Georgia Makres, or Ya Ya, which means grandmother, pushed her face right up against the icon that cries at St. Irene's church in Astoria yesterday.
An icon can either be a wood cut or a painting. As it is difficult to cause wood to burst into tears, most famous church icons are paintings, including this one of St. Irene.
Georgia Makres yesterday was dressed in black. The thump-thump of her cane sounded through the small, lovely church as she helped her old feet keep their balance. Georgia is 85 and can see nothing, but of what matter is that? Georgia had something more important than eyesight yesterday and that was her belief.
She spoke aloud in Greek and a granddaughter said, "She says that this is the truth. She says that she does not care what anybody says."
In the rear of the church, Archbishop Paisios, leader of the congregation, was saying that in December of 1989 he took the icon on tour to Chicago, to St. Athanasius church. There, following a ceremony, Archbishop Paisios says he was at a reception in the church hall and suddenly people came running up to him and shrieking, "The icon is crying!"
As St. Irene is the patroness of peace, the Archbishop said that she was crying because of the outset of the Gulf War.
As the icon first broke into tears in Chicago, the suspicion is that the icon was gimmicked there. It is known that Chicago harbors the largest number of dishonest religious people, and of all faiths.
"The tears came out of both eyes," Archbishop Paisios insisted yesterday. He was standing in the rear of his church in Astoria while Ya Ya put her face to a painting she could not see.
"You saw it cry yourself?" Archbishop Paisios was asked.
"Oh, yes," he said.
Yesterday, another branch of the Greek Orthodox church was passing around the scurrilous rumor that the archbishop's icon is a fake and that he once pulled the same thing in Greece with another icon that cried.
This icon in Astoria is said to have performed so many miracles that people left precious jewelry, which was placed in the frame around the icon. On Dec. 23, three vicious gunmen took the icon. Parishioners went into deep mourning and the icon was returned without the frame.
Typical of a religious fight, another vicious rumor yesterday was not only that the icon didn't know how to cry, but that all the gold and jewelry in the frame - supposedly worth $ 500,000 - actually were gaggers.
But all this is falling in with the vulgar finger-pointing and whispering being perpetrated by the other branch of the Greek church. What is important here is that women like Ya Ya come to this church and leave with eyes that cannot see too well anymore, but still glisten with excitement. Old men and women spilled out of the church after the service yesterday morning and walked home in a thrill because they had just received something that so few of our religious institutions can give any more, and that is the gift of faith. People around St. Irene's yesterday actually smiled, and that is something you almost never see at any church or temple, where people always look like they're on their way to the dentist.
Here, right after Ya Ya yesterday, came Joseph DeSena of Deer Park, Long Island, a stocky man in his late 30s. He went up somberly and said a prayer in front of the icon. He reported that he prayed for a miracle to cure three things. First, his bruised ribs. He hurt them in a truck accident on the way to Syracuse the other day and had been barely able to breathe. The other two ailments are "very personal things that matter with me."
After praying to the icon, he started walking up 23rd Avenue in the bright sun and he got into the shadow of an overhead rail trestle and immediately spun around.
"I am cured," he said. He came running back to the church. "Every step I took, I could feel the pain going out my ribs. I don't have any pain now," he said.
"What about the other two things?"
He shook his head. He said he didn't know about them and, as he told you earlier, they were personal things wrong with him. As DeSena spoke, he excitedly pulled a gold ring off his finger.
"I am donating this to the saint for healing my ribs," he said. He went back into the church and handed the ring to the Archbishop.
This clergyman and his church are part of an argument that began in 1924 when his branch of the church stayed with the Julian calendar and the regular branch went with the newer Gregorian calendar, which is the one followed by Roman Catholics, who of course are holders of the true faith.
Even in that church, there have been slight controversies over miraculous water. Once, in Tipperary in Ireland, they connected a water pipe to the rear of a shrine and put a couple of drops of blood into the water, causing it to run red out of the shrine. The faithful fell on their faces. Right here in Bayside, in Queens, Veronica Lueken claimed she had seen the Virgin Mary and had the street in front of a church so crowded with people for so long a period that they finally had to go to court to get rid of her. Even then the believers wouldn't go away. Finally, the Bishop of Brooklyn called her a poor misguided woman who saw nothing and that ended it.
Furthermore, when the Catholics had something disappear, the jeweled crown at Pacis church in Bensonhurst some years ago, nobody dared say that the robbery was a fake, even though the crown mysteriously returned. But they call this Greek archbishop in Astoria every name in the book.
Religion in Astoria, as seen at St. Irene's yesterday, seemed relaxed. All that mattered was that people believed. The rest of it will come out in the insurance negotiations. For while the icon was not insured, the church of St. Irene's does have a policy.