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Flickr/Creative Commons/LilRonGals

The orginal salt stain located under the Kennedy Expressway before it was defaced with satanic graffiti. 

Virgin Mary salt stain gets a heavy coat of obscurity

by Meribah Knight
Jan 27, 2009


 Meribah Knight/MEDILL

Unable to remove the graffiti, the Illinois Department of Transportation recently painted over the stain.

History of celebrated images

1977    Jesus Tortilla     
1996    The Clearwater Virgin    
1996    The Nunbun        
2003    The Milton Madonna     
2003    The Virgin Stump    
2004    Allah on a Lamb    
2004    Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese
2004    Jesus Fish Stick    
2005    Jesus Potato Chip    
2005    The Nunbun is stolen    
2005    The Virgin Mary of the Underpass
2005    Jesus Rock        
2005    Mary and the Baby Jesus on a pretzel
2006    Virgin Mary firewood    
2007    Virgin Mary on a pizza pan    

Apparitions of religious idols rarely discriminate. They find their way onto grilled cheese, tortillas, potato chips, pizza pans, pretzels, rocks, lumps of firewood, livestock, hospital windows, building facades, tree stumps and even fish sticks.

In Nashville, Tenn., a cinnamon bun was dubbed the “NunBun,” after it bore a striking resemblance to Mother Teresa, according to some viewers.

Chicago’s own apparition emerged in 2005 as a salt stain in the form of the Virgin Mary, located underneath the Kennedy Expressway at the intersection of Fullerton and Damon avenues.

Throngs of people come and pay their respects to this divine chemical reaction, which the Illinois Department of Transportation attributed to salt runoff.

Among concrete expressway ramps and strewn belongings from the homeless who reside there, visitors leave flowers, artwork, notes, lit candles and various other mementoes.

But a few weeks ago the popular image, which even has its own entry on the Roadside America Web site, was defaced with devil horns and cloven hoofs. Last week the Illinois Department of Transportation responded to the situation by laying a thick coat of beige paint over the celebrated stain.

Defaced with the words, “big lie” in 2005, and later with eyes and an open mouth playing off Munch’s “The Scream,” authorities have previously responded to the situation by removing the paint and restoring the image. But this time the stain was concealed along with its vandalism.

“We tried to remove paint with rags and a brush. It was not working, so the graffiti only was painted over,” said Marisa Kollias, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Chicago police said that no suspects have been apprehended and the investigation into who is responsible for the defacement is ongoing.

The patrons of the obscured image have yet to come to IDOT with complaints, but Nayeli Urguiza, a receptionist for the nearby St. Hedwig Church, said many of their parishioners often visit the shrine and will likely be upset to see the image is no longer visible.

“A lot of people didn’t believe in it, but there were also those who did,” Urguiza said.

The Archdiocese of Chicago declined to comment on the status of the stain.

Chimera or miracle, Michael Schuck, an associate professor of theology at Loyola University Chicago said that, “Catholicism is diverse and wacky. Catholics find different places where their faith gets physical.”

For some, divinity is served up in a grilled cheese sandwich or on the wall of a concrete underpass.

Religious or not, perception can be a powerful thing, said Galen V. Bodenhausen, a professor of social psychology at Northwestern University.

“People tend to see what they hope to see when they are confronted with something ambiguous,” Bodenhausen said. “People want to believe in all sorts of things that make them feel less uncertain about the world.”

A 2006 study conducted at Cornell University found that the power of wishful thinking influences what people see. When shown visually ambiguous images and told that a certain interpretation would have more favorable outcomes, volunteers tended to see the figure the way that would most benefit them.

"These studies support the growing body of evidence that people's motivational states -- their wishes and preferences -- influence their processing of visual stimuli," said David Dunning, co-author of the study.

For Mary Ward, 42, a practicing Catholic, removing the paint from the famous stain seemed insignificant.

“If it really is the Virgin Mary she will come through the paint.”