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

Balding, with red-rimmed eyes, Parnell talks at a torrent, jumping from one subject to the next, pausing only to laugh and spit. In what seemed like a head-spinning 60 seconds, I learned he was a martial arts expert, a military chaplain and a member of the state National Guard.

He took me through a gate that led to his backyard, where he built his church, the Mexican National Catholic Church, which he claimed was "autonomous but in communion" with the Roman Catholic Church. A muddy flier on the ground suggested Parnell also taught high school here, in one of the backyard's low-slung buildings.

As he described how he'd rebuilt this church, originally a mission for Franciscan friars, he reached into a sack, scooped out a handful of corn and threw it to the chickens and ducks at his feet. He pointed at the church's roof to a bell, which looked like it had been spray-painted gold, and told me it was 200 years old.

Craig Larotonda
The Peña daughters--Liberty, 5, and Aaliyah, 4--sit among the candles left in front of the Virgin Mary image found on a tree trunk in the yard of their Oak Cliff home.
The Peña daughters--Liberty, 5, and Aaliyah, 4--sit among the candles left in front of the Virgin Mary image found on a tree trunk in the yard of their Oak Cliff home.

The sacred window had been placed on a table and leaned against the exterior wall of the church. Two cracks ran down the glass. In the move from Fossil Ridge, it had been broken, Parnell explained. He pointed to a rainbow-like smudge in the corner of the window.

"You see that rainbow? When the sun hits it just right, you can see his face."

The woman who first spotted Jesus in the window didn't want it taken from her apartment until Parnell convinced her it would be better off at his church, where people could worship before it at any time, day or night. At first, she attended Parnell's services. When he finished mass, she would sprinkle water on the congregation from a bird bath and proclaim them healed. Then she passed around a basket for offerings.

"I said, 'I don't mind you coming here and praying with the other people, but don't pass a basket. I also told her I didn't like her sprinkling water on people and telling them they're healed. I said, 'You don't know they're healed.' Well, she didn't like that."

One Sunday, just as Parnell was about to begin the day's second mass, he walked out from the chapel and saw the woman's boyfriend trying to remove the window from its wooden frame with a handsaw. Parnell, who is 41, said he kicked the saw from the man's hand and threw it over the roof.

"He came back one more time in the middle of the night. Me and another father were practicing martial arts--we practice right here in the dirt, usually at night. We saw him coming in and we said, 'What are your plans with that saw?' We could tell he was fixin' to take it."

Parnell told the man to get lost--"And keep your hands out of your pockets, or I'll put you to sleep."

Parnell now protects the window with a clear Kevlar covering ("the same kind used on military helicopters") from the "heathens" who have threatened to put a bullet through it.

"This belongs to the people. It will always be here. Some 12,000 people have come to see it. They come in droves."

He stepped inside the church. One wall was decorated with pictures of Pancho Villa and Zapata. A huge Mexican flag covered the other. He showed me a proclamation signed by the Pope, granting his church approval.

As I looked around, I wondered if anything he'd told me that day was true.

I went back to Alejandro's house the day after my first visit to talk to her daughters. I didn't doubt her story of the girls picking at the tree until their fingers bled, but I wanted to hear it from the girls themselves.

This time, Alejandro was not happy to see me. She seemed worried about some of what she'd said during our first interview and pleaded that I withhold the name of her church. She didn't want her pastor to know about the tree. I wondered how that would be possible, considering how many times she'd appeared on television to talk about it.

I asked her if something I'd said the day before had made her uncomfortable. She said no, but that after I had left she decided to stop talking to reporters.

"It's just getting to be too much," she said. "All the people coming, all the reporters. It's time for things to get back to normal."

She invited me inside her small, somewhat disheveled home, where her girls were eating an afternoon snack. I sat down at the kitchen table while she made tea. The girls had jet-black hair and wore matching polo shirts that bore the name of their school. After a few minutes, I asked them about the image on the tree.

"We made her," one of the girls said.

I asked them if they'd done so because they heard crying from within the tree. One of the girls shook her head no.

"Didn't you think the tree was sad?" Alejandro asked.

Again the girl said no.

I looked at Alejandro, expecting her to blush or go pale. She acted like the girls had said nothing wrong.

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