INTERNATIONAL VIRGIN PILGRIM
HE FOLLOWS HER TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH
A retired logger serves and
a globe-trotting statue of Mary
Sweet Home -- OREGON
LUNCHTIME FINDS 66-YEAR-OLD CARL MALBURG, A FORMER LOGGER, SITTING IN A RENTED MINIVAN IN THE PARKING LOT OUTSIDE ST. HELEN’S CATHOLIC CHURCH, TALKING ON A CELLPHONE TO HIS WIFE BACK HOME IN MICHIGAN. His day started in this rural town southeast of Albany, but it won’t end until he delivers the object of his devotion to Portland for a 10-day tour around the city.
As caretaker of the International Virgin Pilgrim Statue of Our Lady of Fatima, Malburg spends more time on the road than a Portland Trail Blazer. He describes his work, which keeps him away from home 20 to 24 days a month, with only December free, as “a spokesman for the Virgin Mary.” His responsibilities can run into 12-and 14-hour days, seven days a week, with two stops a day at Catholic churches and schools and sometimes retirement homes and prisons.
“I wouldn’t do it for anybody,” he says, “except God.”
He sleeps in a strange bed nearly every night and lives out of a suitcase. He washes his clothes in hotel laundry facilities and eats his meals in restaurants unless church ladies cook for him. He took a pay cut when he accepted the job 14 years ago. He was not the kind of man – having grown up on a Michigan farm – who had traveled much.
Now he travels the world. Malburg has been to every continent except Antarctica and almost every state in the nation. He expected controversy among Muslims and Hindus in India but has found people everywhere respectful of his faith and the traveling statue. In fact, his largest audience was in India, where an estimated 150,000 people turned out to see the statue.
He totes the 40-pound statue, carved 60 years ago from a single block of mahogany, in a padded sleeping bag. When he flies, he buys it a ticket for its own seat because he’s afraid it might be lost with the luggage. When he drives, he buckles it in a passenger seat to save it from possible harm.
Malburg and his assistant are the only ones authorized by the statue’s nonprofit foundation to touch it. And when they do, they handle the 42-inch-tall figure with white gloves. As the sign posted below the statue says,
Please Do Not Touch Her,
She will Touch You
The statue aims to depict the 1917 apparition reported by two girls and a boy in Fatima, Portugal. They claimed to see the Virgin Mary descend on a cloud, hover above bushes and encourage prayers and sacrifices that would lead to peace. A renowned sculptor carved the statue 30 years later.
Malburg was 9 years old, the same age as the boy in Fatima, when he first heard the story. Like the boy, he has two sisters, one older and one younger. That coincidence, along with the rest of the story, had a profound effect on him.
He became even more interested later and read everything he could find. He went to the movies to see the 1952 film “The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima.” When the statue, which has traveled the world since 1947, arrived at his diocese in Grand Rapids, he helped with arrangements and met the former caretaker.
Then a 10-foot log rolled off a truck and whacked him in the head, crushed his femur and put him on crutches for a year. Over those months, he became more involved in Fatima activities, and the foundation asked him if he’d like to take over for the retiring caretaker.
His six children were grown. Because his wife believes as deeply in the mission as he does, he said yes
“They needed somebody, and they knew I had done a little of that. I said, ‘You guys pray for me, and I’ll get out there, and I’ll try.’ And I guess they’ve been praying for me since. I’ve been out there trying.”
If his brief visit to Sweet Home is an example of what he’ll do in Portland, he’ll be the gray-haired man in the wing-tipped shoes, suit coat and tie delivering talks to school children or waiting by the door with pamphlets. He'll stand with his hands clasped together at his waist and politely answer questions.
Yes, the beatific statue with the painted eyelashes and praying hands is a piece of art occasionally touched up by preservationists. The rosary Mary holds is made of real pearls and silver. The glittering crown is an addition. So is the white silk cloak with the pearly beads.
No, he has not witnessed any of the miracles associated with Our Lady of Fatima.
“I haven’t seen miracles like if someone only has one arm and then another arm appears, but what I have is people coming to me with spiritual cures, or addictions suddenly cured, or the return to the faith. They find the grace to get back with the so-called program. That’s a miracle, too.”
When his time in Oregon ends March 25, he will travel to New Mexico and then to Idaho, one of the few places, surprisingly enough, he’s never been.
By LARRY BINGHAM
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