I was awestruck," recalls Father Philip Koufos of his first sight of the weeping scarlet-and-gold icon of the Virgin Mary and Child. "Water was coming from between her fingers and from her eyes, which were welling up." Then, Father Koufos says, right before the astonished eyes of two parishioners, he turned white and fell prostrate before the icon. The witnesses thought he had fainted. "How we got through the liturgy that morning," he said later, "I'll never know. I had seen other weeping icons, but never one that large or with so much moisture."

So it was that in Chicago's tightly knit Albanian community on the city's northwest side last Dec. 6, the news spread quickly: The image of the Virgin that adorns St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church was actually weeping. Within hours the crowd of curious and devout became so dense that Father Koufos locked the door and called on the police to keep back the crush. "I had to wait," he explains, "for the church hierarchy to determine whether it was a true miracle."

The moisture, according to Father Koufos, is "a sweet-smelling, unction-like substance, too heavy to be water and too thin to be oil." In due course Bishop Isaiah, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, himself tested the moisture and determined it was not a fraud. Declared the archdiocese: "The weeping icon is vivid testimony that even in our highly developed age...there still remains spirituality and devotion."

Skeptics suggest that the "tears" on the five-by-three-foot icon, painted on canvas and mounted on half-inch plywood, is simply condensation or perhaps oil bleeding from the paint (the icon is 23 years old; according to a Chicago Art Institute expert, oil paintings do not fully harden for 150 years). But few such doubts are to be heard among the lame and sick who crowd the church to see for themselves.

Each day, in fact, nearly 5,000 people, some from as far away as the Philippines, file through the small church to pray before the icon. They come in wheelchairs, on canes and crutches. One boy in a full body cast was wheeled in on a wooden dolly. A mother and father brought their 4-year-old daughter, tethered to a portable oxygen tank. A 9-year-old crippled girl crawled on her stomach down the aisle to be anointed with the Madonna's tears. Says Father Koufos, "They come with a feeling of hope."

None more so, perhaps, than Frances Krause, 65, and her blind husband, Frank, 68, who traveled crosstown by bus in hopes of aiding their son Warren, who was in the hospital, hemorrhaging from an unknown ailment. The senior priest noted Frank's white cane and approached with a cotton swab dabbed in the icon's tears and holy oil. "No, no, it's not me!" Frank cried out. "I don't care if I get my sight back. I came for my son who is dying." The priest gave them a flower touched by the icon. "I feel better now. I feel calm," Frances said. At the hospital she crossed her son with the flower. The next day Warren's bleeding, which had required 60 pints of blood transfusions, stopped. Says his mother gratefully, "I believe this was a miracle."

The church has decided against having the tears subjected to scientific analysis, since to do so would be blasphemous.