly McNultys’ niece Regina after the couple died, is a place of tragedy. It is also, astonishingly, a place of faith. For the one part of the home to survive intact was a statue of the Virgin Mary that Mary McNulty placed in her garden years ago.
The statue is one of the only recognizable remnants of the swath of Breezy Point where more than 100 homes burned to the ground while a flood kept firefighters from reaching it. Since the waters withdrew early on Oct. 30, the image of the Breezy Point Madonna has reached the nation, indeed the world, through vivid news photos. Pilgrims have come to leave offerings: a bouquet of yellow roses, four quarters, a votive candle, a memorial card for the victims of Sept. 11, a written admonition that healing begins with acceptance…
…One of the first photographers on the scene, Frank Franklin II of The Associated Press, reached the corner of Oceanside and Gotham at 6 a.m. on Oct. 30.
Winding through the fields of blackened debris, he found himself transfixed by the statue of the Virgin Mary. Though raised by Protestant parents, Mr. Franklin attended a Catholic high school and he immediately perceived a deeper meaning.
“It’s weird how I was drawn to it,” Mr. Franklin, 40, recalled. “I’m not the most religious person in the world, but I know what those images are. When I made that frame, I knew it would resonate with people. What I couldn’t imagine was how much.”
Through his Twitter account, Mr. Franklin has heard from people who saw his photo in print or online. “A wonderful image,” one wrote on Twitter. Another wrote, “A symbol of faith.” By the afternoon of Nov. 16, a Google search for “Breezy Point Madonna” retrieved more than 400,000 results.
What happened spontaneously speaks to a larger theme in Catholicism. According to Timothy Matovina, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, the veneration of Mary, or Marian devotion, tends to fall into three categories. One involves apparitions; the second concerns statues associated with miracles in response to prayer; the third, as at Breezy Point, centers on an image of Mary that survives in some extraordinary way.
“In the midst of terrible tragedy, here’s a holy image, a sacred image, that made it through,” Dr. Matovina said. “There’s a sense you’ve been crushed, but not abandoned.”