Is Audrey Santo a Saint?

The miracle of statues weeping tears of oil, and the power of a mother's love.

September 16, 2008, 5:21 PM

May 10, 2007 — -- At Audrey Santo's funeral on April 18, mourners filled the cavernous St. Paul's Cathedral in Worcester, Mass.

Not one but two bishops attended the service befitting of royalty. Hundreds -- many, complete strangers -- filed past her casket.

"To a very large percentage of people in this society and around the world, a person like Audrey doesn't count," said the Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy from the dais.

But somehow Audrey Santo did count. What drew these mourners and millions around the world to the life of a bedridden 23-year-old?

"20/20" first reported on Audrey nine years ago, when 10,000 people piled into a stadium to pray and to mark the anniversary of the day that Audrey almost lost her life in her family's backyard pool.

Because she nearly drowned at the age of 3, Audrey was trapped in a comalike state. For two decades, she never spoke a word and never walked, but people believed she was a messenger of God who had the power to heal the sick and inspire the hopeless. Many believed she whispered in God's ear, asking for miracles.

The story of her supposed powers drew throngs from around the world, and her family's modest home became a mecca, where mysterious things were said to have happened. Statues moved, pictures bled and icons inexplicably wept oil.

"We are not really here to prove it. We're here to tell you that it's happening and it's in our house," said Linda Santo, Audrey's mother. Linda says she never expected the pilgrims or the prayers, never asked for her daughter's room to become a holy shrine.

"People talk about people like Audrey and they say, 'Well, they're in a vegetative state,'" her mother said. "My question is: What vegetable do they take on? Are they a turnip? Are they an eggplant? What are they? They're human beings. God has put a soul and a mind and everything in them. How can you say they're vegetables?"

On Aug. 9, 1987, Linda realized that all her children were with her except one.

"I looked around and I looked at them and I said, 'My kids are here. Where's my baby?' We all kind of rushed to a side door, and 36 feet beyond that, Audrey was floating face down in the pool," she said.

At the hospital, while her family held a bedside vigil, Audrey slipped into a coma. Soon after, doctors suggested that Linda place her child in an institution.

"They came in and asked me where I was going to place her, just like that. I said, 'I'm going to place her in my arms. … We're going home.' They said, 'No, you can't. She'll be dead in two weeks,'" Linda said.

Linda brought Audrey home and turned her bedroom into an intensive-care unit. To complicate matters, Linda's husband left her and their four children, not once, but twice. "I didn't have time to be hurt," she said. "I just needed to do what I had to do."

"I prayed all the time. … I was constantly praying," said the devout Catholic.

Years later, with no warning and no logic, Linda says oil suddenly coated a religious portrait in their living room. "It was really weeping," she said. Linda picked up the phone and called the Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, a priest who, highly skeptical, came to the house.

"Indeed, there was oil dripping out of that Lady of Guadalupe picture," McCarthy said. "I took it apart. I looked at it. There was no glass on the front. It was just canvas on both sides, in and out. And I just could not, could not see anything that was fraudulent. It was just a picture."

That was in 1993, and Linda says that from that point forward, the oil spread uncontrollably. She says it eventually flowed from dozens of icons all over the house; so much that they had to attach cups to collect it. Even today, the chapel that was once the family garage is coated with oil stains on the walls, in chalices and on paintings.

One picture, Linda says, even wept blood. "That's scary. It's in your home. You know that if it's truly from God, if it's truly mystical, there's a world of responsibility that goes with that," she said.

For years these unexplained phenomena drew a constant stream of visitors to what they believed was an extraordinary spiritual event. Down a hall from the garage-turned-chapel is Audrey's bedroom, and at one time a window was cut into her wall to allow those seeking spiritual and physical healing to pray in front of her.

"They pray for her intercession to God to heal them," Linda said.

No one left with an immediate cure -- there is no hard evidence that Audrey healed anyone -- but those who visited were given hope and free packets of the oil, carefully collected on cotton balls. A video of Audrey is still for sale and over the years Linda said the family had collected a sizable sum in donations that was used for Audrey's care.

There is also no evidence that this was -- or is -- a get-rich scheme. The Santo home is simple, modest and unassumingly tucked into a middle-income Worcester neighborhood. Away from the crowds, the Santos lived a surprisingly ordinary lifestyle in the midst of their very unusual mission. Audrey was treated like any other member of the family. The Santos spoke to her constantly, and for years, they even carried her from her bed to the dining room for Sunday dinners. There were three shifts of nurses caring for her and machines to keep her alive, all largely paid for by insurance.

In spite of this meticulous care, over the years Audrey developed mysterious symptoms, like an unusual rash, the kind a patient on chemotherapy might get. "And then it just disappeared," Linda said.

Linda says that almost simultaneously they received calls from cancer patients for whom Audrey had prayed, saying their cancer had gone away. There's no proof of any this, but the Santos and others believe Audrey is what Catholics call a "victim soul," someone who takes on the suffering of others.

"It's either she's a fake, the greatest one that I have ever met, or she is a genuine victim soul," the Rev. George Joyce told "20/20" in 1998.

In 1996, Joyce, while celebrating Mass in the Santos' chapel, says that the wafer or host, which is used during Communion, suddenly and mysteriously developed blood stains.

Ultimately five bleeding hosts would appear in the Santos' home and that would add to the lore that in turn attracted priests from around the world to Audrey's bedside. They believe the hosts contained the actual blood of Christ and put them on display carrying them through the kitchen to worshippers in the backyard.

All the attention eventually caught the eye of the church and the bishop who formed a commission to investigate. "We found nothing. No source of the oil," Robert Ciotone, a commission member, said in 1998.

John Madonna, the commission's chairman, said, "We did our examination behind the pictures and under the statues and so forth and found that there was no way that these objects were being fed the oil."

The commissioners, made up of laymen and clergy, spent a night in the house and were astonished when a religious icon they brought oozed oil. Asked whether he had ever seen anything like this in his life, Madonna said, "No, I can't say that I have."

"We tried to keep an open mind," said Ciotone. "We thought we had no explanation for it. We had to live with the ambiguity, which is difficult -- the ambiguity of saying we don't know."

The commission's study was conducted with the full cooperation of the Santo family. Its preliminary findings found "no obvious evidence of chicanery," but added that "the presence of oil is not proof, direct or indirect, of the miraculous." It also concluded that "there is no evidence that the family has sought financial gain for themselves."

"If this is a hoax," McCarthy said, "it is a spiritual disaster from which everyone, if that were proven, would have to disassociate themselves instantly because it would be evil."

While the church moved slowly to continue its investigation, no fraud was ever proven. But to McCarthy none of this has ever been about the paranormal.

"What we can immediately see in front of us is a mother, loving, unbegrudgingly, without cease, her child in a situation that is almost impossible to love," he said.

"This is a very, very serious form of love Linda is executing here. If the statues are of God, then, in my judgment, they are pointing to Linda and what she has done over all these years in terms of just goodness and love that she has given to that child who, in the eyes of the world, is really junk, should have been gone a long time ago, and yet the person gives up their whole life for her. That's love."

For 20 years, until Audrey drew her last breath, Linda held her daughter in her arms and in her heart. Finally, on April 14 of this year, with the entire family at her side, Audrey died at the age of 23.

"It was very sad," Linda said. "It was a bittersweet departure." She says that now Audrey is in heaven, healed and probably running around, but that she left behind "a great hole."

Today, sympathy cards adorn Audrey's empty room. The bed where Linda kissed her daughter's feet daily is empty. The nurses are gone, the halls are quiet and the roar of medical equipment has turned silent.

"I miss her tremendously," she said. "Not just on a spiritual level, and worldly level, but she's my daughter. There's always an emptiness, always a loss. Something that no one or anything in your life can fill. But I know Audrey's healed. I know she's in heaven. I know that. I absolutely know that. So I can't worry about her. I worry about what, as a family, what we're suffering here."

"It wasn't a burden," Linda said. "The greatest gift you can have is to take care of another human being. And if it's your child, and you love them the way you should, then that's easy. No burden."

While some might look at Linda as a saint, she points to her daughter as the real saint. She believes that one day the church will canonize Audrey. "That was obviously God's plan, right?" she said.

At Audrey's funeral, prayers and music filled the cathedral. But perhaps the most touching tribute came from Diane McNutt, one of Audrey's caregivers for four years.

"I am grateful to God for the gift he gave me to be able to care for her. What a treasure," McNutt said before hundreds of mourners. "She has changed my life forever. We will all miss holding you, wiping your tears and just being there for you. It was an honor to be a part of your life, Audrey."

As Audrey's casket, draped in a red cross, passed Linda, she kissed her daughter goodbye.

"If we truly believe we are made in the image and likeness of God," she said later, "what greater honor is there than living and taking care of each other?"

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