Housewife’s Vision Breaks
Hills Turf War
Aaron Rutkoff and
a warm Sunday in June 1970, a deeply religious 47-year-old Bayside woman
convened an unusual vigil beside a statue of the Virgin Mary near a
neighborhood church. By
1975, violent disputes between her thousands of followers and local
homeowners caused weekly riots and threatened to leave the quiet
residential area in anarchy.
This strange saga began when Veronica
Leuken awoke in the night at her 69th Avenue apartment to a vision of
St. Therese, who told her to prepare to receive visions from the Virgin
Mary. During this first episode, Leuken said she was instructed to hold
vigils near a statue of the Virgin Mary outside of the St. Robert
The vigils were to be held every Sunday
and on the eve of Catholic feasts. Leuken said she was promised a
“heavenly vision” during each pre-holiday vigil.
On June 18, 1970, when Veronica Leuken
first led a small group of followers in prayer and chanting, few
residents of the quiet Bayside Hills community took note.
But as the vigils continued on through the summer and into the
winter, word of the visionary woman spread.
a Catholic newspaper published in Quebec, picked up the story, and by
December 1973 busloads of Canadian pilgrims began arriving in Bayside on
Sundays. One account reported that over one hundred people saw the sky
open up to reveal a “beautiful vision” at a vigil, and Veronica’s
followers started taping her conversations with the vision to be
reprinted in the publication.
“The Message, my child, that I have
entrusted to you, will be rejected by many,” the vision told Veronica,
according to reports in the Canadian paper. “Those in the darkness
will not understand for they have not penetrated this darkness of
In this purported statement, at least,
Veronica’s vision proved prophetic. As the ever-increasing
congregation of adherents — who took to wearing distinctive white
berets — prayed and chanted on the lawn near the church every Sunday
through the passing months, Bayside Hills residents and officials at St.
Robert Bellarmine began to bristle at the invasion.
Vice Chairman of the parish and a member
of the Bayside Hills Civic Association William Caulfield wrote in the
association’s newsletter that the buses of pilgrims constituted a
neighborhood nuisance. He complained of vigilites relieving themselves
on neighborhood lawns and disturbing residents at all hours with the
sounds of their worship.
The monsignor at St. Robert Bellarmine
called on Veronica to move her gatherings to another location. After an
investigation, officials from the Roman Catholic Church issued a report
that stated, “We can only conclude that nothing supernatural is
occurring and many good people from various parts are being duped.”
When priests at the church tried to read the report aloud at the vigil,
worshippers shouted them down with chants.
In November 1973, St. Robert Bellarmine
removed the statue of the Virgin Mary, put up a fence and secured a
court order baring the vigils on church property. Veronica moved her
followers to a grassy mall on 56th Avenue and 214th Street near the
By the end of 1974, civic leaders asked
police to bar the vigilites from the mall, but the police refused for
fear of violating First Amendment rights. After Caulfield was arrested
for disorderly conduct and another neighborhood resident was clubbed in
the head by police while protesting near the vigil site, the community
The residents planned to pre-empt the
vigilites by holding an early bicentennial celebration on the mall one
weekend; civic leaders camped on the lawn to ensure their priority. When
dusk came on Saturday and the pilgrims arrived with Veronica, a virtual
riot ensued and police came in to separate the two sides.
This scenario began to repeat itself as
lawyers took the dispute to court. The confrontations reached a climax
on May 17, 1975, when 2,500 worshippers lined up on Springfield
Boulevard to face off against 900 area residents who amassed along Bell
By the following week, Veronica Leuken
announced that the vision had instructed her to move the vigils to
Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, on the site of the former Vatican Pavilion
during the World’s Fair. A judge oversaw the pact, which established
the park as the site of vigils for Leuken followers for years to come.