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Robert Fay​

The Phenomenon       

     When the first pilgrims arrived in 2010, Marion Crown—who’d been raised in the old ways of hospitality—had simply treated them like company, ushering them into the house, making them sit, and offering them Lipton tea and Fig Newton’s. These guests, already in an exalted religious state, mistook Marion’s reflexive New Hampshire courtesy for something like Christian magnanimity. And it was during these lengthy kitchen-table discussions—still possible in the days when pilgrims numbered just three or four a week—that Marion came to understand the severity of her situation.  

     She had had a hard enough time believing the Navy back in ’04 when they said her brother Cleveland was a hero; she’d framed his posthumous Silver Star certificate—hung it on the wall by the grandfather clock—hoping its presence alone might eventually convince her. The whole story, strange as it was, actually had a simple chronology: Cleveland had become a Jesuit after college. He did his priest thing, but then after 9/11, he joined the Navy and got killed in Fallujah, Iraq while serving as a Marine Chaplain. The Navy said he was a hero, but some Marines started saying he was a saint. A few began having visions, or apparitions as the priests called them. But what was she supposed to know about all this? She was an Episcopalian, and not even a good one. What she knew, for certain, was there was nothing heroic about Cleveland, nothing. When he’d become Catholic and joined the priesthood, it was a shock to most, but not to her. She could see that. He’d always liked books, and when it came to clothes, he dressed like a real dandy, and he was famously clueless about ordinary life. But a saint? No! This is a man who never once, when he was home from the Society of Jesus, offered to wash a single dish. What kind of saint was that!

     But it was less what the pilgrims said, and more how they were, that worried Marion the most. She noticed, no matter who they were, or where they were from, they all resembled Cleveland in odd ways. Now, it wasn’t like they were clones of her brother, no, but they were all self-important and fixated on some internal dream narrative known only to themselves. They weren’t disciples exactly, but more like heirs to his personality, a curious fact, considering none of them had ever met her brother, and he’d left no books, sermons or videos that she knew of.  

     But then, just as the isolated bands of pilgrims began to slow, and Marion thankfully resumed her life of relative isolation in the Crown Homestead, the trend suddenly reversed itself, and the phenomenon exploded.

     People said it was the Internet. She didn’t know about that—she wasn’t online back then—but that’s what they said. The Catholic blogosphere was apparently ablaze with devotions to Fr. Crown and overnight the contemplative culture of solitary spiritual seekers (the kind of believers with Thomas Merton books in their backpacks), had given way to throngs of families, Boy Scout troupes, men from the Knights of Columbus, parish prayer groups, seminarians, sisters, and convoys of chartered buses from once-stalwart Catholic cities like Boston, Worcester, Buffalo and Quebec. In a few brief months, the Crown Homestead had become the busiest attraction in Rockingham County, and after a year, its fame had eclipsed the Deerfield Fair (locally and regionally, a sacrosanct institution for over two centuries), and was increasingly competing with the Mt. Washington Valley and Franconia Notch State Park as the premier tourist destinations in the entire state of New Hampshire.

     The change put Marion on edge. She complained of shortness-of-breath, mini-panic attacks, migraines. She wasn’t sleeping much either. There were nights when pilgrims banged on her door as late as midnight, asking for the location of Fr. Crown’s gravesite or if there was a priest “in residence.”

     It was all too much.

     She went up to the attic one morning and retrieved Abner Crown’s old 30.6. She hadn’t fired a rifle in 30 years, but she leaned it against her nightstand anyway, and felt the better for it. But even more than threats to her security, were the damages to the Crown family name in town. It was bad. She’d read the local papers and knew the phenomenon was angering the folks. Nobody claimed Marion was at fault, but the implication was, somehow, she was enabling the frenzy. The Sheriff’s office sent Deputy Richard Barnhill up to the property. Deputy Barnhill told Marion she was within her rights to host the tourists, but he reminded her she also had the right to say “no” as well, which might well be the right thing to do considering the uproar in town. Marion defended herself. She hadn’t invited a single person to come, but even so, she just couldn’t tell them to go home either. “What in the hell do you say to bunch of strangers who love your brother more than you do?” she told the deputy. “I don’t know Marion,” he said. “But I wish you’d just put your foot down. If you enforced your rights as property owner—posted NO TRESPASSING signs—the Sheriff’s Office could help…You ain’t without choices here Marion.” She looked at the deputy in bewilderment. “I am without choices,” she said. “If I end it Rich—I think something bad will happen. You can’t meet hundreds of people who tell you your brother is a personal friend of God and not wonder. These people talk day and night about miracles, angels—everything we grew up learning about in Sunday school. So how am I supposed to shut this down and escape unharmed? Don’t you see? Don’t you see there really is no choice for me?”

     Marion began sharing her woes with a retired Filipina sister, Sr. Lucia Garcia, who had become a regular on the hilltop. Marion adored the 67-year-old Augustinian for her enthusiasm and selflessness; without having to be asked, she took the lead with the largest pilgrim groups, guiding them around the property, emphasizing the shrine was still a home. Sr. Garcia eventually moved in with Marion, and began serving as House Manager, handing both domestic chores and visitor management.

     Marion eventually got Internet service and began trolling the various Fr. Crown sites. It was an education. She got the backstory on the reputed Marine apparitions in Fallujah, read blog posts about visiting her hilltop and began to appreciate the complexities of the “Fr. Crown Cause” vis-à-vis the official Church. She learned there were well-established pilgrimage sites in France, Portugal and Mexico for people devoted to the Virgin Mary. She realized what was happening was crazy, but in the context of Catholic cultural history, it was as commonplace and predictable as sin. The devotion was apparently an example of “popular piety,” which had always existed alongside more institutionalized forms of faith. And while the local ordinary, Bishop Renton of Manchester, had yet to take an official position on the apparitions, he’d made it clear the Church was skeptical. Unofficially, he sent several priests to Deerfield (including a Jesuit who was an expert in prodigies and miracles), and the men inspected the hilltop, interviewing Marion Crown and Sr. Garcia. The priests found both women to be humble and free of guile, but as they studied the matter in depth, several issues concerned them: first, Marion stood to make money by encouraging greater numbers of pilgrims to come (“This is a worrying parallel with Medjugorje where,” the final report read, “the visionaries have gained financially from the so-called apparitions”), and secondly, debate over the devotion’s validity was causing dissension among the priests in the Diocese, and discord is always the aim of “our ancient enemy,” as the author’s report put it. A third fact—and perhaps the most curious of all—was that Marion, Fr. Crown’s own sister, didn’t actually believe any of it, and when asked if she’d ever join the Catholic Church, she laughed and said, “Hell, no.” Her sincere and emphatic response divided the investigating priests. If Fr. Crown was truly a saint, some of them wondered, and the Crown Homestead was a holy place—wouldn’t it naturally follow that Marion would have had a conversion experience by now? But some of the priests felt that Marion’s not being Catholic, in and of itself, was proof the phenomenon was happening “against her will,” and therefore was not a personal scheme to make money. Bishop Renton read the report, prayed a rosary, and then sent an email to Monsignor Gauldino at the Congregation for the Doctrines of the Faith in Rome. He concluded the site did not need to be suppressed (doing so would only make it more intriguing to the faithful), but he would make it clear (through backchannels) that parish priests had to disengage. “If Holy Mother Church had learned one thing in 2,000 years,” he wrote. “It was patience. Most of the time, doing nothing is more effective than charging in and condemning events.” He predicted the devotion would last no more than two years.

     Marion did not know of Bishop Renton’s skepticism, but she had learned from Sr. Garcia that the Church wouldn’t “endorse” the devotion or the site (whatever that meant). “Well,” Marion said to Sr. Garcia. “The Church might not support what’s happening. But I got a nun living in my house and busloads of priests here. So somebody thinks it’s real.” And the numbers, increasing as they did each week, were forcing Marion to think fast and think big. For her, doing nothing was no longer an option; they’d passed the days of innocence when NO TRESPASSING signs and security guards might suffice. She understood the hilltop would need to build real facilities like those at Mount Vernon or Niagara Falls. But Marion didn’t know anything about real estate development (or even if that was the particular skillset she needed). Sr. Garcia told her not to worry, she would pray to Fr. Crown, and help would arrive in the manner and timeliness God willed. Marion forced a smile. She loved Sr. Garcia, but pitied her too. Her faith was simple, almost laughable, like believing in parted seas and blind people seeing. But two months after the good sister’s reassurance, she got a call from Charles Leary. He was a retired lawyer and real estate investor, who had been a leading citizen in Portsmouth for decades. He was just the kind of man she needed, and all Sr. Garcia did when she told her, was smile, and casually point to the sky like a ballplayer crossing home plate.

     Mr. Leary introduced himself as a pious Catholic who, he told her in confidence, had had some “significant spiritual experiences” related to the Fr. Crown devotion (what exactly, he wouldn’t say). He said he’d been up to the hilltop several times to pay his respects at Fr. Crown’s gravesite, and while there, noticed the property was “greatly distressed” by the volume of visitors. He added that he’d like to help, to volunteer as it were, and that he possessed the kind of expertise that could help her manage the site more effectively. “Let me be frank Miss Crown,” he said. “If you don’t monetize the pilgrim experience, the Crown land has no future. I’m well aware that family-owned logging operations are no longer feasible, and your current tax burden must be…distressing, to say the least.”

     This last bit struck a chord.

     In a state with no sales tax, the property tax on 8,000 acres of land was debilitating, and each year it got worse. The Crowns had always earned a good living from logging, maple syrup, and in more recent years partnering with the honey producer, R.G. Honeycomb, Inc., which until R.G. went bankrupt in 1995, had operated their beehives on several of different sites on Crown land and had been as well-recognized regionally as Moxie soda (The region’s beehives were devastated by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in the mid-1990s, a complex phenomenon where hives are rendered unproductive because of a number of factors, including exposure to pesticides, pathogens, invasion by Africanized bees and the effects of climate change).

     After R.G.’s bankruptcy, the Crowns watched as their already-slim profit margins on timber disappeared too. The lumber industry, like the agri-business, was moving away from a series of localized, micro-markets with family-fun operations, to a global business where corporate players ran the markets. Massive companies like Weyerhaeuser and International Paper now owned massive tracts of Maine forests and could afford to sell timber to New England mills at cut rate prices. Their low price-point destroyed Marion’s competiveness, so she tried to find another market differentiator. She read the trade journals and knew environmentally-friendly building products were the new thing. Edith decided to go green. She invited the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to evaluate the quality of the family’s forest management practices. Her daddy and granddaddy had logged with long-term sustainability in mind: they never clear-cut their parcels; they always left stands of buffer trees near streams; and they monitored soil erosion and planted a mix of hardwoods and softwoods, thus avoiding the kinds of monoforests that were easily maimed by disease and the vagaries of climate. The Crown timberlands eventually received FSC certification, which “ensures that products come from responsibly-managed forests that provide environmental, social and economic benefits.” Marion went to the mills and pitched her environmentally-friendly timber. The sawmillers listened politely (out of respect to Marion’s daddy and granddaddy), but they were unmoved. They said they talked to their buyers every day, and the guys were saying builders, contractors, and homebuyers paid lip-service to the environment, but what they really wanted was cheap lumber. That was it. They were sorry, they said. We just can’t afford your trees.

     It was bad news and it got worse when they had to shutter their maple syrup operation. The Crowns had been maple-sugaring since the 1940s. It had been a simple and profitable business: tap the trees, boil it down, and sell it off quickly to distributors who bottled it under different names, and then sold it to grocery chains, restaurants and government institutions (correctional facilities, schools systems, the Department of Defense) up-and-down the Eastern seaboard. But now the big agri-outfits in Canada had begun to flood the U.S. market with cheap syrup. If you wanted to stay in the business, you had to really own and sell your product. You had to brand it in the new boutique consumer marketplace, get it certified organic, build a robust online presence, and then convince the all-natural grocery stores in Boston, Concord, Portland and Brattleboro to carry your syrup. It was too much; Marion had no interest in the food business. She just wanted to pay the tax man and live like her parents had.

     Many nights she lay in bed cursing her dreamy, pie-in-the-sky brother for leaving her with so much responsibility. The property, and its headaches, was his birthright, not hers. He loved to go on about the fucking romance of the place, the trees and nature, God’s country, all that, but talk to him about falling timber prices and tax assessments, and he got sleepy on you. She had to hand it to these Crown men, she thought. They run things for two hundred years, and then, just as the whole thing is about to go to pot, they finally cede power to a woman, and let her rule over the debacle.  

     In the months before the phenomenon, Marion had already started doing the unthinkable: selling off a few “outer” parcels to developers from Massachusetts. It was a quick infusion of cash and she had done it quietly, shamefully. The sales were a matter of public record, of course, and word quickly spread that the stalwart Crowns had finally given in. But Marion was hardly the first. It had been happening all over Rockingham County and throughout southern New Hampshire for years. The old families just couldn’t make money from the land anymore. Land, which used to be the only true marker of wealth, had now become a burden. It actually wasn’t land anymore, it was real estate. And the only way to get value from real estate is to sell it.

     Mr. Leary continued:

     “What I’m suggesting,” he said. “Is that you build a visitor infrastructure, provide a more guided and managed experience for the pilgrims, and you may be able to take in enough revenue (combined with fundraising efforts), so you can pay the property taxes, provide your staff with a salary, and cover the cost of maintaining the facilities in perpetuity. If this is done correctly, the faithful will have access to an important religious site and your ancestral lands will remain intact for future generations.” He said the key was making sure the pilgrims were happy. “Look,” he said. “You can’t expect institutional support from the Catholic Church—the pilgrims are all you have. And though nobody has excommunicted anybody, some priests are warning the faithful to stay away because Bishop Renton hasn’t approved the devotion.”

     “But Catholics don’t do what the Church says anyway,” Marion said.

     “Yes. Well, I suppose that’s true—and to your advantage I might add.”

     Marion agreed to partner with Mr. Leary. That Monday they got busy at her kitchen table imagining the new-and-improved “Father Crown Shrine and Homestead.” Their first move was to establish the Father Crown Foundation as a 501(c)(3), nonprofit organization. This was essential. If you asked donors for big money, they had to know their gifts were tax deductible. Mr. Leary next phoned his old business associate Anthony J. Romano. Romano was a wealthy East Boston businessman who had made a small fortune with a chain of sub shops in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Romano had been a generous Catholic donor over the years, having divided his fortune between pro-life organizations and the St. Vincent DePaul Society.

     Romano’s gift of $500,000 provided the initial seed money for the foundation, and Mr. Leary wasn’t shy in getting started: he built a website, established a social media presence, and hired an administrative staff consisting of three fundraisers, two marketing professionals, an accountant, and two young women reporting directly to Sr. Garcia (one of them would go on to become a cloistered Carmelite). They then quickly started soliciting donors by phone, email and direct mail. Mr. Leary consulted with a retired architect friend, and together they sketched out a plan for a number of hilltop buildings. The most surprising decision was to evict Sr. Garcia and Marion from the Homestead. Total access was vital to the pilgrim experience. Visitors wanted to linger in the kitchen where Fr. Crown had first eaten SPAM sandwiches, and examine the living room where he had watched Emergency! and The Brady Bunch until his mother shooed him into the fresh air. Marion and the good sister didn’t complain. They moved into one of two mobile homes behind the old garage. It was hard on Marion—she’d never lived anywhere else in 48 years—and during the first three nights she cried, wondering if she’d made the mistake of her life.

    Marion next signed off on multiple parking lots, an extensive trail network, a welcome center (with administrative offices), a chapel, a guest house, a café and restaurant, a gift shop and eventually, a new house for her and Sister Garcia a half-mile down from the Homestead. But she knew, to get the building permits they'd have to go into town and endure the scrutiny of a public hearing. This wasn’t something she could delegate. She would have to face the town and take the heat.

     The Deerfield Town Council held its public hearings in the whitewashed, historic Town Hall across from the town green. The Wednesday hearing was what the Town Council termed an “extraordinary” session, a session dedicated exclusively to one application. A notice on the Town of Deerfield’s website stated copies of the application, Crown Foundation BP (12) 3-5, had been placed on file at the Business Manager’s office on the first floor of the Deerfield Town Hall and also at the Deerfield Public Library. “Interested citizens are encouraged to attend the public hearing and express their views. Comments may be mailed to the address above or sent by electronic mail to”

     Marion shuffled into the Town Hall accompanied by Mr. Leary and her girlhood friend Sally Palsgrave, who’d she’d known since 4th grade, and who had recently returned from a rehab stint in Pittsfield, Mass., to treat a nasty OxyContin addiction. Sr. Garcia had remained at home on Mr. Leary’s advice. He was concerned her all-white religious habit might cause a stir. “You mean folks here don’t like Catholics,” Marion had said. “Yes. Something like that,” Mr. Leary replied.

     The old Town Hall was standing-room only as the Crown party took their seats. The Union-Leader had a reporter present and, for first time in the town’s history, a Manchester television crew was also in attendance (WMUR News 9). There was even some talk about a writer from The Los Angeles Times who been canvassing the town. A few people said they had spoken with a nice gentlemen from California, who said he knew Cleveland from Iraq, and was doing a story on his “spiritual fame” as he put it.  

     It was precisely seven o’clock when Town Administrator Nelson Fowler said, “There being a quorum present…I’d like to go ahead and call the meeting to order.” Fowler asked the clerk to read the application report, and as he did, people began shuffling their feet and murmuring to their companions. It was the first time the foundation’s name had been uttered in public, and its impact—occurring as it did in the one and only civic body of the town—was devastating, nearly as traumatic to the old timers as hearing Walter Cronkite announce President Kennedy’s death.

     Fowler immediately opened up the hearing to public input, and down the main aisle, a long line formed behind a beat-up old school lectern that faced the council. The initial comments were restrained, and largely centered on quality-of-life issues. The buildings were to serve tourists (no one in Deerfield dared call them pilgrims), and it was tourists with all their cars and money, who would indelibly change the character of the town. A few people raised objections from a land conservation perspective. Almost everyone in town had been up to the hilltop for one reason or another. Everyone agreed it was beautiful. From 1964 until 1996 (when Abner Crown died), the Crowns had hosted an annual 4th of July picnic and firework celebration that had become something of a semi-official Deerfield town event. The conservationists argued the house and view was a community treasure, a scenic vista, and as such, they proposed the Crown Homestead be designated for placement on the New Hampshire State Register of Historic Places. Members of the Council nodded their heads at this novel proposition.

     After more comments—further objections along the quality-of-life theme—74-year-old Richard Wolcott stepped to the lectern. He was wiry and brittle, and when he walked, his body resembled a crooked pine branch. He had served on the Town Council for several terms in the 1970s and ‘80s, and he was twice Town Administrator. To local ears, the name Wolcott had the aristocratic ring of “Roosevelt” or “Kennedy.” His family owned thousands of acres of land and the Wolcott and Crown families had been intertwined professionally and socially for three generations. “Dick Wolcott. 587 Briar Road. Not a party to the application, but you all know my land runs along Crown land…Look. You allow this. And in no time they’ll be building a monastery or a nunnery, or whatever you call it up there,” he said confidently turning back to survey the room before setting his sights on Marion. “Marion, I knew your Dad well. And I respected the hell out of him. But he wouldn’t have liked this one bit, and it don’t matter that these people think well of your brother…Now Cleveland was a good boy. That ain’t the issue. I spent 13 months catching hell in Vietnam. I respect that boy for going over to I-raq. But what’s going on in his name, ain’t right. It just ain’t right Marion. You daddy and your granddaddy would have never allowed it. You let the priests and nuns up there, living up there, and it will turn into a sick scene. An orgy. Sick sex stuff—we all read the papers from Boston; what they done to kids down there—it just ain’t right Marion. It ain’t right.”

     There was some isolated applause as Wolcott sat down, but an equal number of people were shaking their heads no, or saying, “That’s not right Dick,” or “It’s about the future of Deerfield. Dick. That’s the real issue.”

     Then James Bompas got his turn. He’d gone to school with Marion in the 1980s. “Jimmy Bompas. 23 East Branch. Not a party to the application…I just got to say it’s not right to be prejudice against nobody: Catholics, the blacks, Orientals, nobody. That’s just not right. This is Deerfield. We got pride. We ain’t Mobile, Alabama here. We can do better.” And as he returned to his seat, the clapping and supportive shouts outstripped those received by Richard Wolcott.

     As the night wore on, the comments became ever-more existential—as they always did nowadays—with residents voicing a generalized anxiety about Deerfield’s future. It was terrifying, because the old ways, the ways of timber and farming, fathers passing lands onto sons, were obviously done. The exurbs swirled outward from Concord and Manchester like wind-swept tropical storms. You could almost feel the wet, hot humidity of change and catastrophe coming in on the wind. Yet nobody had predicted the onslaught would come in the form of Catholic pilgrims, but it really didn’t matter who the invaders were—they were here now—and it most likely signaled the end.  

     The write up in the Deerfield Forum on Thursday morning claimed the application was “the most contentious” issue in living memory, with only the fight surrounding the state-proposed bypass in ’86 coming close. Yet Mr. Leary thought the reporter had confused vociferous, unanimous opposition with contention; there hadn’t been one single person who spoke in favor of the permits (Mr. Leary had advised Marion to say nothing. “Never dialogue with oppositional forces,” he said). But the reporter, Mr. Leary thought, had been more accurate than he knew. It was a contentious issue because—as he learned later—a small group of Deerfield citizens did support the building permits, though they had chosen not to make their opinions public.

     Forty-five days after the public hearing, the Town Council approved the permits 7-2 without conditions.

     Notice of the decision was made available for public inspection within 144 hours, as required by DTR 686:3. A certified letter was also sent to the Foundation, informing them of the application’s approval. The approved building permits were then filed with Town Clerk, given to the Planning Board, the Board of Selectmen and the Property Tax Assessor.

     Mr. Leary didn’t have contacts in the Town Council, but he had befriended a local man, Martin Crumbler, who had been up to the hilltop a few times. Crumbler said a group of businessmen—none of whom felt comfortable speaking at the hearing—had invited Nelson Fowler to breakfast a few days after the hearing. They said Deerfield could not go on pretending it was 1960. It was a new century, they emphasized, and new ideas had to reign.

     Fowler munched on his bacon strips and corned beef hash and listened. This is what politicians were supposed to do, he reminded himself, listen to their constituents. At just 37, he was one of the youngest Town Administrators in living memory. He was a native of Deerfield—so he had a grounding in the old ways, but he also didn’t fear the future. He was idealistic about public service and progress. He wanted to be remembered as the guy who got things done. He was neither cynical nor overly ideological.

     If the permits were approved, his hosts explained, the tourists would certainly come in larger numbers, and the town would need gift shops, restaurants, miniature golf courses, and the like. It didn’t matter who these outsiders were, or what practices they believed in, they told Fowler. All that mattered was locals were able to gain some benefit from the influx. This was the new America, they argued, a new egalitarian age where economic relationships could finally be freed from parochial prejudice and traditions. Yes, we’ll have to modify the old ways. Maybe lose a bit of our in-born prudence, our Yankee caution, but then again, nobody every tip-toed into a revolutionary age. But consider the upside, they said, questions about who your granddaddy was, or how many acres you own—they won’t matter—they’ll all get dumped into the trashbin of history. It will be, instead, are your ideas new? Are you productive? Are you making the kind of living that helps someone else make a living? It won’t matter if your family was from Concord or Calcutta. What’s important is you have a skill, a talent, maybe a little liquid in your account, whatever. That’s the future of the Granite State. The state’s motto “Live Free or Die” had lost its bite; the country and the state have changed beyond recognition. It’s time to be realistic. It would be better if it said, “Growth for Growth’s Sake.” Something like that. Simple! Nobody is telling anyone to die anymore, to make some foolish choice, but simply to move the needle. Actually, that’s even better: “Move the Needle.” That would truly shine on license plates. Move the Needle. But the point is really this: the change, the phenomenon—whatever you want to call it—will start here. Right here in Deerfield, Rockingham County, New Hampshire, and people will always remember that. They will. The phenomenon. The change. It all started here.

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