Carl Malburg is an ordinary- looking person — white male, age 62, 5 feet 8 inches tall, 170 pounds, glasses, black wing-tips.
But in an airport, people stare at him.
Ticket agents don’t immediately understand him. It takes them a moment to realize that the narrow, waist-high carrying case Malburg totes is not luggage, but rather a passenger — it has a seat. Malburg has bought a ticket for it — an $1,800 ticket, in this case, Chicago to Bombay, round-trip.
What exactly is this inanimate travel companion? the Air India representatives wanted to know the other day at O’Hare International Airport. Malburg’s fellow passengers wanted to know, too. He was holding up the line, drawing stares.
Malburg, smiling all the while (he has been through this before, many times), unzipped the carrying case to reveal a carved wooden statue of a woman, unmistakably the Virgin Mary, her face serene, her hands folded in prayer.
The ticket agents smile. “They’re probably Hindu, but they’re courteous,” Malburg observed, and off he headed to his departure gate, towing the Virgin on a handcart through O’Hare Airport.
For Malburg, who lives in Munster, in northwest Indiana, it’s just another day at the office. This is what he does for a living. The statue, known officially as the International Pilgrim Statue of Our Lady of Fatima, is the property of a small Catholic foundation, the Lay Apostolate Foundation, whose mission is to get it before as many people as possible. Mostly it’s displayed in Catholic churches.
Malburg is an employee of the foundation. He is the statue’s “custodian,” its escort, its constant companion. He is on the road roughly 300 days a year. He makes $36,000.
Malburg does have a sense of humor — he sometimes calls himself a “roamin’ Catholic.” But so seriously does he take his job, in such high esteem does he hold the statue, that he does not touch it without first donning white gloves. Wherever he sets up, he puts a sign next to the statue that says (in whichever language is appropriate): “Don’t touch her, she will touch you.”