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Despite the thousands who flocked to Fatima in October 1917 to witness the promised miracle, contemporary records are sparse and all of them Portuguese. Several of the national dailies referred to what they presented as a quaint peasant rumour until the editor of the influential O Seculo came himself to scoff but stayed to marvel.
There was, however, a young English Protestant woman present at the October apparition who witnessed the Miracle of the Sun and later wrote about it.
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Her name was Mabel Norton. Not much can be unearthed about Mabel’s life apart from what she chooses to tell us and that is solely in the context of Fatima. In 1917 she was in her late twenties and had already spent seven years in Portugal as a teacher. She says that in October 1917 she was still enjoying the summer holidays at the quinta of a Marquis, in the countryside north of Lisbon, obliging the Marchioness, whom she describes as a great friend, by talking English with the younger members of the family.
The eldest daughter told Mabel about the three children who claimed to have seen the Blessed Virgin several times in a rural area some 70kms north and on the night of the 12th the Marquis revealed that he had hired an enormous car to take the whole family to Fatima.
They started out at 4am, eight passengers and a chauffeur. Nobody had a notion what form the promised miracle would take (or, indeed, if the whole story wasn’t a concoction) and the family was attired in evening dress because they were to return south and go directly to a dance at a cousin’s.
The journey provided an assault course of impediments. At dawn the vehicle was stuck in the sand of a dry river bed. Fortunately, as the early Angelus rang, a farmer with a team of oxen passed to work nearby fields and managed to pull the car out of the mire.
A little later they stopped for breakfast. The country had been six months without rain but heavy clouds choose that moment to roll in from the ocean and discharge their cargo on the land. Apparently the car ploughed through this deluge for some time until, near Ourem, the administrative town for the area that includes Fatima, a rock jutting out of the road ripped the petrol tank.
When their auto finally limped into Ourem they found the town deserted, except for a boy who worked for a blacksmith, one of the few inhabitants who hadn’t taken the eight mile road up the side of the steep mountainside to Fatima. After two hours they were mobile again skirting the precipice mercifully hidden by the torrents of rain, muttering prayers to Our Lady that a missing engine part wouldn’t result in an explosion.
In Mabel’s own words: But we were kept safe, and just at midday we arrived at the Cova. My impression was a mountainside black with people. Down in the dip a glimmer of white (a table with a white cloth set up near the apparition site). Thousands of donkeys. All the dogs in the world. An immediate sea of liquid mud. We struggled to a little knoll and stood there wrapped in rugs....
What she saw is better in her own words.
It took Mabel a couple of decades to accept the Catholic faith, after which she became a dedicated apostle of Fatima. She suggests that everyone’s experience was subtly different; as she says, “Our Lady knew her people.”
Her book, Eye-Witness at Fatima, was published in Dublin in 1950 and is a very rare volume indeed. I cannot find a copy on any of the Internet sites. Even the Fatima Sanctuary library’s sole copy went astray some years ago though it might have been returned since. The copy I read I typed out word for word and here is that labour in pdf for any student of Fatima who wishes to download it.
The Popular Fatima Prayer Book is now available in Portuguese and Spanish as well as English - each with supplementary material suitable for pilgrims from countries speaking these languages.
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