A wheelchair-bound Irish cancer sufferer was 'cured' after a visit to the house, writes Lara Marlowe
Did the Queen of Heaven live out her earthly days in a three-room stone house on the slopes of Mount Bulbul, 7km from the ancient city of Ephesus? More than one million visitors, thousands of them Irish, put enough credence in the story to visit Meryem Ana Evi - The House of the Blessed Virgin - every year. Although the Vatican has not officially recognised the shrine, three popes (Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI) have visited Meryem Ana.
The house is one of the few places in the world where Muslims and Christians pray together, and it has a growing reputation for miracles.
Six years have passed since an Indian-born Capuchin priest, Fr Tarcy Mathias, gave Holy Communion to a wheelchair-bound Irishman named Liam O'Sullivan, under the canopy beside the house where Mass is celebrated.
Mr O'Sullivan suffered from leukaemia. He'd undergone chemotherapy and relied on his English wife Avril to wash, feed and clothe him.
Mr O'Sullivan fell to his knees before the altar inside the Virgin's house. "I asked Mary for a better quality of life," he said. "The whole place went cold, like a freezer. It was a lovely feeling. I just improved and improved, and now you see the end product."
The O'Sullivans moved to nearby Kusadasi, and today Liam is an extremely active 69-year-old. He never returned to the doctors who told him he was going to die.
Two years ago, Fr Tarcy held a "healing ceremony" for a woman from Cork named Sharon, who also suffered from cancer. "We gave her the sacraments," he recalls. "She got over it, but she was also going through medical treatment. The most important healing is Liam."
Fr Tarcy has developed a special bond with the Irish community on Turkey's Aegean coast. "They love me very much. They pray with me. They accept me as one of their own." He has lost track of the number of Irish weddings he has performed, and Irish houses he has blessed.
Dozens of middle-aged Irish women have asked him to bless their marriages with young Turkish men. It makes him sad. "I only pray they'll be happy," he says doubtfully. "Some of these women are so lonely, and people in Turkey are so friendly. I wish the pastoral mission in Ireland would take care of these conditions of the heart."
He uses the word "miracle" sparingly. "The house of Mary itself is a miracle," he says. "Other things are the consequence of that: Liam, Sharon . . . There are very many cases, especially among our Islamic friends, of people who have come to pray here and within a year or two they come back with a child. If it's a girl they call her Meryem (the Muslim name for Mary), and if it's a boy they call him Isa (the Muslim name for Christ)."
Maria Ozsert (née Joyce), an Irishwoman who lives in Bodrum, says her best friends Beverly and Deniz conceived "miracle babies" after praying at Meryem Ana. Although she's a Muslim, Deniz had her baby girl baptised.
"When people cannot explain things scientifically, they call them miracles," says Fr Tarcy. "Miracles are only signs given by God to understand something deeper about our life. Miracles are not magic shows. It is not to satisfy our curiosity that a miracle happens."
On August 20th, 2006, a brush fire consumed the forest on Mount Bulbul. The flames came within metres of Meryem Ana, and dangerously close to the gas and oil tanks behind the Capuchin priests' house. A miracle?
"My eye," says an Irish cynic who lives nearby. "You should have seen the Turks pouring water on it from tanker aircraft! Meryem Ana is a goose that lays golden eggs."
Although the House of the Blessed Virgin was purchased by an aristocratic French nun, Sister Marie de Mandat de Grancey, in 1892, today it belongs to the Turkish government, which considers it first and foremost a tourist attraction.
Each visitor pays the equivalent of €6.50. As the dozens of tour buses and hundreds of cars in the parking lot indicate, the entrance fees add up to a tidy sum, all of which goes to the the municipal government. The Dernek, a Turkish committee with Catholic input, maintains the site, albeit at a cost far lower than the income.
"There is no place else in the world where you have to pay to pray," complains Fr Tarcy. "I would like it to be free - at least when people say they are coming for Sunday Mass."
Lazarist priests planted the olive trees that flank the path to the house more than 100 years ago. There's a gendarmerie station and post office on the left, followed by a restaurant owned by a local politician, and opposite that, souvenir shops where you can buy every imaginable likeness of the Virgin Mary.
I couldn't help thinking of Christ flying into a rage in the temple and shouting: "Take these things hence! Make not My Father's house a house of merchandise!"
Fr Tarcy has done his utmost to preserve quiet and decorum inside Meryem Ana. Sister Antonia, from the US, and Sr Annia, from Poland, stop tourists in shorts, or who would disobey signs banning photography inside the simple brick house with vaulted ceilings.
After Christ's crucifixion, many Christians fled Jerusalem and came to Ephesus, which is known as the "Cradle of Christianity". According to the Gospel of St John, Jesus looked at Mary and John from the cross and said: "Woman, behold thy son!" and to John: "Behold thy mother!" John 19:27 says: "And from that hour that disciple took her into his own home." St John's home was in Ephesus; his tomb is in nearby Selcuk.
The ruins of Ephesus contain a Church of Our Lady dating from the second century. "In that time, no church would be dedicated to a sacred person unless the person lived in that area," says Fr Tarcy.
Before she died in 1824, Anna Katharina Emmerich, a German nun, had a vision in which she described Meryem Ana. In 1891, two Lazarist priests used records of her vision to locate the site.
Greek Orthodox Christians in the nearby village of Sirince told them they went to the house every August 15th to celebrate what they call the Dormition.
It gained notoriety as a place of pilgrimage when Pope Pious XII turned the Assumption of the Virgin into Church dogma in 1950.
Fr Tarcy bears a resemblance to Mahatma Gandhi, whom he often quotes in his sermons. There's an eastern flavour to the priest's philosophy: "We are not human beings trying to be spiritual, but spiritual beings called to live human lives," he says. Ultimately, "The evidence means little to me," Fr Tarcy concludes. For him, Mary was "the cosmic mother," and he believes this was her house "because thousands and thousands of people have come here and experienced something.
"That tells me that a person of high spirituality lived here, and that it was a woman, and that she was a mother."