They still come. Day after day. Week after week.
They arrive clutching Rosary beads. Bearing gifts of flowers. Donating money.
They visit with hopeful looks on the faces. Sometimes with tears in their eyes.
They pray. They sing hymns. They light candles.
More than one year after the image resembling the Virgin Mary was first spotted in the knot of a tree on Bergenline Avenue in the town’s bustling retail district, the masses still come to pay their homage and respect.
Like Maria Rivera, 73, of North Bergen, who comes every single day.
Or Eva Copantitla, of West New York, who visits every week.
More specifically, the image is said to resemble images of “La virgin de Guadalupe,” the Mexican version of Mary.
Not even an early morning blaze on July 19 could shake the resolve of the faithful who flock to the miracle icon. After the 1 a.m. fire was extinguished that day, leaving behind a charred trunk and smoke damage, worshippers still made their way to the cordoned off area, a space they believe brings them closer to God.
For a time on Friday, West New York residents and visitors thought the worst when it came to what had happened. Rumors had spread up and down Bergenline Avenue that the fire had been deliberately set.
“It gave people hope and inspiration.” – Mayor Felix Roque
On that day, Roque had made a pledge. “If I find out that someone did something illegal, I’m going to have them arrested.”
As it turned out, that was not necessary. It was another supernatural moment for this Hudson County town of believers.
“I think it’s a miracle it survived,” said the mayor, as he gazed at a photo he held of the tree fully engulfed in flames at the height of the fire.
The investigation of the incident has been completed, and the fire has been determined to be accidental, according to Police Director Bob Antolos. He said glass cracked on one of the candles laid down next to the tree, with the candle “self-combusting” and igniting debris on the ground nearby, including flowers that had been left there and leaves.
“The tree had minimal damage to the base, and there is smoke damage,” Antolos said. “It’s darkened because of the smoke.”
The fire came just a few days after the one-year anniversary of the religious icon’s discovery. The site has become a major religious shrine and received national attention, with the West New York brethen praying there on a daily basis.
On Saturday, July 13, a large public anniversary ceremony had been held, complete with mariachi band, according to Roque.
On Friday, July 19, Roque said the figure had been blackened by the fire, but still existed, following a cleaning by Department of Public Works employees.
The mayor said he was hopeful that the image could be preserved.
“To me, it was great having the ‘Virgin Mary tree,’ because it gave people hope and inspiration,” he said.
Joseph Passantino may be reached at JoePass@hudsonreporter.com.