Coogee Beach is one of Sydney's most iconic beaches. In 2003, it was also the scene of a religious apparition, when the Virgin Mary appeared on a nearby fence railing.
Visions of the Virgin Mary are known throughout history. Many have been sanctified by the Vatican and are now considered miracles by the church.
Among the most well known is the apparition that occurred at Lourdes, in Southern France. On February 11, 1858, Bernadette Soubirous, a 14 year old peasant girl, was idly wandering in the forest when she heard a strange sound:
'As I raised my head, I saw a lady dressed in white, wearing a white dress, a blue girdle, and a yellow rose on each foot. From the niche (where she stood), or rather above it, came a dazzling light.'
- Bernadette Soubirous
Bernadette reported the incident to her family, who thought she had made the story up. She was punished for blasphemy.
Nevertheless, she kept returning to the location, a grotto fed by a small spring, and was rewarded by several more visions in the ensuing weeks. The apparition identified herself as 'The Immaculate Conception', and told Bernadette that a church should be built on the site.
Word of the visions soon spread.
As crowds began to descend on the grotto, the French Church convened an investigative committee, to determine the veracity of the event. This took nearly two years, but in January 1860 the Church declared the apparitions confirmed.
A large church was constructed at Lourdes, which many thousands of Christian pilgrims visit each year. The waters at Lourdes are also thought to have healing powers. Bernadette Soubirous was canonised as a Saint in 1933.
Located in Sydney's eastern suburbs, Coogee Beach is one of the city's most popular seaside areas.
Backed by a strip of bars, restaurants, and budget hotels, it has also become something of a party zone, particularly favoured by backpackers. An unusual location, for one of Christianity's most revered figures to appear.
On January 30, 2003, in a small park overlooking Coogee Beach, a local resident reported something strange.
Looking out his front window, he suddenly noticed that the Virgin Mary appeared to be standing at the end of a wooden safety fence.
He called his friends and family to have a look. By the next day, word of the apparition had spread like wildfire; several hundred people flocked to the park, hoping to catch a glimpse:
'Some wept, others sang, most prayed. Scores more hiked up the cliff path to touch and kiss the post, which had been transformed into something of a shrine. Pictures of the virgin, rosary beads and flowers were piled around the white washed fence. Most agreed they could discern the shape of a veiled figure'
- Sydney Morning Herald, January 31, 2003
The crowds soon swelled to several thousand a day.
The apparition appeared at the same time each day, in late afternoon. As the fervour around the incident grew, and the media revelled in the story, local sceptics set out to debunk it.
The rational explanation was that the vision was an unlikely combination of the fence's design and colour, late afternoon shadow, and a small rise that changed the angle at the end of the railing.
The Sydney Archdiocese, who choose not to investigate formally, decided to sit on the fence:
'I'm not putting a great amount of store on the significance of it. However, if people are experiencing a sense of peace by being there, then I see it as a good thing.'
- Father Dennis Holm
Some people who experienced the apparition linked it to the Sari Club bombings, a terrorist attack in Bali that had occurred the year before, where 88 Australians were killed. This was a sign from God, not to lose hope.
Whatever the explanation, the apparition made global news. But its fame was destined not to last.
On the night of February 8-9, only ten days after it was initially spotted, vandals destroyed the fence where the apparition had appeared.
The throng of people who turned up to see the Virgin Mary that day, instead reported their sense of loss:
'This is just awful. I think there are some people who just want to destroy what others believe in.'
- Tess Nerona, quoted in the 'Sydney Morning Herald'
No formal vandalism report was ever filed, the site is owned by the Randwick City Council, and so no police investigation was undertaken.
The fence was quickly rebuilt, but with a slight alteration to the design. The Virgin Mary has not been spotted at the location since, although a tiny garden has been planted to mark the spot, and people still attend the location to pray.