Tampa Bay's "Weeping Icon" Fiasco

By Gary P. Posner

On Tuesday, July 18, 1989, alleged miracles began occurring at the Greek Orthodox Shrine of St. Michael in Tarpon Springs. Tears began to flow from the eyes of the Virgin Mary on one of the numerous icons hanging in the shrine, and within hours, tears were reportedly flowing from five other icons. The Tampa Tribune  reported that the Rev. Christos Matos of St. George's Greek Orthodox Church in New Port Richey, who had been presiding over the proceedings at St. Michael's, told the faithful that "It's a sign from God we are sinful, and we shall repent," although the Rev. Tryfon Theophilopoulos of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs speculated that "It's a sign of happiness from...the holy mother." But whether happy or sad, Mary's tears have attracted visitors by the thousands, and donations of thousands of dollars.

I received a phone call from Channel 10 (WTSP-TV) on July 21 requesting that I accompany one of their reporters to the Tarpon Springs shrine. So on Monday, July 24, I went to have a first-hand look at the miraculous weeping icon. In my pocket was the large color photograph taken on July 19 that appeared in the St. Petersburg Times  on July 20.

After making my way to the front of the line, I was greeted by the Rev. Matos (Fig. 1), who anointed me with what news reports stated to be a mixture of the miracle tears and olive oil. As I examined the huge painting of Mary and Jesus hanging high on the wall behind him, I noted that the image, although similar, was not the same one that appeared in the newspaper. I then saw beneath the painting, in a glass-covered frame, a much smaller color photograph  matching the newspaper image exactly.

The photograph, as seen in the papers and on TV, is remarkable for its dramatic pattern of apparent tears beneath Mary's eyes. Even more remarkable was my discovery that the tear pattern in the photo on the wall was an exact  match to the newspaper photo that had been taken five days earlier (Fig. 2)! According to the Rev. Matos, the tears had continued to flow daily, requiring him to repeatedly dab them away with cotton balls (he told me that he had just cleared them away again minutes before my arrival). But it was evident that dot-for-dot, the "tear" pattern had remained absolutely undisturbed. When Tampa Tribune  reporter Carlos Moncada informed Matos of my observation, he quoted Matos as replying, "It has (changed). The (tear) tracks appear deeper."

Matos explained to me that the white "tears" were not actively flowing during my visit because from time to time they "crystallize," only to later resume their flow. I thus placed my head against the wall to the picture's left, and looked across the plane of the photograph. What I observed was a flat piece of photographic paper, with no "tears" or "crystals" adherent to it or etched into it. Press reports have carried speculation that the "tears" might be due to "humidity," but there was no  visible moisture present, liquid or crystal. And contrary to Matos' assertion, there was no  depth at all to the "tear tracks."

Another remarkable aspect of the dots comprising the "tears" is their opacity -- they are intensely white, obscuring the underlying color of Mary's garment. One might expect "tears," even of the miraculous variety, and even if temporarily "crystallized," to be translucent if not transparent. But this "icon" appeared to my eyes to be simply a professional-quality color photograph of a painting that had itself perhaps been dotted with white paint in an effort to simulate the appearance of tears.

Taped to the top of the icon's picture frame was a commercially printed caption bearing a February 1987 copyright. The text of the caption began: "The Guiding Mother of God Weeping Icon," and indicated that the photograph had been taken in Chicago, on December 6, 1986, at St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church, where the original painting resides. This painting had attracted national attention at St. Nichoias' two years ago when it  reportedly began to weep, although church officials had denied requests for a scientific investigation of the affair.

Somewhat startled, and believing that I was merely observing a mass-produced souvenir photograph of the Chicago icon as it appeared two years ago, I was assured by the Rev. Matos that this was not the case. He told me that this photograph had been hanging in the shrine for seven months, without any "tear" pattern present until the miraculous flow commenced on July 18. I wondered how it was possible that a captioned photograph of the Chicago "Weeping Icon" could have ever appeared tearless, but held my tongue.

Kathi Belich, the Ch. 10 reporter on the scene, interviewed me for that evening's 6:00 newscast, portions of which were also shown at 11 p.m. On my drive home from Tarpon Springs, I was "beeped" by Kathryn Bursch from Ch. 44 (WTOG), and stopped at their studio for an interview. Moncada's Tampa Tribune  article ran the following day. Al Gardner of WFLA radio interviewed me at length on the morning of July 26, and WTKN's Tom Bowerley the following morning. I was the only source providing skeptical commentary to the press and public on this "hot" story.

I then obtained from a press source an AP Laserphoto of the Chicago icon dated 12/12/86. The "tear" pattern of white dots, although similar, was clearly not the same as that on the Tarpon Springs photo. I contacted Jim Zaluba of the Midwest Committee for Rational Inquiry (MCRI), the local skeptics group based in Chicago. He made a trip to St. Nicholas Church, and informed me that there was by now barely a hint of the original tear pattern visible on the icon. Although no photography of the icon is now allowed by the church, Jim purchased and sent to me the 8x10 color souvenir photograph that they have mass produced. On the back of the photo is the identical caption as in Tarpon Springs. However, the souvenir photo differs substantially from the one hanging in Tarpon Springs, and from the AP newspaper photo of 12/12/86, in that the tear pattern does not consist of white dots, but rather of continuous dark linear streaks.

But it was not until Rev. Matos announced on August 8 that the icons were again  beginning to weep that reporters began to indicate some skepticism of their own. On Ch. 44 news on Aug. 9, Kathryn Bursch noted that she had seen no sign of any weeping of the icons that day. The St. Pete. Times  article on Aug. 9 stated that the Times  requested permission to commission a scientific test of the reported tears, but that the request was denied. Not remarked upon by the reporter was a contradiction now apparent in Matos' story -- he was now claiming that numerous icons, including the picture discussed in this article, had wept from July 18-20, stopped, and had only resumed weeping within the past several days. He had claimed in their July 25 article (and to my face) that the picture had been weeping continuously from July 18 through at least the day of my July 24 visit.

Although a few witnesses did report "moisture" on some of the shrine's contents from time to time (the building is muggy, without air conditioning), dissension began to evidence between the two priests overseeing the Tarpon Springs attraction. While Matos continued to allege miracles, Theophilopoulos began in late August to exhibit a more cautious approach. Despite Matos' claims to having regularly witnessed tear flows, and his having been quoted in a July 25 St. Pete. Times  article as asserting, "I tasted those (tears) that came from the icon. There was a sense of salt," Theophilopoulos was quoted thusly in the Times  on August 25: "We cannot bill them as tears. I'm not here to deceive the people. I'm here to say the truth."

Theophilopoulos proceeded to call in a representative of the Greek Orthodox Dioces of Atlanta to arbitrate the dispute, and although both the professional press and TBS were denied interviews with the parties involved, Matos is reportedly no longer permitted to operate at the shrine. And press reports as early as August 10 had noted that Rev. Matos has also been transferred from his position at St. George's Church, and is awaiting assignment elsewhere. Furthermore, Theophilopoulos is now refusing to even discuss with the press the matter of the "Weeping Icon" controversy. (See closeup of "Icon")

But the isolated reports of moisture were not the initial "draw" that attracted the news media, resulting in publicity that attracted thousands of other visitors. The dramatic white "tear tracks" shown in the newspapers, and on TV, which Matos claimed (on Ch. 10's videotape) to have suddenly appeared on July 18, was the main attraction. And in an August 2 conversation with TBS member Guss Wilder, Matos belatedly acknowledged that the streaks had actually been there all along! This second crucial contradiction, which fatally weakens an already pitifully feeble case for a "miracle," has not been reported upon by any of the area's professional journalists.

There remain a number of unanswered questions regarding the Tarpon Springs "Weeping Icon." We know that the photograph is of the Chicago painting, but it is not the same photo that is being mass marketed out of the Chicago church. Who took the photograph? Who developed the negative? Were the white dots on the original painting? Were they the result of tampering of the negative? Who donated the photograph to the Shrine? Was there really moisture on the icons? If so, was it the result of condensation? Or did someone sprinkle water on the artifacts? Or salt water, so that it would taste like tears? Or did the icons truly "weep"???

Versions of this article appeared in the Fall 1989 Tampa Bay Skeptics Report  and in the Summer 1990 Skeptical Inquirer.

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