John Lewinski, president of Our Lady of Toledo Shrine, leads rosary prayer services every day at 2 p.m. and Tuesday nights at 7.
Sally Steadman, the founder of Our Lady of Toledo Shrine, celebrated her 88th birthday the day after Christmas with friends who gathered in her room at a local hospice.
A little more than 16 years since she began seeing visions of the Virgin Mary, Mrs. Steadman is confident that she has accomplished all of the tasks God set out for her to do.
But she also said that the unofficial Catholic shrine she built in suburban Oregon has a mission that will continue long after she is gone. One of the main goals is to open a medical center for pregnant women as a means of preventing abortions.
"There is so much more to come in the future. In due time there will be a center built. It will be called St. Elizabeth Women and Children's Care Center," Mrs. Steadman said.
She declined an in-person interview with The Blade because of health reasons, but relayed answers to questions through her hand-picked successor, Rick Hicks.
Mrs. Steadman did not start seeing the apparitions until she was a widow and retired from the Food Town grocery stores. Then, in October, 1992, the Virgin Mary appeared to her 23 times.
Some of the messages are for her personally, others are for the public. She has shared the public messages for crowds of up to 1,500 who gathered at the shrine. The Virgin Mary is visible only to Mrs. Steadman, who then repeats the apparition's words to the crowd.
The messages have been taped and transcribed, with the first five years' worth published in a book, And Mary Says, released in 2002, and a second book now being readied for publication. The messages received by Mrs. Steadman also are posted on the shrine's Web site, protect-life.org.
Mrs. Steadman has said before that she was not sure why God chose her for the visions, but this week said it may have something to do with her determination.
"Maybe because of my stubborn nature," she said. "I've always finished what I've started, whatever the task or challenge. I've always had the determination and strong will to complete whatever I've started."
She added, "I've always prayed hard and played hard."
The retiree, whose visions have inspired thousands of people and generated more than $1.2 million to buy the 21-acre site and build the shrine, has endured a number of health problems in the last few years, including breast cancer and kidney disease. She recently decided not to undergo any more dialysis treatments, according to several people who are close to her.
"We're all concerned and prayerful for her," said John Lewinski, president of the shrine. "How long she'll be here, only God knows. But I keep praying selfishly, 'Just a little longer, Lord.'•"
Mr. Lewinski leads rosary prayer services at the shrine's chapel every day at 2 p.m. and Tuesday nights at 7.
Elizabeth Roberts of Toledo is a frequent participant in the rosary services and attended Tuesday's afternoon prayer with her husband, Steve.
Mrs. Roberts said she is convinced the shrine has a bright future because "the Blessed Mother told Sally so."
"God's will be done," Mrs. Roberts said. "God has used her to bring about this Toledo shrine."
Mr. Lewinski recalled a message the Virgin Mary gave Mrs. Steadman years ago in which she said the Our Lady of Toledo Shrine "will be bigger than Fatima," a reference to the famous Marian shrine in Portugal that attracts millions of pilgrims and tourists.
Mrs. Steadman said the Virgin Mary recently told her to "tell all my children even though you will be gone, they must follow you. They must follow my plan. They must change nothing. They must wait and it will happen."
The shrine is not officially recognized by the Catholic Church, which considers Mrs. Steadman's apparitions to be "private revelations." The late Toledo Bishop James Hoffman wrote a letter in 1997 saying the church "always takes a cautious posture in regard to alleged private revelations."
Mrs. Steadman is hopeful that Bishop Hoffman's successor, Bishop Leonard Blair, will give the shrine the Catholic Church's official blessing. The diocese did not respond to requests this week for comment on the shrine.
"I love our bishop! He is so spiritual!" Mrs. Steadman said. "I know in his heart that he will always do the right thing."
When the Virgin Mary first appeared to her 16 years ago in her apartment, Mrs. Steadman said it frightened her. But it wasn't long before she felt comfortable with the visions.
She realizes that there are many people who don't believe the visions are genuine.
"People have a choice to believe or not," she said. "God gives us free will to make our own decisions. I don't judge others for not believing. When the Blessed Mother appeared to me for the first time, I doubted, too!"
Mr. Lewinski, 79, said that when the Virgin Mary appears to Mrs. Steadman, "her face gets angelic. Her voice changes slightly, but if you look at that woman, she looks like an angel! Her face glows!"
He said he first encountered Mrs. Steadman in 1998 when a friend invited him to attend a meeting about the shrine. He was asked to be a trustee right away, and by the end of the meeting he was asked to be the shrine's president.
Mr. Lewinski said he went home and prayed to God for a sign to show whether he should accept the presidential position, and saw a cross that was painted on a decorative plate begin to glow with an otherworldly brilliance.
Still skeptical, he prayed for another sign and saw a crucifix on a different plate appear to be "moving in and out."
Mr. Lewinski accepted the role of shrine president and said it's been costly, including a divorce, but he believes he is doing God's will. He said he has seen many miracles and blessings because of the shrine.
"I lost everything I had - my wife, my business, my house. But I've never been happier. I wouldn't go back for a million dollars."
Mrs. Steadman's successor, Mr. Hicks, is a 38-year-old Toledo businessman who has been involved with the shrine from the start.
"I used to pick Sally up and take her to different congregations so she could talk about the shrine," he said. "I've seen some truly miraculous things that have happened out there. It's really a privilege that we have something like this in our backyard. It's really neat."
Our Lady of Toledo Shrine has drawn pilgrims from across the country, including California, Colorado, and Florida. One pilgrim, Bob Hunt, is a 67-year-old roofing contractor from Allamuchy, N.J., who has regularly made the nine-hour drive to Oregon to attend the public apparitions and other special events.
"It's closer than Portugal," he said, comparing Our Lady of Toledo to shrine in Fatima.
Mrs. Steadman said she is amazed at how fast the shrine has grown, and is confident that it will continue to fulfill its mission of preventing abortions.
"Who would have thought all of this could have happened since 1992? If God wants something done, it will be accomplished," she said.
The First Saturday Prayer Service will be held at 2 p.m. today at Our Lady of Toledo shrine, 655 South Coy Rd., Oregon.
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