Hordes of the faithful and curiosity seekers waited patiently for hours under a light rain yesterday to catch a glimpse of the weeping icon of St. Irene at a Greek Orthodox Church in Queens.
Police said more than 1,000 people massed outside the church at 36-07 23rd Ave. in Astoria, about 11 a.m. yesterday, trying to get into a special service for world peace, especially peace in the Persian Gulf.
Church officials said that as many as 40,000 people might have visited the church since Saturday morning, some of them waiting as long as four hours to view the icon - a small decorated painting encased in glass - which is said to have begun weeping on Oct. 17 while on display at a Greek Orthodox Church in Chicago.
Bishop Vikentios of the Astoria church, where the icon is usually kept, said last week he discovered beads of moisture and streaks running from the icon's eyes after he finished a prayer service in that city. The painted wooden icon, which is clearly streaked from its eyes to its chest, depicts St. Irene Chrisovalantou, an 8th Century Byzantine noblewoman from Kappadokia who refused to marry a king and instead became a nun. It was painted by a monk in Mount Athos, Greece, in 1919 and has been in the United States for at least 20 years. St. Irene is the church's patron saint of peace and of the sick, Vikentios said, and has been credited by believers with performing many miracles.
The Astoria church, which is named for the saint, belongs to the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Genuine Orthodox Christians of North and South America, headed by Archbishop Paisios in Chicago, Vikentios said. Vikentios is an assistant to the archbishop.
A festival in honor of St. Irene, in which the icon is paraded through the streets in a procession, is held every year. After yesterday's service, the icon was similarly paraded down 23rd Avenue under a velvet canopy, while a pressing throng of worshipers, many carrying candles, strained to see her.
Some of those who came yesterday were praying for a healing miracle for themselves or loved ones.
Lucinda Scott and her husband, Norman Milburn, of Astoria were there with their son, David Scott, 10, who sat in a wheelchair. Scott said she had seen a story about the icon on the news and had brought her son hoping for a cure from his disabling condition. "I know that God is going to heal him," she said.
Others, like Judy Van Aalten, 40, of Forest Hills, came because they were curious and wanted to see the spectacle for themselves after seeing a report on television.
Skeptics, however, have suggested that the weeping icon may be a hoax designed to raise funds for the church. Worshipers threw cash and coin donations into informal cardboard collection boxes and paid to light candles. Bishop Vikentios said the church had not asked for the donations. An estimate of how much money was collected was not immediately available.
Vikentios said that researchers, journalists and scientists were welcome to investigate the icon, but they could do so only inside the church and in front of witnesses. "It's a miracle. If a laboratory wants to come and test it, they can, but they have to test it in front of the people," he said.