By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
He introduced himself as Martin Espinoza of Oak Cliff. He wore gray sweats, leather sandals and a hat bearing the emblem of Chivas, the popular Mexican soccer team. This was his first visit to the tree, he said. He heard about it on the news and came to see for himself.
Behind us were his two children, as well as a teenage girl with untied shoelaces and a grandmother making her sixth visit to the tree.
Small crowds like this had been coming here for weeks, ever since Eva Alejandro-Peña saw an image of the Virgin Mary in one of her trees. Now every tree in her small Oak Cliff yard had a shrine of poinsettias and candles left by people who'd seen Mary in the bark or in a knot or in the space between two branches.
Espinoza pointed to a dark spot near the base of the tree we were facing. It looked like a section of bark had been chipped away, leaving the outline of a bell-like shape, about three feet high and a foot across. Then he pointed to a knot near the lower branches.
"That's her head, no?"
"Sí," the woman behind us said. "La Virgen."
She took out her cellphone to show us a picture she'd taken of it. "Do you see that white spot?" she asked, pointing to the smudged screen. "Some people see Jesus' face."
The teenager, Araceli, led me to another tree in the yard. She pointed to a knot near the bottom. "I spotted this one," she said. "Can you see it?"
I looked hard. In the middle of the knot was a straight line. At a certain angle, it looked like a stick figure surrounded by an aura of light.
"It's the Virgin of Guadalupe," she said proudly.
When Alejandro came across the first image in late November, her husband, Gilbert Peña, called WFAA-Channel 8. After their report aired and a picture of the tree appeared on the front page of Al Día, Dallas' Spanish-language daily, other media outlets started calling. Four channels did stories on the tree, including Univision and Telemundo. After the story hit Central America, hordes of believers started making the pilgrimage to Alejandro's yard in the 2900 block of South Edgefield Road. A woman brought a crippled boy in a wheelchair, pushing him close enough to touch the image. Others knelt before it, hoping it would cure them of cancer or diabetes.
"People come straight from the hospital with bandages still on them," Alejandro said. "They come from all over. We've had people from Waco and San Antonio. We even had a couple from Korea."
One night, there were close to 500 people in the yard, Alejandro said, including a mariachi band. On another occasion, a city bus driver stopped in the middle of the street, ran to touch the tree, then rushed back to his bus and drove off. So many believers have come, she said, her front lawn has been reduced to a plot of dirt.
Nothing, not even cold, biting December winds, has stopped the stream of seekers.
I visited her on an overcast Tuesday in December, hoping to find out more about how the image came to be and what it meant. She invited me inside to watch a news program on the tree. She said she didn't mind the constant flow of people in her yard. In fact, she seemed to enjoy the attention. While we were talking, an NBC television reporter poked his head in the door to say he was waiting outside for an interview. She smiled and asked if she could change first and put on fresh makeup.
Even though Alejandro is not Catholic, she said the appearance of Mary in her tree has deeply affected her, and that it has renewed the faith of her husband, who is Catholic. She speaks often of miracles, especially the time God saved her from death during childbirth. And while she seems prone to hyperbole (she said she has had more than 30 operations on her ears), she comes across as honest and sincere.
"People tell me, 'You're truly blessed. Y'all are the chosen ones,'" she said. She smiled at the thought. "People come out here with cancer and diabetes and can't walk, and they're praying for a miracle. My heart goes out to them."
Alejandro said her youngest daughters, ages 4 and 5, uncovered the image after picking bark off the tree for weeks, sometimes until their fingers bled. When she asked what they were doing, they told her they heard crying from the tree.
"They told me, 'She's sad,' and I said, 'Well of course she's sad, you guys are picking away at her.' I thought they meant the tree, but they meant Mary."
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
I understood. We had only been talking for a few minutes, and these girls didn't know me. Maybe they didn't trust a reporter enough to tell him a silly story about a crying tree. Or maybe they were telling me the truth.
"We made her," the girl said again. "With our hands."
Alejandro asked me what I thought of the tree. I told her I respected the faith of the people who believed in it and would not mock them. I finished my tea and said goodbye.
I had never been suspicious of her motives. I believed her when she told me she didn't plan to sell the tree, and that the offerings they were collecting would go toward a needy family's Christmas.
That night when I got home I called a Catholic friend of mine. He laughed at my stories of mystical trees and cracked windows. Like me, he wondered why anyone would believe Mary would appear in a tree, and why every time one of these "sightings" occurred, hundreds of people turned out to see it. Wasn't the media complicit in this? And why was I the first reporter to ask how the image appeared in the tree?
"I bet you anything that tree's already on eBay," he said.
We looked. We found a clock with Mary's image. A petrified rock. But no trees.
"Just wait," he said. "Give it a week."
But I was sure that when the rain stopped, someone would come to see the tree, and they would find what they were looking for.