By Scott Corrales
The story begins, as most accounts of this nature tend to do. A child, on his or her way to school or work, comes across a beautiful lady with a request of a religious nature. This was certainly the case when Juan Collado, a 7 year old from Sabana Grande, Puerto Rico, reported seeing the Blessed Virgin Mary (in her manifestation as Our Lady of the Rosary) standing beside a well not far from his school. It was Thursday, April 23, 1953 and his life would never be the same.
Juan Collado told his story, without embellishments, to reporters to Puerto Rico’s El Mundo newspaper: “That Thursday, around 12 noon, I went to the artesian well near the school with Jose Rodriguez to get water. While I was standing next to the gorge, I noticed a whirlwind shaking the dry sugarcane stalks that were there. Suddenly I saw the image of the Virgin, dressed in white, emerging from the whirlwind. When I saw her, I fell silent. The shape grew until it reached the branches of the mango tree that grows there. When I returned to school, I told my classmates and they all ran out to see her, not feeling the least bit afraid.”
The newspaper adds that adults who were unable to see the apparition accompanied the children. Police officers from Sabana Grande, as well as the town mayor, visited the site for a glimpse of the divine patroness. Young Juan Collado, however, would see her clearly during every single one of his visits to the site; the other percipients added that the patroness held either rosary in her hands or scapulars. Adult visitors were at this point beginning to draw water from the well or take leaves from the “holy” mango tree.
By April 29, 1953, a hastily built altar could be found at the foot of the mango tree, covered with flowers and branches. Entire families were now visiting the well to consume its water. The next day, according to the young witnesses, the Virgin moved from her usual spot to the school’s interior, sitting at the teacher’s desk. At this point all of the youngsters began to pray. One of the girls said that the apparition – invisible to Josefa Rios, the school teacher – touched the religious medallion she wore before drifting out of the classroom and back to the mango tree, but not before placing her hands on Juan Collado and Bertita Pinto, who was quickly going to the forefront of all the other percipients. A few days later, Josefa Rios told the press “I’ve noticed the restlessness among the children as the time approaches eleven o’clock.” This was the time that the youngsters reported seeing the apparition on a daily basis. Every time the children reported seeing the divine figure, adults reported seeing a whirlwind, as well as a rainbow forming around the sun. No less peculiar was the detail that the tips of the mango tree’s branches were beginning to burn. According to the children, “a cloud that only they could see” was responsible for the damage inflicted to the fruit tree.
On May 2, the children reportedly asked the Virgin to perform a miracle to prove to their friends and parents that they weren’t lying or imagining the whole situation. The apparition agreed, setting May 25th as a date for the manifestation of her divine power. The newspaper reported a curious side note to the entire situation – a 96 year-old woman who had lived in Sabena Grande since childhood told reporters that long ago there had been a house at the site where the Virgin was allegedly appearing, occupied by a devout young woman who would go to the well every day, and that the children were more than likely seeing her ghost.
Church authorities took a dim view of the matter from the onset: the local parish priest refused to approach the site and Vicente Murga, the Bishop of Ponce, paid the town a visit to interview the priest and counseling a strict policy of non-involvement. He clergyman admonished the faithful to “have great care” with what they did and saw regarding the apparition. This stern instruction perhaps had to do with the sense of desperation permeating the air as believers from other cities caused traffic accidents in the rush to have a glimpse of the Blessed Virgin. Some of them were flying in from New York City for this opportunity.
Miracles were beginning to occur at this point: Jose Matos, 64, had been carried to the well by relatives to have some of the miraculous water poured on his feet. Reportedly, the man stood on his own, proclaiming: “Thanks be to God and the Virgin” while Maria Irizarry, suffering from an unspecified stomach ailment, proclaimed herself healed after drinking water from the artesian well. Bertita Pinto now reported that “an angel” escorted her as she went to a playmate’s house, vanishing before she got there.
By mid-May, the girls reported having an encounter with “the Devil”, who had appeared at the school to punish one of them for having “disobeyed” the Virgin. The evil apparition tried to seize Margarita Baez, the disobedient child, as she wrote on the blackboard. The girls described the negative presence as “a skinny man dressed in black, with long, ugly hands and long nails. His face was long and ugly, with some horns on his head.” Nor was the mango tree faring any better. It was by now completely leafless, prompting the faithful to take “holy soil” from its surroundings.
The apparition of the unholy figure at this point in the apparitional experience matches similar interventions in other famous cases: during the Marian apparitions in the Spanish town of Ezkioga in 1931, one witness claimed to have seen the devil himself, describing the fearsome apparition as tall, red-headed and black, with fangs like those of a wolf. The man wanted to scream out of sheer terror, but managed to make the sign of the Cross and the apparition vanished. Headless figures of the type common to paranormal cases are also reported.
But the Devil’s cameo appearance did nothing to affect the list of miraculous healings: a man was cured from a paralysis affecting his right leg, a woman who took some of the burned edges of the mango tree to consume in an infusion, was completely healed from an unexplained malady, a truck driver who drank an entire pitcher of well water to cure the blindness in his right eye, was rewarded with almost immediate results...an estimated twenty-five thousand people had by now visited the location, resulting in the mango tree vanishing completely, as desperate believers pulled up its roots to take home. This desperation was due to the fact that May 25th – the day slated for the miracle, was quickly approaching. Speculation as to the nature of the miracle was rife: some believed that it would be a tremendous earthquake that would last two hours, and which, inexplicably would only be felt by Adventists. The Catholic church was forced to shut its doors on May 20, 1953 to processions of believers led by little Juan Collado.
According to the newspapers, Bishop Jaime McManus had ordered all of the parishes of his diocese to ask parishioners to refrain from going to Sabana Grande to see the apparitions, especially the alleged miracle. But his wishes fell on deaf ears: on the morning of May 25th, a crowd of one hundred thousand people fell on Sabana Grande to wait for the miracle. No apparitions occurred as worshipers began to faint from the extreme heat. The miracle came to an end as the thousands began to leave Sabana Grande, whose streets were blocked by three thousand cars. Days later, even after no miracle had occurred, the believers were still on hand to drink from the artesian well and collect money to build a chapel where the mango tree once stood.
Church authorities reported that no report would be sent to the Vatican, since the apparition had at no point issued a message as in Fatima or Lourdes, reaching the conclusion that “the children had indeed seen a ghost”, which was a remarkable statement in itself. Work on the chapel was finished in 1955 and masses began to be held in the late 1960s.
Father Felix Struick, O.P., Ph.D discussed the subject of Marian Apparitions during his presentation in 2001 at the Primer Simposio de Investigadores OVNI y Paranormal en Puerto Rico, highlighting that so many parishioners had experienced apparitions, almost always involving the Virgin Mary. Not wanting to appear dismissive, the religious said that “I believe this phenomenon corresponds to the “hallucination” genre in the sense that it is a living, very real visual or auditive experience by a given individual, without any external physical cause being evident.” He added that in al fairness, it was impossible to dismiss that a condition “alien” to the individual could be the cause for the apparitions – a good or evil spirit, an angel or saint, or perhaps even God. The spiritual advisor therefore faces a fork in the road: on the one hand, there is the need to respect the subjective experience, which is undeniable except in cases of obvious hoaxing and “cautioning the person against self-deception.”
The Magic Tree
Marian apparitions have not been restricted either to Puerto Rico or to the mid- 20thcentury mark: A tree played a pivotal role in the manifestations that occurred in February 2000 in the Argentinean town of Laprida, after a local woman reported seeing a likeness of the Blessed Virgin on a tree at the intersection of two busy streets.
In this case, there was no argument over whether or not a divine figure could be seen; only as to which manifestation of Our Lady had chosen to appear. Some argued that it was Virgin of the Miraculous Medallion, while others maintained that it was Sacred Heart of Jesus. As occurred in Puerto Rico half a century earlier, an improvised altar was set up at the base of the tree, covered with the usual devotional items, such as flowers, rosary beads, votive cards and candles.
Whether they were motivated by piety or simple curiosity, the street corner became a gathering place for large numbers of visitors, causing a traffic hazard. An image of a cross was discovered on a streetlamp located two meters away from the tree. In this regard, the operator of the local power utility (EDES) was consulted. The company spokesman indicated that at no time had a signal of that nature been made on the post by their crews, and was therefore unable to venture a guess as to its origin.
Another event, which has caused even greater curiosity, is the fact that the same tree reflects another image of the Virgin as a child.
One devotee of the Virgin remained at the tree for 24 hours when the image was first discovered, accompanied by a group of young people. "One of my nieces made this discovery,” she told reporters. “ She had seen it for almost a month, but didn't say anything for fear of being called a lunatic."
As occurred in the Sabana Grande case, the Church refuted the apparition’s validity. Parish priest Carlos Garciarena reflected the church's policy on such things during a sermon. After contacting Msr. Emilio Bianchi DiCarcano, he was told “the Church does not attest to the truthfulness of this apparition, and further assumes no liability over any events which may take place at the site.”
The Virgin Weeps
Toward the end of 2000, the faithful were stirred once more, this time in the Uruguayan city of Rosario, by an image of the Virgin that shed tears “running from her right eye down to her chin,” according to a report from the ANSA news agency. Most believers did not hesitate to qualify this event as “miraculous.”
The tears were discovered on the day of the Immaculate Conception, on the face of a statue kept within a glass box in a grotto. The story spread quickly throughout Rosario, and hundreds of faithful began making their way toward the location in the province of Colonia to see the manifestation. Among them was Monsignor Carlos Collazi, who advised caution and told the media:” the Church is always very prudent in such matters."
The artisan who had been entrusted with restoring the statue shortly before the “miracle” told reporters that his assignment had consisted mainly on repainting the venerated statue and at no time did it extend to any work on its features. The sculpture--the Virgin holding the baby Jesus in her left arm--was made of wood, but the faces on both figures' faces were coated in a porcelain-like substance. The artist did not hesitate to reject that this could be a case of "water coming out from within...” but that he couldn’t think of a rational explanation.”
The Marian apparitions at Sabana Grande lacked the more sensational elements associated with such apparitional occurrences. There was no “miracle of the sun”, no shower of rose petals upon the crowds gathered to venerate the divine figure, and as Church authorities observed, no message of repentance or call to action. The perception that the apparition was near a tree or hovering around its branches, however, was reminiscent of other cases (trees play a prominent role in the 1917 Fatima manifestations and in the Escorial apparitions of 1984). The healing properties of the “blessed water” from Sabana Grande’s artesian well would have probably turned the location into a Caribbean Lourdes, if the Church had looked favorably upon the event.
Skeptics, of course, will put it down as another example of “popular delusion and the madness of crowds”, but to the tens of thousands who made the pilgrimage to a small town in southern Puerto Rico nearly sixty years ago, a divine presence visited with mortals for a total of thirty-three unforgettable days.