Jewish Journal

Reporter sees Virgin Mary in coffee stain

by Brad A. Greenberg

May 11, 2009 | 1:30 pm

It’s common for reporters, particularly religion reporters, to get called out to write about some amazing apparition: Jesus in a window shade or Jesus on a piece of pita bread or Obama on a slice of toast. But it’s unusual for a journalist to actually see one of these apparitions, too—let alone find comfort in it.

Last week, though, Jonathan Tilove, a veteran journalist who’s had a really tough run lately, spotted the Virgin Mary on a coffee stain. He wrote into Romenesko to explain:

I have been a reporter for more than 30 years, most of them at the Newhouse bureau in Washington. When they announced last year they were closing, I was rescued by The Times Picayune, which took me on board as a second Washington correspondent. In November, when the Newhouse bureau shut its doors, four of us - survivors from Newhouse - moved into some empty cubicles in the Cox bureau on Capitol Hill, a beautiful office with a lot of extra space. Within weeks of arriving, Cox announced it would be closing its Washington bureau in the spring.

Last week, the four of us, like hermit crabs, moved into empty cubicles in another beautiful newspaper office in Metro Center, subletting space from Hearst Newspapers, which sublets from McClatchy, which took over the office when it bought Knight Ridder.

On Monday evening, May 4, I went back to the Cox office to pack the rest of my boxes and clean out my cubicle. And there it was, on my desk, a coffee stain in the image of the Virgin Mary.I was a little surprised. Why me? I’m Jewish.

But I have some ideas why I might have been chosen.

* My wife’s uncle, the holiest man I ever knew, was a Roman Catholic bishop with a special devotion to Mary.
* Our house has its share of Mary art.
* My wife (who lost her job when Newhouse closed) and I visited Fatima on our honeymoon to Portugal. We stayed an extra day because we were so fascinated by the scenes of devotion, and, for me, a collector of odd postcards, a treasure trove to choose from, including a priceless 3-D twitching Jesus.
* I write for New Orleans, which no doubt would appeal to Mary on all kinds of levels.
* Perhaps, most crucially, I provided the medium for the appearance of the coffee-stain Madonna by allowing the remains of a cup of coffee to slowly leak out of a paper cup and then only casually blotting up the spill with an old notebook.

I am still not sure what it means, but I confess that amid all the layoffs and furloughs and forced relocations, seeing the image comforted me. As it has been written, “When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me ...”

If you are wondering how bad it has been for newspapers lately, read this 14-month-old post about the beginning of the bloodletting at my old paper and then consider that the LA Daily News has had four or five dramatic rounds of layoffs since. The situation is similar at publications across the country.

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