December 21, 1998 12:00 PM

From behind a plate-glass window set in the wall, the pilgrims peer into Audrey Santo’s brightly lit bedroom. Her blue eyes open and glassy, her hair stretching below her waist, the girl, who turns 15 on Dec. 19, lies immobile on her bed, surrounded by crucifixes and other religious objects.

Every Wednesday afternoon the faithful gather 40 at a time in the modest Worcester, Mass., tract home of Linda Santo, 50, a homemaker, and her husband, Stephen, 34, a loading-dock worker. There, in the garage, a priest celebrates mass, during which oil sometimes mysteriously appears on objects on the altar. Some people believe that Audrey—semicomatose since a backyard swimming pool accident at age 3—has the power to heal and that just being close to her brings them closer to God. “I’ve seen oil coming from the crucifixes. It’s a special place,” says Alma Aucoin, 63, who has visited twice. “I’m blessed to be here.”

And fortunate as well. Believers, responding to tales of strange happenings, including the appearance of stigmata on Audrey’s hands and forehead, began coming to see her in the late 1980s. Now the pilgrimage to the Santo home has become so popular that the waiting list for new visitors stretches to the year 2000. The Santos welcome the task of accommodating all who want to see Audrey. (She has three older siblings: Jennifer, 25, and Matthew, 24, from Linda’s previous marriage, which ended in divorce and Catholic annulment; and Stephen, 16.) Her parents feel they have been blessed with an opportunity to renew their own faith and that of others. “The whole thing is extraordinary,” says the chain-smoking Linda, who as a teenager once aspired to be a nun. “This is the Disneyland of the spiritual world, but we know it’s real because we live with it 24 hours a day.”

Last August, on the anniversary of Audrey’s accident, 8,000 of the faithful flocked to the football field at the nearby College of the Holy Cross for a mass in her honor. Not surprisingly, the spectacle surrounding her has raised concern that Audrey is being exploited, however inadvertently. “She may simply be a poor, comatose young woman who has attracted attention for the wrong reasons,” says Rev. Harvey Egan, a Jesuit professor of mystical and systematic theology at Boston College. “It may very well be that people should leave her alone.”

Last year, Bishop Daniel P. Reilly, head of the local diocese, appointed a three-person commission, including two psychologists and a theologian, to interview the family and to weigh numerous claims from pilgrims that Audrey has helped cure their ailments and that statues and paintings of saints at her home have wept oil. As Raymond Delisle, a spokesman for the diocese, puts it, the key issue is whether Audrey could possibly be what in Catholicism is known as a “victim soul,” whose life of suffering benefits the community around her. “That’s a hard one for most of us to swallow,” says Delisle. “Can a 3-year-old have had enough free will to take on the suffering of others?”

The commission’s report is awaiting review by the bishop. But the Santos have no doubt about what is happening. “In this disgusting, evil, filthy world, we have a sign of hope, mercy, love,” says Linda. “What she is doing without saying one word is giving people [those things].”

It is unclear how much Audrey is aware of her surroundings. She suffered severe brain damage when she fell into the pool and remained submerged for two to four minutes, and she has not spoken since. Fed a liquid diet through a tube in her throat, she is often hooked up to a ventilator to help her breathe. All the same, her pediatrician, Dr. John Harding, believes that she is not completely cut off from the world. “I certainly get the impression sometimes that she kind of knows and hears what you are saying,” says Harding. “She’ll give you a look or get agitated and make some noise.”

As for the possibility of some supernatural phenomenon, Harding is not willing to rule it out. “After a while you say, ‘Gee, something different is going on here,’ ” he says.

Peggy Badger, 45, of Nashua, N.H., a caregiver for special-needs teenagers, credits Audrey with helping alleviate the facial pain she had suffered from multiple sclerosis. “I’m a very strong Catholic,” says Badger. “It’s a leap of faith—what can I tell you?”

It is a leap not everyone may make. “My instincts are that most of this is superstition,” says Egan, the Boston College theology professor, who has followed the Santo case. “This may be a spiritual freak show.”

But the Santos are unfazed by skeptics. “They definitely have my prayers,” says Linda. “And I’m sure they have Audrey’s too.”

Bill Hewitt

Tom Duffy in Worcester

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