It's not exactly Our Lady of Lourdes, but Catholic pilgrims show up on the doorstep of a Virginia artist because they want to pray at the foot of a 30-foot tall statue in his backyard that they say resembles the Virgin Mary.
Michael Meredith can't say he wasn't looking for attention when he unveiled the gold-leaf Statue of Motherhood on his Springfield, Va. property last year, but he didn't expect worshippers to treat it like a holy shrine either.
"That's not a statue of the Virgin Mary," Meredith, 56, told AOL Weird News. "I wanted to give people a symbol of love. It's a pregnant woman and you don't find much stronger love than a mother's love."
But the devout travel long distances from Texas, Minnesota and Arkansas for a chance to spend a few moments with the apparent Blessed Mother -- only to be shot down by Meredith's wife Erika if they ask to express their faith.
She said it's become her unofficial responsibility to greet the visitors, because her husband is shy. She grants permission to enter the suburban backyard and to snap photographs, but refuses to allow people to pray.
"I'm not a church. It's not for praying. It's not a cure for cancer," she said. "I'm a sociable person, but I do discourage people who come here to pray."
The largest contingent that Erika faced was a posse of 10 pilgrims who she refused to let drop down on their knees.
Meredith was caught off guard by the pious interest in his statue, because he said if people paid close attention to the details, they'd realize many differences from the way in which Mary, Jesus' mother, is typically depicted.
"She always has her head wrapped, she's never pregnant and she never has this beautifully colored hair," said Meredith.
A carpenter by profession, like Jesus himself, Meredith built the statue with wood and steel. The statue's clothing is made from a silicon-based material that he said he invented, while the head is a gold-leaf casting. It took five years to finish it.
A statue of a hand and another of a head, as well as several smaller artworks, decorate Meredith's yard. But the star attraction is the Statue of Motherhood, which rises above the house and is clearly visible from the street.
Though pilgrims have been known to show up, the statue has also developed a secular following -- the majority of sightseers treat it like a roadside attraction on Route 66.
On average, the Merediths say they get one unexpected visit per day.
For now, it seems like the street is safe from tour bus crowds. A major American vacation company organizing group trips to Catholic shrines like Our Lady of Fatima, in Portugal, said they would never take travelers to sites like Meredith's home which hasn't been sanctioned by the Vatican.
"They're not signing off on every Jesus-shaped toast that pops up in someone's home," a manager who asked for anonymity said. "We only go to major sites of verified importance."
Word about the statue has spread on a website Meredith made, as well as through the press.
There's even a Facebook page for the so-called Madonna of Southampton, named for Meredith's street.
For some neighbors, who are bothered by traffic that stops at the Merediths, the icon is an inconvenience.
"I just don't think it belongs in a residential area," said a woman on the street who asked to be unnamed to avoid conflict with her neighbor. "I think it looks like Little Red Riding Hood. But I don't care what it looks like. It doesn't belong here."
Fairfax County officials have received complaints about the structure, prompting investigators to visit the site several times, Patch has reported.
Meredith says he would be willing to part with his creation.
"If some Catholic tourist wanted to buy it and install it," Meredith said. "That would be fine with me."
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