Do You See What I See?

An image of the Blessed Virgin on an Oak Cliff tree trunk proves one thing: Belief is in the eye of the beholder

During Easter that year, she saw a hand, in the form of a fine mist, coming out of the tile wall to the left of the tree. On Good Friday the mist changed to Jesus on the cross, and later to an image of his face. Then it faded away.

Donations left at the tree over the years were used to beautify the yard. Reyna and her husband, Ralph, planted rose bushes, built a wrought-iron fence and poured a concrete path that led to the tree. They built a small swimming pool--about 10 feet long, six feet wide and a few feet deep--reserved for cancer and AIDS patients who wanted to wade in its healing waters. Sometimes, Reyna entered the pool herself, rolled up her pant legs, raised her arms to the heavens and prayed to God.

A Catholic priest held mass in front of the tree, and Reyna's husband and two sons started building a chapel for him on an adjacent lot. When the priest died, Reyna delivered mass herself. Her home began to look like a church. On every mantel and shelf and countertop she placed statues of Mary and Jesus. She burned candles and hung crucifixes on her walls. She said she did not know why Mary had appeared in her yard.

Or why God spoke to her one day. In 1989, she predicted an earthquake would destroy San Francisco, snapping its double-decker freeways, trapping and killing dozens. She sent letters to the mayor and governor, but nobody listened. Until her vision came true. Then the reporters started calling again.

Today, believers still visit Reyna's yard, located on the corner of St. Augustine and Elam Roads in Pleasant Grove. When I went there, Reyna was not home, but her son was, standing in the kitchen putting a do-rag on his head. He wore a sleeveless T-shirt that revealed a pair of beefy arms decorated with crude tattoos. A tattoo of a small teardrop hung below his left eye. He put on a coat and came outside.

He introduced himself as John Estrada, age 44, and said he was staying with his parents. He smelled faintly of alcohol. He showed me the yard and the pond and old news clippings and pictures. Finally, we sat on the porch, looking at the tree.

"The first time I had to look really hard. Finally I saw something white in the tree, then I could make out an image," he said. "My mom tells people to focus on a spot. Some people see Mary holding a baby, some people see Jesus above her."

He said he and his mother sometimes hear voices coming from the tree. He can't make out what the tree is saying, but his mom can.

"She's had other visions since the earthquake, but she's keeping them to herself," he said. "My mom, talking to her is like talking to an angel."

He went inside and returned with more pictures, including one of a rose petal that had been blown up to 8 1/2 -by-11.

"People bring my mom rose petals. She puts them in her Bible, and a week later they come out looking like this," he said. The rose petal in the picture had an image of Jesus on it. "I don't know how it happens. It's a miracle."

One night, he said, he came home drunk and heard a man's voice in the yard. He went inside and told his mom, worried that it was a vandal. She told him it was OK. The man had asked permission to stay late into the night to pray for his daughter, who was dying of cancer. Estrada said that while he rarely attended church, he also prayed in front of the tree at times.

"Sometimes I mess up," he said. "I kneel down before the tree and light a candle. It's sort of like a confessional."

He paused and looked around the yard, his eyes stopping at the flower pots and the ceramic angels surrounding the tree.

"It feels good to be sitting here. It's a lot better than smoking a joint or sitting in a topless bar. It feels peaceful."

I asked him why he thought Mary would appear in his mother's oak tree.

"The Bible speaks of signs and wonders in the last days," he said. "Why she would come to a certain people, I can't say. Maybe to bring people back to church?"


Another heavenly visitation reportedly took place earlier this year in Fort Worth, when an image of Jesus' face appeared on a window at the Fossil Ridge apartment complex. When crowds began gathering in front of the window, the apartment owners sold the window to a local preacher named John Parnell, who keeps it at his church.

Parnell lives in south Fort Worth in a small white house with sloppy blue trim. He parks his truck on the front lawn. Six cats, two of them kittens, were eating a pile of cat food from the front step when I knocked.

Parnell's daughter answered the door. I told her I was looking for the priest, and she said it would be just a minute. When Parnell emerged, he was wearing the black shirt and collar of a Catholic priest, which I assumed he'd just put on. He also wore a soiled jean jacket, blue jeans and black cowboy boots.

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