JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Hundreds of people of all religious persuasions are flocking to be blessed by a 17-year-old South African girl who claims to have had visions of the Virgin Mary around her home.
Sightings like this are rare in South Africa, where only 6 percent of the population is Catholic. Archbishop Buti Tlhagale, the bishop of the diocese of South Africa, was not in his office Monday to respond to Zackey's claims.
Francesca Zackey's parents have converted the front room of their house in Benoni, a small town east of Johannesburg, into a prayer room. The sideboard buffet has been turned into a shrine, fronted by a child-sized statue of Mary surrounded by bouquets of roses and pictures of a crucified Jesus.
Theresa Skosana, 53, made a detour on her way to work Monday to be blessed by the girl.
Zackey put her hand on Skosana's chest. A few moments later Skosana's legs buckled and she was helped to the floor. Zackey then held a hand above the woman's head. As Skosana trembled, winced, clenched her fist, Zackey's family members and others gathered in the room recited the Lord's Prayer and then the Hail Mary. After finishing the prayers, Skosana was helped to her feet.
In the next hour the scene was repeated half a dozen times, with even non-Catholics being brought to the ground by Zackey's touch. The teenager was not asking for donations for the blessings.
Mira Magjee was compelled to visit Zackey after hearing a report about the teenager on local radio.
"I'm a Hindu, but I believe in everything that is sacred," said Magjee, who had come from a family funeral and was still wearing the traditional white sari.
Zackey is the youngest of four daughters in a devoted Catholic Lebanese family. Underneath a long black sweater, the teenager was wearing a zip-up sweat shirt printed with the word "punk".
"She's always been a different child, very bold," said Bridget Zackey, the girl's mother, who had a blue string of rosary beads wrapped around her right hand. She said the visions seemed to come at an opportune time for her daughter who has just finished school and was going through a transitional period in her life. "I think this is her calling."
The teenager said she first saw the Virgin Mary on May 7, interrupting the family's evening meal.
"My brother-in-law asked for an encyclopedia, and as I was replacing the book back, I just smelt the strongest fumes of roses and it just hit me, and I fell to my knees and I started crying the tears of joy," she said.
Zackey said she called her family to the bookshelf and they also smelled roses. Then she said she was compelled by the "Holy Spirit" to go to her bedroom where she saw the Virgin Mary sitting on the right side of her bed.
"She had ice blue eyes, brown hair, long brown hair, and an ice blue cloak. Her hands were open, there was light coming out of her hands," Zackey said.
Zackey said at first she was scared by the visions, but "then the Holy Spirit took over" and gave her strength.
In her visions, the mother of Jesus Christ called on the teenager to write a book documenting her visions and start a youth prayer group.
"She said to me that she wants people to pray with their hearts. She said: 'I want you to open your house for seven days and I want you to put statues where I have been,"'.
Zackey said she had had about 20 visions of the Virgin and each site is marked with candles, idols of Mary and roses.