Can the path of conversion and salvation pass through a landfill? In Darkhan, it seems that it can. In this small city in northern Mongolia, in East Asia, a poor woman, mother of 11 children, fights tooth and nail to wrest a shred of life and hope for herself and her large family from the vast expanse of waste: food still good enough to eat or objects miraculously still intact enough to try and resell who knows where.
In the landfill, on a day like any other, a truck turns over the garbage, and an object wrapped in a piece of cloth stops at the woman’s feet. Surprised, the woman picks it up and uncovers it. Removing the cloth, she discovers a carved wooden statue, with the features of a beautiful woman. She is the Immaculate Virgin Mary. The poor woman does not immediately recognize the Mother of God but only shortly afterward, as she takes the statue home, whispering, “This beautiful woman wanted to come live in my tent”. What’s more is that the woman is not a Christian. Her only close contact with the faith came some time earlier, with some of Mother Teresa’s religious sisters, who spoke to her about Our Lady and taught her the Hail Mary. Once she realizes who this beautiful woman is, the poor woman takes the statue to the small Catholic community, which puts it on display in the local parish.
All this happened some years ago. Only recently, in 2022 to be precise, did the story garner new attention: the Sisters shared it with Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, Missionary of the Consolata and Apostolic Prefect of Ulaanbaatar (capital of Mongolia), who was extremely struck by it. “I immediately thought that the Virgin, through this discovery, wanted to tell us something”, affirmed Marengo, who still cannot comprehend “how that statue ended up in the landfill, seeing how, especially in that part of the country, there are very few Catholics. So I thought that the Lord, through his Holy Mother, makes himself present in the most extreme situations in order to tell us how close he is to each of us”.
Over time, the Cardinal grew in his conviction that the discovery of the statue of Mary in the garbage symbolizes the Virgin’s attitude, “always ready to meet us even in places of desperation, rejection, pain, abandonment”. He revealed that he spoke about the statue “with the Holy Father, when some months ago, I visited him with a small delegation of Buddhist monks from Mongolia. I showed him a picture and he was very happy”.
The epilogue of the story unfolded on 8 December 2022, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, when Cardinal Marengo decided to consecrate all of Mongolia to Mary. The event took place in the Cathedral of Ulaanbaatar, in front of the statue from the landfill, which for the occasion had been enthroned in the cathedral and covered with a special mantle made of “many small pieces of fabric sent from the Apostolic Prefecture from the majority of Mongolian faithful and the missionaries”, the Cardinal explained. “Each small piece of fabric represents a key moment in their life”.
The Virgin now watches over a boundless nation where there are only 1,400 Catholics (all gathered in the apostolic prefecture of Ulaanbaatar) and where the Church recently celebrated 30 years.
“We must thank God”, concluded Cardinal Marengo, “that in only 30 years the Church has managed to establish itself and take root here, after a long period of communism. I like to recall an image Pope Francis used to describe these small ecclesial communities, speaking, some time ago, to the bishops of central Asia: they are, he said, sprouts in the steppe”. Sprouts under the loving and protective mantle of Mary.