12 JANUARY 2002, Page 20


Andrew Gimson meets a group of Catholics

who are convinced that the Virgin Mary is appearing in south London

THE Virgin Mary is appearing every day in Surbiton beneath a pine tree. So I was told by an elderly couple I met in a pub, who said that she appears from Monday to Friday at 12 noon, and at 9 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, but warned that 'only Patricia the Visionary can see her'. This nevertheless sounded a remarkable story, and on my next free day I caught a train from Waterloo to Surbiton, just south of Kingston upon Thames. My directions were to walk up Berrylands Road into Manor Drive and look for a new housing development behind a high wall, over which I would be able to see the pine tree.

The tree was certainly there, with a crucifix attached high up its trunk, and beside it, fastened against the top floor of a newish, three-storey brick house, was a statue of the Virgin Mary in a varnished wooden box. There is no door through the wall, but visitors to the daily observances do not require one, for these are held in the road rather than in the gardens under the pine tree, in order (as was later explained to me) to avoid 'upsetting' other residents of the housing development.

A row of lime trees runs between the wall and the road, and in the two nearest to the pine tree, red and white flowers have been left in the suckers near the base: red for martyrdom and white for purity and innocence. A few minutes before noon people began to arrive in cars. A man arrived on foot, carrying a lantern and a rosary and wearing a beige, zip-up cardigan and a tweed cap that he removed before leading the prayers. By this time there were four women, four men and three small children present. Facing the brick wall and the pine tree beyond it, the adults, each of whom had placed a lantern on the ground, said the Angelus in English, sang the Creed in Latin and said the Magnificat in English. They then processed two by two, quite informally, round the rectangle of quiet, suburban streets that encloses the pine tree, saying the rosary.

Back by the wall, the service ended with a few more prayers. Two of the men undertook to explain something of what was going on. One, David Kelly, had led the prayers. The other, Subash de Menezes, turned out to be the eldest son of Patricia de Menezes,

who was not herself present, but who sees the Virgin Mary in the pine tree.

At my suggestion we sat on a public bench from which we could at least see the top of the pine tree. From time to time, people learning to drive passed us at low speed. Mr de Menezes explained that his father was from Goa while his mother was English, from Bristol, and became a Catholic after her marriage. In 1985 she started seeing the Virgin Mary and also Jesus in the pine tree. Mr de Menezes, who was born in 1966, said, 'I didn't really want anything to do with it, to tell you the truth. I'd drifted away from the Church, and all of this was far too strange for my liking. The site [where the pine tree is] had previously been the site of a convent school, which was sold and demolished, and when it was basically just a building site Our Lady began to appear over it, and Our Lord was coming at the same time. Basically, Our Lady said the land was to be a shrine area.'

Mr Kelly burst in, 'It's the shrine of all crucified innocents.' Mr Kelly, 38, who comes from near Dublin and worked in us about the shrine area. Of course, it didn't belong to us, it belonged to the property developers, but we managed to purchase two of the houses, A trust was set up. We live a religious way of life, but in the eyes of the Church we are not yet a religious foundation. We are a private pious association. That is the official term for us in the Church. At the moment we don't have priests. I think we all remember the floral tributes laid when we have national disasters. I think we're all well aware there's no such expression of sorrow and place of remembrance for children killed in abortions. I'm not aware of one in this country.'

Mr Kelly said. 'God is giving the answer here in Surbiton. England has been specifically chosen. This is a great grace for England. England is known as the abortion capital of the world. Where sin abounds, grace abounds.'

In the local library the visitor is told that Surbiton was an upper-middle-class Victorian town, created over a period of about 50 years after the area was linked to London by railway in 1838, Estate agents described it as 'the Queen of the Suburbs', while Queen Victoria herself declared, 'Surbiton is not, and never was, a boring suburb.' The place stilt has a pleasant feeling of tranquillity, but has come down a bit in the world since its foundation, with many of the older houses subdivided into flats, and the modern development often of inferior quality.

Mr de Menezes said. 'My mother asked the Lord, "Why come here to Surbiton? Why choose me? Why not come to some poor person up in the hills in Bangladesh?" Our Lord said, "This country, this place, is poorer spiritually than Bangladesh is temporally": Mr de Menezes gradually started to take what his mother was saying seriously: 'I believed it to be true. I knew my mother couldn't make up something like that. It was beyond her.'

Mr de Menezes gave up his job as banqueting head waiter in a London hotel and started to study theology. According to Mr Kelly, 'He's taken to theology like a horse to oats.' Both men laid great emphasis on their desire to be orthodox Catholics. 'We are not a sect. We are totally committed to the Catholic way of life, Catholic teaching.'

Abortion horrifies them, and they wish the Church to recognise its victims as martyrs, companions of the Holy Innocents slaughtered by Herod. Mr de Menezes said, 'In the Twin Towers, I'm not sure of the final death toll, but it's several thousand. I was speaking to someone in the pro-life movement. He estimated that was the daily total of abortions in the United States.'

On being asked how it regards the appearances of the Virgin Mary in Surbiton as proclaimed by the Divine Innocence Trust, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark issued the following, somewhat dismissive, statement: 'The authenticity of the alleged apparitions concerning Divine Innocence has not been accepted by the Archdiocese of Southwark, and the Archdiocese has not given its authority to publicly promote it.' I rang Patricia de Menezes and asked her if she was hurt by the Church's attitude. She said, 'No. I understand that the development of doctrine can take centuries. But there really should be a proper commission to look into the theology. They'd also investigate if you [meaning her] were off your head.' She pointed out that theologians such as Aidan Nichols OP already take what she says seriously.

Mrs de Menezes recalled the first vision, which took place in her house rather than by the pine tree: 'I was sewing and I was making clothes for my children, and Our Lady appeared dressed in a blue-grey robe and a pale-pink veil and a very pale-pink dress, and she showed me a child dressed in the same blue-grey.' Mrs Menezes added that Our Lady was 'far more beauti

ful' than she could describe, and wore different clothes according to the occasion: 'Once when I was with a gathering of Goans, she came in a sari.'

According to Mrs de Menezes, Divine Innocence has members in 42 different countries, amounting to a total of 2,000 to 3,000, though only 10 to 12 in Surbiton itself. She said that in the mid-Eighties, when the apparitions began 'in all sorts of places', she was extremely ignorant of Catholic theology: 'Because I was very green, it was almost a daily catechism. Our Lady or St Joseph and Our Lord would come and teach the basics.' She said this almost in the way in which one might talk about learning the basics of cookery. She added, in rather the same tone, that many people who took an interest in her visions were 'looking for sensation' and were 'not at all interested in learning the Faith and getting down to some work. They don't even want to know the Commandments.' Mrs de Menezes contrasted the present world of 'terrorism and fear' with what Our Lady and other members of the Holy Family have expounded to her: 'a world order of gentleness and family and holiness and innocence'.

Many people will find it convenient to dismiss, with an incredulous laugh, Mrs de Menezes's visions in Surbiton. But in conversation with her the visions come to seem of very minor importance, compared with the truths which they illuminate for her.