Shrine is gone, but not devotion

05/01/2003 7:55 AM

11/20/2007 6:26 AM

The baby toys, the Easter lilies, the homemade crosses and rosaries, the candles encircling the Peterson house: They're gone.

Tuesday night, a few of Laci Peterson's close friends removed the front-yard shrine out of respect for Covena Avenue neighbors who said they have grown weary of the round-the-clock vigil.

"If you want to give gifts, donate them in Laci and Conner's name to a children's hospital. Or make your friend a cake and spend the day with them," said Laci's longtime friend Rene Tomlinson. "If we've learned anything from the loss of our friend, it's that our time here is precious."

Nonetheless, the pilgrimage continued Wednesday. People still walked past the orange cones blocking off the street. They were on their way to pray for Peterson and her unborn son, Conner, in front of the forest-green home. By noon, a small teddy bear and purple flowers had appeared at the garden gate.

For weeks, people have converged on Scott and Laci Peterson's front yard. Scott Peterson, 30, has been charged with murder in the deaths of his wife and son. Laci Peterson, 27, was eight months pregnant when family members reported her missing Dec. 24. She would have turned 28 on Sunday, the day her family has scheduled a memorial service for her and Conner

Out-of-state tourists have made the Peterson home a stop on their California tours. Others drove from San Francisco and Los Angeles to pay their respects. For some Modestans, lighting candles and praying at the house had become an evening ritual.

Grief for the slain mother and baby quickly evolved into reverence.

Candles with saints, crosses, and pictures of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus dotted the daily outpourings of gifts. Every day Laci's friends collected the gifts and donated them to the Haven Women's Center of Stanislaus and the Children's Crisis Center. And every day, more toys and plants and homemade gifts landed on the Peterson lawn.

Now that the shrine has been cleared, the intens-ity of devotion for Laci and Conner probably will wane, said the Rev. Joseph Illo of St. Joseph's Catholic Church.

"When you remove the physical symbols of devotion, the devotion will diminish," he said. "Ultimately the shrine will change location when mother and son are interred. Cemeteries are just like big shrines."

But until Laci and Conner are buried, people will be tempted to treat the Peterson house as sacred space, Illo said.

"Shrines give people a place to come and be quiet and think," he said. "They can do it in front of their TV. But there's nothing like going to her home where she lived and moved and had her being."

Many, like Modesto plumber Jose Orozco, 33, regularly visited the shrine after work with their spouses and children. Like others, Orozco believes Laci's spirit lingers at the shrine.

"Maybe she's watching us," he mused as he

cradled his 2-year-old son, Jose Jr. "Maybe she sees that we love her. She's not here physically, but I think her soul keeps coming back here."

Some people see a sign from God

Others, such as Graciela de Loera, 60, saw the timing of Laci's disappearance -- Christmas Eve -- and the discovery of her body -- just before Easter -- as signs from God. De Loera whispered that a baby leaving his mother's womb after death is a miracle.

"I call her 'Santa Laci'" she said. "All martyrs are saints. I ask her to help my family members in the other world."

De Loera isn't the only one calling for Peterson's canonization.

Illo has received e-mails saying that Peterson should be sainted. But that is not happening anytime soon, he said, adding that Mother Teresa, who spent years caring for the sick and dying of India, has yet to be canonized.

Still, Illo is not surprised at the requests.

"The human psyche aspires to greatness, to the mystical," he said. "Laci's death means more than the death of a housewife in Modesto.

"It's as if a great gift was taken away at Christmas, and she was returned on Good Friday," he explained. "On that day Laci assumed the identity of the crucified one."

But, Illo pointed out, the slain mother and son are being put on a spiritual pedestal not because they were great, but because they were ordinary.

"If this kind of tragedy can happen to a regular Modestan, a person from hometown America, this reminds people that we all can die," Illo said. "When we pray for her, really we are praying for ourselves."

Bee staff writer Julissa McKinnon can be reached at 578-2324 or jmckinnon@modbee.com.

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