By Amanda Zagrodny

The communications department at the College of Charleston has a religious apparitions enthusiast in Robert Westerfelhaus, whose dissertation and current research analyze sightings of the Virgin Mary and religious kitsch.

Westerfelhaus says that according to popular Catholic piety, the Virgin Mary has appeared in various parts of the world. Around the world, from Brazil to Mexico, from Portugal and France to Bosnia there are shrines to the Virgin Mary, where she is said to have appeared. "When someone claims to have experienced… a vision, and is believed by enough people and/or endorsed by the Church," Westerfelhaus states in his dissertation. "The place where the Blessed Virgin is said to have manifested Herself is defined as a sacred site."

She typically appears to small children and to those who least expect it.  In Fatima, Portugla for instance, Mary, in 1917, was said to have appeared to three young girls. Today she is represented in "kitschy" plastic and plaster statues representative to each culture. Westerfelhaus adds that "kitsch" is literally German for trash.

"Within the Catholic tradition, art is not only used to inspire worship," he says. "But it is also used as a means of...communication" between living and deceased Catholics.  Statues of saints and the Virgin Mary are mechanisms to inspire worship. Westerfelhaus says that kitsch can be seen everywhere from cowboy boots to biceps. "Such objects derive religious significance from what they represent, and not from their aesthetic worth or the value,” he says.

Westerfelhaus' mother was a devout Catholic, but Westerfelhaus himself feels that he found his faith "sometime in grad school."  He says was going to do his dissertation on Cold Springs, Ky. where children are reported to have seen a woman who called herself Mary. "They practically shut down the town," says Westerfelhaus, because Mary was said to appear at a certain time. Later, he decided to focus his research on Our Lady of Guadalupe, visiting the famous shrine in Mexico to further his studies. 

Westerfelhaus explains that Our Lady of Guadalupe is "a popular version of the Blessed Virgin Mary." The story is that a man named Juan Diago experienced seeing a woman a number of times who claimed to be the Mother of God.  She told him to go to the bishop and tell him to build a church on top of a hill. The bishop did not believe him so the woman who called herself the Mother of God told Diago to gather flowers in his cloak and give them to the bishop. There shouldn’t have been any flowers because it was out of season, but there were. When Juan Diago opened his cloak to the bishop the flowers fell out and there was an image of the woman in the cloak. The image is still on the cloak today.  Our Lady of Guadeloupe appears in kitsch art as an Aztec princess.
"No Catholic is bound to believe in [sightings known as apparitions]," says Westerfelhaus. "But today visits by Catholics to Mexico City to see Her are second only to the Vatican."
In his office you can find a statue of this figure, and Westerfehaus explains her clothing and characteristics of the statues and how it relates to Aztec culture. When he speaks his enthusiasm for his research is apparent.  "He is very thoughtful so when he speaks you listen," says fellow communications professor, Beth Goodier.
Westerfelaus is also experienced in the classes he teaches in ethics, communication theory, and rhetoric.
  "He definitely knows what he's talking about," says Sophomore Tiffany Stevenson. "And I like his laid back style."

Goodier considers her colleague "an excellent scholar, very knowledgeable."

Westerfelaus received his B.A. in public relations from Ohio Dominican University.  He then went on to earn his Ph.D. and M.A. from Ohio University.

More on Dr. Robert Westerfelhaus can be found at:

Robert Westerfelhaus
Department of Communication
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