By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
After appearing for a year, on May 13, 1994, Lopez says the Virgin Mary told her to open up her home and deliver a message. About 50 people came that day. The crowds snowballed as stories about Lopez appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and many other papers in the United States and Canada. There were also broadcasts on CBS News.
Soon, her followers set up Our Loving Mother's Foundation. They sold T-shirts, videocassettes, rosaries, and crosses. In 1996, the foundation paid for posters to be placed on the side of Miami-Dade buses featuring Lopez's address in Hollywood. The response swamped Lopez's neighborhood with thousands of pilgrims. Dozens of police officers were dispatched in those early days for crowd control.
These days, the number of people visiting has dropped considerably. If the 13th falls on a weekend, 200 to 300 people usually attend, Ruffolo says. If the 13th falls during the week, Lopez receives 30 or fewer visitors.
The foundation publishes a free newsletter monthly that reprints the messages from Mary, one in English and one in Spanish. Donations to the foundation and money from the sale of small statues, religious cards, and rosaries help pay the printing costs, Ruffolo says, but nobody is getting rich from the shrine. Lopez pays the electric and water bill, often from her Social Security check, she says. Jacinto, who works for a patio furniture manufacturing company, forks out the money for the mortgage on the couple's home, which was valued in 2002 at $131,700. It's not easy for them to make ends meet, Ruffolo insists. In June, Jacinto had quintuple-bypass surgery. "If Rosa could stop it," Ruffolo says, "she would."
Diane Mowatt bought a five-bedroom house next door to Lopez two years ago. When the 13th of the month rolled around, Mowatt was dumbfounded as she watched people haul lawn chairs down her street and set them up right in the middle of the road. The neighborhood was clogged with people. Even her front yard was filled with them. When Mowatt learned that Lopez didn't have a permit for the activity, she was angry. She still is. "I think they should make her get a permit or shut her down," she says.
In 1994, the city talked about forcing Lopez to move the public events, but she said she couldn't control the apparition's location. As the crowds dwindled, the city dropped the issue. Hollywood Commissioner Fran Russo, who represents the area where Lopez lives, says she is amazed the city has allowed Lopez to continue to host apparition day while denying a group of Orthodox Jews the right to worship in a Hollywood home. "If you look at Rosa Lopez's house, it looks like a shrine, not a house," Russo says. "It's just amazing to me how some things are overlooked."
Meanwhile, apparition day is still celebrated every month. People study the sky with binoculars, aim cameras at the clouds, and crowd the area. Once, recalls Mowatt, a woman knocked on her door with an envelope she wanted to give to Lopez, who wasn't home. Mowatt agreed to take it, but only after she opened it and recorded its contents. The envelope contained $3,000, she says. "I don't know exactly what they're doing over there," Mowatt says. "And I really don't want to find out."
Fort Lauderdale's James Randi, who is 75 years old, has made a career of exposing fake healers and fortunetellers for the past 60 years. He was awarded a so-called genius fellowship by the MacArthur Foundation in 1986 and is nationally recognized as a skeptic. (He also occasionally writes articles for New Times.)
Contemplating Mary's many appearances, Randi jokes that the Virgin seems to be zipping all over the world. "The frequent-flyer miles are just incredible," he says. He dismisses phenomena such as the image of Mary on the Clearwater bank building. "The Virgin of the Dirty Water," Randi calls it.
In Randi's view, the desire to make things right with a supernatural puppet-master probably dates to caveman days. "We are just a step away from the primitives," he says. "And we revert to it involuntarily. It is an easier mode of living in the world." Randi says believers don't want to face the cold reality that there is no proof of divine compassion. "They will jump to anything on the hope that there is something there. They seize it because a floating straw is better than nothing."
For people like Lopez, Randi says, the payoff is in the ego, not in the spirit. "How did she become famous?" he scoffs. "It wasn't because of her cooking. The only thing that makes her different from everybody else is that she has these visions."
But he says that Lopez and others like her might really believe that they receive special visitations. "Delusion is a very, very strong emotion," he says.
Ironically, the Catholic Church has taken a dim view of Rosa Lopez. The Archdiocese of Miami, which also oversees Broward County, told Catholics in 1994 not to visit Lopez's home. Although the archdiocese doesn't have a position on whether Lopez's visions are fake or fact, the church doesn't plan to investigate the miraculous happenings at her home, says Mary Ross Agosta, a spokeswoman for the diocese.