Illinois is a hotspot for Marian "sightings." Alleged apparitions of the Virgin Mary have soared with dozens in just the past two decades.

Millions make pilgrimages every year to Fatima and Lourdes, Medjugorje and Guadalupe. Pope John Paul's dedication to Christ's mother and the focus on the "divine feminine" in the Passion of the Christ and the Da Vinci Code have all brought greater attention to the Virgin Mary.

Devotion to her has increased in all Christian faiths, and Illinois seems to have become a mecca for Mary sightings.

They come from miles to get a glimpse.

"I've always had the faith," said one woman.

Whether it's a weeping icon on the Northwest Side, a faint outline on a brick wall in Hanover Park or an image in a Rogers Park tree trunk, they come because they believe.

“I think people are always looking for a sign of hope. Mary has always been a symbol and sign of that in Christian life," said Father James Presta at ST. Joseph College Seminary.

Many found that hope in an image that appeared on this wall underneath the Kennedy expressway. Thousands came from around the state and across the country. Six months later the image is gone but the pilgrims keep coming.

Alleged apparitions of the Virgin Mary have soared, especially here in Illinois with dozens in just the past two decades.

"I looked up and saw the liquid coming from her eyes," said V. Rev. Philip Koufos at St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church. "We were confused and scared."

When this icon at the St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church apparently started weeping in 1986, word spread quickly. More than 2 million people have reportedly visited the icon.

As pilgrims flock to these alleged apparitions, some church officials are concerned Mary’s message of charity can get lost.

"Some of the trivializing of Mary is sentimental. It leads to an insulated form of Christianity,” said Father Richard Fragomeni with the Catholic Theological Union. "It's an emotion without responsibility."

Why the increase in sightings? And why overwhelmingly to Catholics and not other Christians?

"Catholics and their religious imaginations, their hearts, their faith allows for them to see these things as legitimate experiences of religion. This is not to say that some of them are hallucinatory,” Fragomeni said.

Experts can often come up with easy scientific explanations. The so-called virgin of the underpass was dismissed as a salt stain, and the image on the wall in Hanover Park disappeared when a light was turned off.

The Catholic Church takes apparitions seriously, but moves very slowly. It's only authenticated seven sightings in the past two centuries, and none that's happened in the last 70 years.

"We don't run after any apparition that is there," Fragomeni said.

And there's a reason the church rarely debunks the sightings.

"I think the church wants to pay attention to the true impact of Mary and the emotion of her apparitions can stimulate us to the kind of action that she herself," Fragomeni said.

The church often doesn't get involved because the sightings, authentic or not, frequently inspire the faithful and may be beneficial.

The church is also not going to waste its time on the hallucinatory or downright silly sightings like the Virgin Mary on the grilled cheese sandwich that sold on eBay for almost $30,000.

Why so many sightings here? There are almost 2.5 million Catholics in Cook and Lake counties alone, hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Christians, many from countries where there's great devotion to Mary.