For the past week the Pilgrim Virgin has stood on a table in the basement of the Cannones’ bungalow on the western edge of the city, framed by an arc of tiny white lights and flanked by candles and vases full of flowers. Now it’s someone else’s turn to have the statue for a week, and an honor guard from the Ambassadors of Mary has come to take it away.

The five women and one man who make up the honor guard are sitting around two tables with the Cannones and their friends. The Cannones, who’ve hosted the statue three times, seem to know the removal rite as well as the honor guard does: five decades of the rosary, followed by the Ritual of the Enthronement of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Act of Consecration of the Family to the Sacred Heart. Their voices hum. “Gratefully we adore you. . . . Stay with us, for the night is coming on. . . . Sweet heart of Mary, be my salvation.” They pray together for half an hour, then the Cannones add their own wrinkle to the ceremony, leading the group in singing “Viva Maria” and “E l’Ora Che Pia” in Italian.

Frank Cannone, who moved to the U.S. from Italy 42 years ago, says most of the people who’ve come each evening during the past week to say prayers and have cake and coffee are also older people from the old country. His children haven’t come. “They’re Catholic, but they go to work, they’re busy,” he says. “They have to drive an hour, an hour and a half to get here. Maybe next time.” His wife has signed up to get the statue again the same time next year.

Anthony Ross, a 72-year-old wearing a blue blazer and a tie, is the official custodian of this Pilgrim Virgin, one of 28 circulating in the Chicago area and northern Indiana. He’s responsible for picking the statue up and dropping it off in his territory, which is bounded by Austin, Grand, Mannheim, and Lawrence. He rarely leaves town and has transported the statue practically every Saturday since 1990.

He and other custodians, all volunteers, report to the president of the Ambassadors of Mary, Pat Hackett, at the group’s storefront headquarters on Diversey near Austin. Hackett says the custodians are always men, because the statues are three feet tall and weigh 25 pounds and because the founder of the organization “thought it would say something to see men coming into homes and doing devotions, where it’s always women. You can get women to do just about anything when it comes to church. When it comes to men it’s difficult.”

Father James Mary Keane, a Chicago priest, founded the Ambassadors of Mary in 1946 to promote devotion to Mary. After Pope Pius XII declared 1954 a “Marian year,” he set up the Pilgrim Virgin program with a replica of a statue in Fatima, Portugal, where an apparition of Mary allegedly spoke to three children in 1917. The organization’s Web site explains that “most people are unable to make a pilgrimage to Fatima. Our Lady, with characteristic humility and love, overcomes this difficulty by reversing the process. She becomes the Pilgrim.” It wasn’t an original idea–replicas of the Fatima statue have been blessed and sent out into the world since 1947. But the Ambassadors of Mary happily sent statues to parishes that requested them, and Hackett says that today more than 300 are being moved from home to home throughout the world every Saturday. “Through her ‘Pilgrim Statues,'” states the Web site, Mary “is hurrying around the world collecting prayers and sacrifices in reparation for the sins committed against her Divine Son.”

For the first 30 years the statues were made at Del Prado Statuary on Grand Avenue, and after it went out of business they were made in Northlake. For the past seven years they’ve been made in Annandale, Virginia. This new model weighs only 15 pounds. The Pilgrim Virgin in the Cannones’ basement is a 25-pounder made in Northlake in 1991. One of the Cannones’ friends drapes the statue in a cloth and carries it outside, settling it in the lap of Bridget Griffin, who’s sitting in the front seat of a blue Mercury. She fastens the seat belt around both herself and the statue, and the three-car caravan heads off to the house of the woman who gets it next.

Rose Calvero, an 84-year-old widow who lives in Schiller Park, has already had the Pilgrim Virgin three times this year. When Ross became custodian there was a two-year waiting list to get the statue. Now he often has to call “repeaters” such as Calvero and ask them to take it.

Ross pulls into Calvero’s driveway behind the Mercury, takes the Pilgrim Virgin from Griffin, and carries it into the front room of the tidy bungalow. He places it on a platform below a rose-festooned arch, next to two large rose-filled vases and two small ones holding single roses.

Once everyone’s seated Ross asks Calvero if she would like the group to say a special prayer. She says she has a 17-year-old grandson with cancer, adding, “He starts chemo again this week.” They all pray for him, then start the rosary.

Afterward everyone heads into Calvero’s kitchen for cake and coffee. Audrey Restivo, who’s been part of the honor guard for 16 years, says her niece had the statue when her daughter was diagnosed with lupus and the girl is fine now. Alice Danhoffer, who’s been accompanying the statue for as long as Restivo, says most people don’t request it for any special purpose. But, she says, “sometimes it seems that the statue goes to homes where it’s most needed. I had it at my house one time where lightning struck my attic–it actually tarnished a vase of flowers while we were saying our prayers. Do you remember that, Carol?”

“Yeah, I do,” says Carol Heidorn, nodding.

“Nothing happened,” Danhoffer says. “It was like a miracle because she was there. It seems like when people have her they’ll say, ‘Oh, we really need her,’ because this one is sick or that.”

“‘This happened just in time,’ they’ll say,” says Ross.

“It does, it happens,” says Restivo. “It’s like she gives you strength before something may happen in your life.”

Griffin says it’s hard to give up the statue. “You get it for a week, and when it leaves you feel sad.”

“Oh yes! You feel so sad,” say a couple people in unison.

“It’s a special peace or something,” says Danhoffer.

Calvero’s 85th birthday is coming up in a few days, and Ross and the women sing “Happy Birthday.”

Josephine Hargus, who’s been an honor guard for ten years, has been sitting quietly during the discussion. Suddenly she says, “We all have a real devotion to the Blessed Mother.”

“Oh yes,” says Restivo. “She’s a mother, and whenever you need something where do you go? You go to your mother. And that’s it.”

“They say he can’t refuse his mother,” Griffin says.

Restivo notes that Hargus recently lost her 49-year-old son to a heart attack. “She’s getting solace from doing this,” she says. “That’s her strength.”

Hargus smiles wanly.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.