This story was originally published in Newsday on March 16, 2010.
Though 50 years have passed, Pagona Catsounis vividly remembers looking up during her daily prayers in her Island Park home to see the icon of the Virgin Mary appearing to weep.
"I was so scared," said Catsounis, then 18, a new bride and a recent immigrant to Long Island from her native Athens.
Catsounis said she and her husband, Peter, kept the strange occurrence to themselves for several days, worried it could be a sign of something bad to come. Then they called their priest at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. Paul in Hempstead.
Within days, their tiny apartment was overrun with both believers and skeptics who wanted to see the lithograph of the weeping Virgin.
"The police closed our street because so many people were lined up," Catsounis recalled last week.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the day Catsounis says the icon began weeping. Since the spring of 1960, the icon has been kept at the church on Cathedral Avenue. Anniversary services there last night and today were expected to draw scores of people of many faiths who say the icon changed their lives.
"It's unbelievable," said the Rev. Luke Melackrinos, dean of the cathedral. "There are still miracles being performed to this day."
Second icon found weeping
In April 1960, about a month after Catsounis said her icon began to cry, her aunt in Oceanside made an amazing discovery of her own: The icon of the Virgin Mary that Antonia Koulis kept at her home also was weeping, church officials said.
With the two icons ensconced at the cathedral in Hempstead, word of the so-called miracles quickly spread. Local and national media flocked to the church, and busloads of people arrived from neighboring states every week for nearly a year, recalled the Rev. Nicholas J. Magoulias, who now is retired.
The next month - May 1960 - a full-page feature in Life magazine included a photograph showing pilgrims lined up outside St. Paul's to see the icon, and Newsday sent four reporters, all of whom said they could not explain the tears.
"I had to be convinced. I was skeptical," said Newsday reporter Jim Hadjin, who wrote a first-person account for the paper after a priest allowed him to take the lithograph from its frame and examine it.
"Miracle is a pretty strong word, but I don't see what else it could have been," he said.
Also in May, a third icon of the Virgin Mary - this one, too, belonging to Koulis - appeared to be weeping, church officials said. This icon today remains with Koulis' relatives in Florida.
Chemists, engineers, art experts and others were unable to explain the phenomenon. Skeptics dismissed the tears as the result of condensation.
Whatever the cause of the phenomenon, in a matter of weeks each of the icons no longer appeared to weep. The crowds petered out after about a year, though church officials believe the icons have bestowed miracles ever since on people who have prayed to them.
Lauren Bove, 33, of Huntington, says she was blessed with a miracle in 2006, after her son Matthew was diagnosed at 15 months with liver cancer. The cancer had spread to form a tumor in his brain, she said, with most doctors telling her there was no hope he would recover. A friend gave her some of the blessed oil kept near the icons and she rubbed it on her son daily, she said.
Hours before Matthew was set to have brain surgery, a doctor who took an MRI of his head told Bove that her son's tumor had vanished, she said. Though he needed further surgery on his liver, he has been cancer-free for more than two years, she said. "I definitely know that it was so much more than medicine," said Bove.
To this day, Catsounis remains mystified about why God would have chosen her to witness what she believes was a miracle. "I don't have any idea," she said.
Melackrinos has his own theory about why the icons wept. "We live in a world that has fallen away from faith," he said. "People don't look with their spiritual eyes anymore unless something wakes them up."