After all the years and all the parishes, all the
grateful hugs, the tearful confidences, the fervent pleas for special
prayers -- all the miracles -- Carl Malburg still believes that
he's not the best man for the job.
"When people ask me to say prayers for them, I often
say, 'If you knew me you'd be asking someone else to pray for you,'
" he says. "I am very ordinary."
Possibly, but his job isn't. Malburg, 63, is the
official custodian of the International Pilgrim Virgin Statue of
Our Lady of Fatima, a 40-inch-tall, carved mahogany Mary, as she
is said to have appeared to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal,
Appeared, that is, with two exceptions: a 7-inch
gold crown and white satin cape that adorn the statue these days
when it is shown.
"Neither a cape nor a crown was at Fatima, but we
always display it that way because we want to give Mary more honor,"
says Malburg. "She is a queen. But at Fatima she came as a mother,
in a simple white dress."
Being the Pilgrim Virgin statue's keeper means that
Malburg is on the road for three weeks a month, for 11 months of
every year. This Christmas will find him in India. A Michigan native
who now lives in Munster, Ind. (when he's home), Malburg drives
if the journey is less than 1,000 miles and flies if it's more than.
The statue rides shotgun in his car -- in a seat
belt -- and in the seat next to him on planes.
"Once in a while one of the airlines will put us
in first class, but that's usually in a foreign country where the
people are all Catholic," he says.
Wherever the statue goes, Malburg also packs display
lights and dozens of boxes crammed with pamphlets, rosaries and
brown scapulars --
symbols of devotion and protection since 1251, when
St. Simon Stock said the Holy Mother first pressed a scapular into
On a foundation's shoestring budget, Malburg's lodgings
are nearly always in a rectory or parishioner's home. And he's been
at it for more than 10 years.
"I'm a traveler, a wanderer," he says, then adds
with a little grin, "They call me a roamin' Catholic."
Malburg and the Fatima statue just ended a three-week,
23-parish journey around the San Francisco Archdiocese. The trip
commenced with a special Mass on Sept. 1 at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel
in Mill Valley and concluded last Sunday at St. Isabella Church
in San Rafael.
"Since it was carved in 1947, more than 100 million
people have venerated that statue," Malburg says, taking a break
in the sun from his duties inside St. Cecilia Church in San Francisco.
"It's why we have to have a sign that says, 'Please do not touch
her, she will touch you.' "
To many non-Catholics, Virgin Mary sightings are
right up there with UFOs and alien abduction stories. But to the
world's 1 billion practicing Roman Catholics, places like Lourdes
in France, Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Guadalupe in Mexico
and Fatima are where the mother of Jesus appeared, spoke of peace
and penance, worked miracles and continues to work them. Pope John
Paul II has credited Our Lady of Fatima for allowing him to survive
an attempted assassination.
Millions of faithful travel each year to Portugal
and the once-humble site of the 1917 series of six apparitions.
Tens of thousands belong to Fatima societies, such as the Blue Army,
and pray to replicas of Fatima in their own churches. Two of the
shepherd children, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, died in childhood
-- as the Virgin said they would -- and were beatified by the church
in 2000. The third, Lucia dos Santos, became a Carmelite nun. She
is 93 and cloistered in Portugal.
It was Sister Lucia's description of Mary that Portuguese
sculptor Jose Thedim used to carve two statues in 1947: one to travel
east through Russia, one to go west. The eastern version now spends
most of its time in Fatima; the western version has been on the
move since its creation.
"People ask me, 'Where does the statue stay?' "
says Malburg. "It stays on the road. It doesn't have a home."
On the rare occasions when Malburg is back in Munster,
the Fatima statue stays in a Chicago monastery, a Hammond, Ind.,
nursing home or at Malburg's house: "My wife has fixed a nice place
for it in our living room."
But the nice place is not an altar. The crown and
cape remain packed, and Malburg and his wife say their nightly prayers
as usual, in their bedroom, not in front of the statue.
That Malburg should have a wife at all might seem
something of a miracle in itself, what with his travel schedule
and all. His predecessor, retired by illness, was a lifelong bachelor.
All custodians before that were priests.
Fortunately though, Rose Marie Malburg was "quite
dedicated to Fatima things" long before she married Malburg nine
years ago. She runs http://www.pilgrimvirginstatue.com/,
edits the foundation newsletter and makes a few trips a year that
don't require her to live out of suitcase for too long.
"I had this job a year before we became engaged,"
says Malburg. "She knew what she was marrying -- a wanderer."
Besides, when her husband does come home, Rose Marie
gets to hear about "all the little miracles" that occurred on his
"The church wants us to be careful using that word,
miracle," he says. "They officially recognize only a couple a year,
but there are probably 1,200 that you and I might see."
In the Fatima statue's 56-year existence, there
have been several documented and photographed reports of it shedding
tears. People have seen its tiny, rosebud mouth smile, its extraordinary
brown glass eyes follow theirs.
Meanwhile, Malburg has lost count of the women and
men who have prayed to the statue and been cured of all manner of
malady. Cancer, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicidal depression,
wayward spouses, grief over an abortion, loss of faith in God.
"Usually, it's spiritual things like the cure of
alcoholism, but occasionally we have a physical cure, and it's quite
astounding," he says. Describing two incidents -- a man whose incurable
cancer disappeared and a young woman who'd fallen away from the
church but came back after 17 years -- Malburg ranks the latter
above the former: "God does not interfere with our free will, so
the conversion of a sinner is most significant. The guy who was
cured of cancer, 20 years from now, he'll be dead of something else.
But that young lady's conversion, that miracle will last for eternity."
For all his self-deprecating jokes, when Malburg
tells those kinds of stories, a quiet, grateful wonder creeps into
his voice and onto his face. Before he accompanied Our Lady all
over the Western Hemisphere, he was raised on a timber farm and
worked as a lumberjack for 20 years.
So, unlike his predecessors he does not call his
mahogany companion "she." So? His relationship with and devotion
to the woman the statue honors are obviously deep and rich.
After more than a decade, after hundreds of setups
and take- downs, hundreds of historical talks to grade-schoolers
and senior citizens, hundreds of intimate confidences and joyous
accounts of comfort and deliverance, Malburg seems as open and obedient
as the three shepherd children.
"This is very exciting work," he says. "Every day
is different, yet every day we expect some kind of marvels. One
day, when it might seem to get mundane,
I'll hear a report of someone who's been helped,
and suddenly I'm full of thrills again, and wondering what's around
the next corner."