By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Mary is sad, Alejandro said, because of the violence in Oak Cliff, a place that was much more peaceful when she was a kid growing up there. She said the neighborhood has been destroyed by violence and drugs.
She told me she has had offers on the tree. When I asked her how much, she blushed. "Between $75,000 and $1 million," she said.
"That's a pretty big range. Is it closer to $75,000 or $1 million?" I asked.
"A million," she said. "But we would never sell it. This is a blessing that needs to be shared with everyone."
Skeptics--including many Catholics--scoff at these so-called "apparitions" as wishful thinking or the work of con artists looking to make a buck off desperate believers. But others see them as evidence that God still cares.
The belief that Mary can appear just about anywhere may be rooted in her most famous apparition of all, at least to Mexican Catholics. According to legend, a dark-skinned woman dressed in glowing robes appeared to a 57-year-old peasant named Juan Diego on December 12, 1531, on a hillside in what is now Mexico City. She identified herself as Holy Mary, Mother of God, and instructed Diego to build a church on the spot where he stood. When the local bishop, a Spaniard, demanded proof of the divine manifestation, Diego returned to the hillside and saw roses growing where thistles, nopales and mesquite had been the day before. He gathered the flowers, miraculously blooming in the dead of winter, tucked them into his cloak and returned to the cathedral. Standing before the bishop, he opened his cloak, and the roses spilled to the floor. In their place an image of the Virgin Mary appeared. Today that apparition, known as the Virgin of Guadalupe, is everywhere: on air fresheners and T-shirts and cowboy boots and gearshift knobs. To millions, she is a symbol, and the story of her appearance before Juan Diego is no legend. It is as real to them as Jesus' resurrection. If Mary can appear in the fabric of a dusty cloak, why can't she appear in a tree, or in a petrified rock, or in a grilled cheese sandwich?
And it's not just Mexican Catholics--or even Catholics for that matter--who believe Mary is trying to communicate through paranormal channels. A statue of Mary in Akita, Japan, reportedly wept blood. Another statue, this one in Ireland, swayed back and forth. A portrait of Mary in an Illinois Orthodox Christian Church (said to be the former headquarters of Al Capone) is said to cry.
"It's not just a Hispanic thing, it's not a Mexican thing and it's not a Catholic thing," said Pedro Moreno, director of the Light of Christ Institute, part of the Fort Worth Diocese. "This happens in all cultures and all religions."
Maybe it's faith that allows people to see Mary in unexpected places or to notice unusual methods of divine communication. Or maybe it's delusion. The Roman Catholic Church doesn't take a stand one way or the other on most appearances, though a small number have been given the stamp of papal approval. A spokesman at the Dallas Diocese said he hadn't heard of the Mary image in Oak Cliff, nor had Moreno. Both said they had no interest in seeing the tree.
But Moreno did say he was interested in the ways in which Catholics respond to supposed miracles. "If there is any conclusion to be drawn from this, it is that people are hungry," he said. "They are hungry for the supernatural. They want to believe there's something bigger out there. Mostly, they want to be reaffirmed that God is close and not that far away."
The high number of apparitions does alarm Moreno. "We have to ask ourselves," he said, "are we bringing God to them, or are we letting them go hungry, leaving them to snack on something unhealthy? If we don't give them good religion, they'll come up with bad religion."
Nineteen years ago, on January 8, 1987, Maria Reyna looked out her kitchen window in Pleasant Grove and saw the face of the Blessed Virgin looking back at her from the trunk of a gnarled oak in the front yard. The newspapers picked up the story, neighbors started talking, word spread at church, and before long, the devout and the curious were flocking to her home to see the image. When a vandal tried to deface it with glue, Reyna and her husband built a three-sided wall around the tree and began staying up all night to guard it, sometimes falling asleep in lawn chairs. For one year, Reyna only left the house for groceries.