The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle to Define Catholicism, by Joseph P. Laycock

Jane Shaw on a compelling study of how an American housewife’s visions of the Virgin Mary led to friction with the institutional Church

April 2, 2015

On the morning of 5 June 1968, Veronica Lueken, a Roman Catholic housewife from Bayside, New York, heard that Robert Kennedy had been shot. She prayed for his recovery, asking the 19th-century saint Thérèse of Lisieux to intercede. Following an overwhelming smell of roses and an almost-accurate prediction of Kennedy’s time of death, she began to have visions, claiming that she received “locutions” and prophetic messages from Thérèse of Lisieux, the Virgin Mary and Jesus. By 1971, she was calling herself a “voice box” for heaven.

Lueken’s career as a “seer” began with the death of a Democrat (albeit a Roman Catholic one) but her messages were thoroughly conservative. In the wake of the liberalising Vatican II, Lueken called on the Roman Catholic Church to restore traditional devotions such as the Latin Mass, and wicked American society to repent, with the warning that a “fiery ball” would otherwise bring devastation on earth. She held vigils at the statue of Mary at her local church, and as word of her visions spread she became widely known, garnering the support of other conservative groups such as the Pilgrims of St Michael. Soon huge vigils were being held in Bayside, so big that they caused complaints and were banned, and the group eventually moved its outdoor vigils to Flushing Meadows.

Joseph Laycock explicates well the paradoxical relationship that Lueken and her followers had with the Roman Catholic authorities. They maintained their loyalty to the Church, but were critical of its decisions. They defied local Church officials but felt justified because those officials had not properly investigated Lueken’s claims. Sometimes this led them to make bizarre claims, not least that Pope Paul VI had been replaced by a communist impostor.

Laycock is very good at positioning Lueken’s claims within the broader context of Marian apparitions in the modern world, many of which are “scripted” by the events at Lourdes. In the early 1940s, the novel The Song of Bernadette was published and, soon after, made into a film. This shaped the Roman Catholic popular imagination, so that Lueken and her followers expected a warm reception from the Bishop of Brooklyn, whose duty it was to assess private revelations. But the Church authorities, trying to negotiate the awkwardness of Lueken’s claims, disappointed the followers’ hopes that their Veronica would be another Bernadette.

Laycock demonstrates, through the example of Lueken and the Baysiders, how the boundaries between centre and periphery are constructed, policed and remain contestable. In this, he is working within the accepted methodologies of cultural history and anthropology. His focus remains on Lueken, with brief comparisons with other Marian seers in modern Roman Catholicism, such as Mary Ann Van Hoof in 1950s Wisconsin, but examples from other traditions support his thesis. Many of the features of the Baysiders can be found in modern prophetic and visionary Protestant groups: condemnation of the “evils” of modernity; theological significance given to the charismatic leader’s suffering; splitting and factions after that leader dies; eclecticism in the group’s beliefs, leading to a bricolage mentality; and self-conscious differentiation from similar groups that might carry the taint of heresy.

Drawing on both archives and fieldwork, Laycock has written a compelling and perceptive book on the Baysiders’ devotional life and their relationship to institutional Roman Catholicism, for which he is to be commended.

The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle to Define Catholicism

By Joseph P. Laycock
Oxford University Press, 280pp, £19.99
ISBN 9780199379668
Published 15 January 2015

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