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When a Catholic cult invaded my town

Rob Poynter
 Published October 13, 1999 in Whoa!

I had my first encounter with the Cult of the Virgin in 1992 in the Rockdale County, Georgia jail, where I was spending the day thanks to an expired tag and a smushed-out joint, tucked away and forgotten in my ashtray. Not feeling social, I avoided contact with my cellmates -- until I noticed a gaunt figure in the corner, whispering prayers, clutching rosary beads and rocking back and forth.

His name was Gary, and he had been arrested for looting through people's trash looking for clothes. Gary wanted to tell me all about Nancy Fowler, impresario of the Virgin. He spoke at length in a stream-of-religious-consciousness manner about Nancy's healings and other acts of God. He had traveled from North Carolina, where he had presumably been rooting through Tar Heel trash while staying near the compound of dueling prophets Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Gary was one of the many thousands who would flock to the "Holy Hill" on the 13th of every month. (Fowler's visions would soon become less frequent. After a few years of monthly appearances, she restricted her chats with the Virgin to once a year on October 13 -- the anniversary of Mary's appearance in Fatima).

Before long, my little town was regularly overrun with Virgin viewers. At the time, I worked as a waiter in the local Applebee's restaurant -- ground zero for hungry Virgin Culties wanting chicken quesadillas. The middle of each month brought a sudden increase in restaurant traffic, as religious freaks crowded into Applebee's booths before heading out to Fowler's farm. These starry-eyed zealots were typically lousy tippers, leaving me Jack Chick religious pamphlets and the occasional snapshot of superimposed angels set against a cloud high above Nancy Fowler's property.

Just what went on at Fowler's farm? Well, it wasn't your garden variety Catholic service, that's for damn sure. Thousands would flock to hear Nancy's message from the Virgin. Legions claimed to see her (Mary, not Nancy) suspended in the clouds above the sky. And of course, all manners of diseased and decrepit individuals stumbled up the road to her house, hoping for a miracle that would restore their health.

Of course, the reality of Nancy Fowler was that of the typical religious huckster. The following incidents, related to me by a high-ranking county bureaucrat, were some of Fowler's greatest hits.

The Holy Well on Holy Hill. This was the name of the well on Nancy's property. During the hot Georgia summer, thousands would take a sip or two of "God's juice" (for a small fee). But on one particularly hot day, the Holy font ran dry. No problem for the resourceful Christian, however -- she was caught by the county that night pumping holy hose water back into the well.

The Walk for Life. During the heyday of prophecy, Our Lady Fowler packed the house, drawing regular crowds of 60-100,000. Subsequently, there was no parking available, forcing thousands of the maimed and diseased to walk three miles just to reach the property. In one instance, the Sheriff's department found a middle-aged male walking with blood seeping from his bandaged head -- he had just undergone brain surgery the day before. Worried for his safety, the friendly Sheriff gave him a ride to Holy Hill. On another occasion, a woman attempting to make the hike two days after open-heart surgery also earned a free ride.

Cash for the Cow. Upon the Holy Hill there was a box. Upon this box there was a see-through container measuring two feet by four feet that housed donations. The box would get so full of Benjamins that a man would have to step into the box and smash the Lord's money down in order to make room for more tithes and offerings. Considering Fowler's current legal difficulties stemming from the financing of her operations, this box may have been the real legacy of the Cult of the Virgin.

Fortunately, Nancy announced that there would be no Virgin sightings today, restoring some degree of dignity to my hometown and letting us get back to that other event for which Conyers is known: school shootings.

"No one can go off and start up his own church and call it Roman Catholic."

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