By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Gloria Martinez called in sick this past July 12. A blood clot in her leg hurt so badly that, for the second week in a row, she couldn't get out of bed. The 45-year-old Dominican mother of two feared that her health would force her to quit her weekend job at Jackson Memorial Hospital and to drop out of school. For seven years, she had been a kind, sweet, competent voice on the other end of the line when people called the hospital's poison control hotline. During the week, she studied for a master's degree in mental health counseling at Nova Southeastern University. "I am a very busy woman," she says.
It all seemed threatened by the pain.
For six weeks, she had been going to doctors. Ultrasound after ultrasound turned up little. She suffered from a superficial clot in a vein, the doctors said. Apply a heating pad. Take anti-inflammatory drugs. Use pain pills.
But nothing helped.
The leg was so bloated that she couldn't bend it. And as soon as the effect of the narcotics wore off, the torment would return. "It bothered me so bad," Martinez says. "I had so many sleepless nights." After spending the day in bed on Saturday, she was again racked with pain that night, again unable to sleep. She couldn't touch her leg without crying out in pain.
When morning arrived on Sunday, July 13, Martinez decided she had one last hope for a cure. For years, Martinez had heard that the Virgin Mary appeared on the 13th of each month to a Cuban woman in Hollywood named Rosa Lopez. People said miracles happened there.
"I said to myself, ´This is my last resort,'" Martinez says. Around 7 a.m., she jostled her husband, Julian, awake. "Come with me to the place where the Virgin appears," Martinez urged him.
But Julian didn't want to wrest himself from bed. "No, no, I'm too sleepy," he grumbled.
So, while he stayed beneath the sheets, Martinez put on an ankle-length blue-and-green print peasant dress and brushed her thick, waist-length, deep-brown hair into a barrette. She hoisted herself into her car and drove across town to Lopez's home off Sheridan Street, at 1301 N. 66th Ave.
Lopez lives in an architectural no-man's land, where a sprawl of nondescript single-story ranch homes with tiny front yards and scrappy foliage stretches from the Florida Turnpike west to new suburbia. It could be anywhere in Florida.
Traveling down 66th Avenue toward Lopez's blue-and-white cinderblock home, one slows down and rubbernecks, hoping not to overlook the house. Then out of the rows of creeping, almost viral sameness, a phantasmagoric religious sculpture garden jumps above the landscape. In the middle of the yard is a white, four-tier, wedding cake-style fountain with a gigantic base almost eight feet in diameter. Six cherubs spewing water perch on the lowest rim, and a white statue of the Virgin Mary caps it. A cross, at least 15 feet high, thrusts above the one-story house with a life-sized bronze-toned Christ; his head is encircled by a crown of thorns, his eyes are closed in pain, his wounds drip blood.
Around 9 a.m., Martinez limped past the garden, leaning on a cane for support, and made her way to the side of the house. Rows of plastic lawn chairs had been set up on the driveway and on a cement patio. Volunteers from a group that helps Lopez manage the event expected a large crowd, but when Martinez arrived, only a couple of people milled around outside.
Martinez walked through a sliding glass door into a room plastered with pictures and statues of Mary and Jesus. Then she sat down on a straight-backed chair. A family from Thailand clustered in front of an image of the virgin. At an altar, candles flickered. The perfume from hundreds of red, yellow, and pink roses saturated the air. Roses are the Virgin's flowers. To pray the rosary is to give a wreath of roses to her.
Until 1993, the room where Martinez found herself had been Rosa Lopez's bedroom. Lopez had been sick for ten years and had spent her days lying in bed or sitting in a wheelchair. It was in that room in May 1993 that Jesus and Mary anointed Lopez their spokesperson. "I am going to heal you because I want this place to be holy, and I want you to be a prophet for these times," Lopez says Jesus told her during their first visit. He also instructed her to dig a well in her backyard. The water would have the power to heal the sick.
By 1994, after Lopez opened her home to the public on May 13 and word spread of the Virgin's appearances, more than 4,000 people crowded the neighborhood, set up lawn chairs in the street, and clustered in the neighbors' yards. Soon, the City of Hollywood sent 50 cops to Lopez's house monthly just to control the crowds. People raved about the miracles the Virgin performed, from causing the sun to spin in the sky to curing cancer.
It turned out just as the Virgin told Lopez. "Great events will happen here," the Virgin predicted in February 1994. "There will be many witnesses, and those who do not believe will have to lower their heads and accept that I, my son, and the Holy Spirit are here..."
Hollywood is not the only place where the Virgin Mary makes pit stops. Since she was spirited -- untainted body and pure soul -- into heaven on August 15 just a few years after the death of Jesus, Mary has allegedly come back to Earth more than 20,000 times.
Those who believe the Virgin returns say she does it because she loves us as a mother does. While God and Jesus might want to punish our ever-sinning selves, Mary asks for mercy. She has special influence with Jesus. Who can say no to his mom?
Catholic popular history is full of stories about the holy Virgin. She gave the rosary in a vision to St. Dominic in the 13th Century, telling him that Christians should invoke her aid by praying with the beads.
In Mexico in 1531, Mary is said to have helped convert Aztecs to Catholicism. She filled a mountaintop with roses so that a peasant named Juan Diego could fill his cloak with them and convince his bishop that Mary wanted a church built on the spot. When he unveiled the flowers at the palace of the bishop, Fray Juan de Zumarrága was stunned to see an image of Mary swathed in light, her mantle adorned with stars, emblazoned on the peasant's cloak. The church was built, and in 1945, Santa Maria de Guadalupe was crowned the "Queen of Wisdom of the Americas." More than 12 million people visit her shrine annually.
While the number of reported Mary visits dropped off during the Reformation, in the 20th Century, she began appearing with dire warnings that the end of time was near. At Fatima, Portugal, on May 13, 1917, Mary gave three children tending sheep a glimpse of hell and warned that God was ready to punish Earth. She spoke out against communist Russia, asking that the country be consecrated to her so that its conversion back to Christianity could take place. Then she predicted the spread of communism, told them that World War I was about to end, and added that, if people didn't stop sinning, World War II would be unleashed. She appeared to the children on the 13th of the month for five months. During her final appearance on October 13, many of the 70,000 people who gathered around the children said they saw the sun whirl in the sky, pulsate, and plummet zig-zag toward Earth.
There are hundreds of other places in the United States, Europe, Asia, and Latin America where Mary has shown up in recent years.
Sometimes Mary and Jesus leave only prints of themselves, messing with the molecules of ordinary objects to turn them into sacred relics. In December 1996, a multihued visage of the Virgin Mary bloomed on the glass façade of a bank building in Clearwater, on Florida's west coast. Although analysis of the image indicated a chemical reaction between the glass of the building and the bank's sprinkler system, devotees believed the Virgin had sent a message warning against turning money into an idol. They made the bank a shrine.
One of the best-known apparitions in the United States occurred in Conyers, Georgia, where Nancy Fowler began receiving messages from Jesus and the Virgin Mary in 1987. As at Fatima, Mary reappeared on the 13th of each month, and people who visited the site told of watching the sun spin in the sky, of seeing images of Mary in the clouds, and of smelling the perfume of roses. Mary delivered a decidedly modern message with a technical twist at Conyers. She spoke vehemently against abortion. Pilgrims who snap photographs above Conyers say they capture images of a rectangular shape in the sky, which they contend is the doorway to heaven. More than a million people have visited the shrine.
During the 14 years that Rosa Lopez has been receiving celestial messages -- sometimes daily -- Mary and Jesus have spoken of great catastrophes and cataclysmic events on Earth. On January 1, 1994, Mary first told Lopez that Castro would fall from power. On March 3, 1994, Jesus told her that great catastrophes would happen in America that would convince the world's population to dedicate itself to Mary. And on December 28, 1994, Mary said that a volcano in Mexico would "continue to blow like a furious lion until its roar awakens the conscience of its citizen."
In 1995, Lopez repeatedly received visions that her followers believe predicted the attack on the World Trade Center, says Christine Ruffolo of Sunrise. Ruffolo is secretary of a nonprofit organization, Our Loving Mother's Foundation, a group that helps Lopez spread the word. In a book recording Lopez's visions that the foundation published several years ago, Mary warned of an explosion of towering buildings and said that "the situation with terrorists is serious" on August 14, 1995.
Because there is no time in heaven, it was impossible to say when the warnings would come true or whether there was anything people could do to prevent them. "You can pray to change things," Ruffolo says. "Maybe even the most difficult or horrible things can be stopped completely or changed so that it is not so bad."
Tom Ryan, chairman of the department of religious studies and history at St. Thomas University in Miami-Dade County, says that the Catholic understanding of God may explain the seeming hocus-pocus of weeping icons, branding of objects, and visitations. God came into the world in the body of a man, according to the Bible. He parted the Red Sea. During Mass, Catholics believe that a simple wafer becomes the actual body of Christ and that wine turns into his blood. "Apparitions like this maybe kind of flow from that sense of God communicating through our senses," he says.
As Martinez prayed on that Sunday morning, Rosa Lopez took a seat in a corner of the room. A diminutive 65-year-old grandmother wearing a long, pale, blue-flowered dress with her gray hair cropped short, Lopez issued greetings and pecked the cheeks of new arrivals as though they were guests at a gigantic family reunion. Her pet dogs Chile, a Chihuahua; Piccolo, a tiny mutt; and Papito, a Pomeranian, wandered in and out of the room as the sliding door opened and shut. In halting English, Lopez spoke to the crowd, which by then included about 30 people.
"Attention please, please," Lopez shouted above the din of the crowded room. "The significance for the apparition, for the mother coming is for conversation. The mother is coming for to bring the love to the Jesus for the conversion to the people. The people no make attention to the sick. All the family is distant and separate. There is no love, no respect to the father, to the old people abandoned in hospitals. Nobody attends to them. Nobody loves them."
Before she began having visions of the Virgin Mary, before she became sick, Lopez had a glamorous life. As a child in Havana, she performed as a singer with her brother Robert. The pair appeared on television and radio, she says. As a young adult, Lopez continued to perform her own songs.
In 1957, she married Jacinto Lopez, who had been enamored of Rosa since she was 16 years old. They had a daughter named Caridad in 1958 and a son, Alejandro, in 1963. Jacinto was a sergeant in the military of dictator Fulgencio Batista until Fidel Castro took power in 1959. After the revolution, the couple found the conditions intolerable. The only role for a singer, Lopez recalls, was to praise the revolution in song. "Never!" she says.
The couple fled the island in 1967, settling in Passaic, New Jersey. Jacinto worked in manufacturing, and Rosa took whatever jobs she could find. For a while, she worked in a sewing factory. "Anything to help the family, we did," she says.
After moving to Hollywood in 1972, Lopez began singing again, this time for the Cuban exile community that crowded Miami's Little Havana. Performing under her maiden name, Rosita Rondon, she thrilled audiences with her long, thick, blond hair and sultry mischievous air. "Life has taught me to value all things and all moments," she sang in the song "Amor Desesperado" ("Hopeless Love").
"I was a beautiful woman," she says. "Beautiful."
Lopez gave her last performance on September 12, 1982, at 1 p.m. at El Bosque Restaurant on Calle Ocho and 27th Avenue in Miami. She was the headline performer on a packed bill.
In December of that year, Lopez developed severe pains. Her stomach swelled up so big, she looked pregnant, she says. She had five hernias, five surgeries, hepatitis, colitis, and an operation to remove her gall bladder. For ten years, she endured physical agony. At first, she tried to change careers. She went to beauty school and hoped to open her own salon. But the pain made it impossible to work. By 1992, she spent most of her time in bed or a wheelchair. "I lost everything," she says. "Everything."
Her life changed when a friend brought Lopez a bottle of holy water from the apparition site in Conyers. Lopez says when she opened it, the scent of roses filled the room. Although she had been raised Catholic, she says she attended Mass more out of duty than understanding. In October 1992, Lopez took a bus with a group of Catholics to visit Virginia Fowler in Conyers. Lopez says she received her first visions there when she saw an image of Mary in a tree. She started making monthly pilgrimages.
In May 1993, as Lopez sat in a wheelchair on her back patio, a cloudy apparition appeared in an orange tree next to her. Lopez says there were no words spoken, but a feeling of peace came over her as the shape hovered in the tree. It was Mary.
A few days later, as she lay in bed saying her rosary, Mary -- this time accompanied by Jesus -- made a second visit. The house calls became almost daily occurrences after that.
Mary gave Lopez specific instructions. Under her tutelage, Lopez converted her house into a Marian shrine. She rid herself of the Oriental-style furniture she coveted and of all her knick-knacks, replacing them with images of Mary and donated furniture. The only personal effects Lopez has today are stuffed into a small bedroom.
Jacinto wasn't too happy about the transformation of his house into a sanctuary.
"I've lost my privacy," he complained. "You've taken my house away from me."
Lopez says she often had problems convincing Jacinto that what she was doing was right. "You want to question to me?" she told her husband. "Question to the God!"
Jacinto thought his wife had lost her mind. He asked for a divorce. "You are crazy, and you are trying to make me crazy too," he told her. For a time, he convinced the couple's children that his wife had gone berserk. Then, after seeing an image of the Virgin in the window of the couple's bedroom, Jacinto had a slight change of heart. Even after that experience, though, he still grumbles about the upheaval in their lives. "I have a lot of problems with my husband," Lopez says now. "A lot of, a lot of problems."
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.
For the Catholic Church to affirm the divine nature of an apparition site, a lengthy examination must be concluded. The only modern apparitions that have been affirmed are Fatima and a 1973 event in Akita, Japan. Since Lopez opened her home in May 1994, Ruffolo says, hundreds of people have been healed. The foundation keeps a book of their testimonies and asks people to write to the Archbishop telling of their experiences in the hope he will investigate the site and realize the claims are real.
It doesn't matter to Lopez's pilgrims how Randi characterizes their beliefs or whether the Catholic Church has recognized the miracle of Hollywood.
During the car ride from Coral Springs to Hollywood with her mother Ramona in 1994, JoAnn Garcia says she was filled with doubt. "I prayed fervently that if it was a fake for our lord to expose it to me so that our lord and our lady would not be used for [Rosa Lopez's] profit." Her husband, who was a Miami-Dade police officer, was even more skeptical, she says.
But now Garcia says that her experiences that day transformed her from a skeptic to a believer. She was saying the rosary during a downpour. "The clouds parted, and all of a sudden, I was looking at the sun, and I will swear on anything, except my lord, the sun was [swinging in the sky]. It started arching [back and forth] six times, and then it burst out into colors, into the rainbow colors. People were saying, 'Oh my God, look at all the colors. '"
Garcia burst into tears. "It was an emotion I can't even explain. It was not in my ears or in my head, but in my heart, I felt as though my lord was saying to me, 'This is your answer, JoAnn.' It was as though he touched his finger to my heart.
"And I never doubted it ever since."
Jim Coffin, who has been attending the apparitions since Lopez first opened her home in 1994, says he has witnessed many miracles there. He says he has seen images of Mary weeping. And he has been overcome by the rosy scent of holy water drawn from the Lopez fountain. For him, it is all an answer to a prayer. "I used to fuss at Mary, asking her why she always appeared in Europe or some other faraway place," he says. "And now we have her here."
Doctors had given Rita Sanchez three months to live when she first visited Rosa Lopez's home four years ago, she says. The 62-year-old says she had multiple tumors throughout her body. Doctors now say the malignant tumors have disappeared. Once a week, Sanchez and her daughter, Beatrice Gonzalez, visit the Lopez home. Rosa squirts holy water in their mouths, makes the sign of the cross, and touches her palm to their foreheads. "We come here because we believe it is a miracle," Gonzalez says.
Gloria Martinez hoped for a cure too as she sat in the apparition room that July 13. Around 11 a.m., Lopez noticed her tears and came over to her to ask what was wrong. Martinez told Lopez about the horrible pain she suffered. "She told me not to worry," Martinez says.
Lopez helped Martinez hobble to the fountain in the front yard. She scooped up water and poured it onto Martinez's leg. She made the sign of the cross and told Martinez that she should sit down. Then Lopez placed her hand on Martinez's forehead. "I felt like I was going to faint," Martinez says. "I just sat." When she came out of the trance, Martinez says, the pain in her leg had disappeared.
After Martinez returned to her seat in the apparition room, she repeatedly bent and unbent her leg. "Oh my God, I don't believe this," she said over and over again. "This is a miracle. I swear to God."
Asked if she thought the pain would return, Martinez wouldn't consider such an outcome. "I don't think it will come back," she said. "I have the feeling that it will not. I had a lot of faith when I came here today."
Martinez left the Lopez house before the main event of the day took place. "I didn't know there was anything more than that," she says. "And I had already been there so long."
At 11:45 a.m., Ruffolo's husband, Frank, asked the crowd of more than 300 people massed inside and outside the Lopez home to pray and to say the rosary together. The group began with the visit of the holy spirit to Mary, the birth and life and death of Jesus, continued on through to the death of Mary and her coronation as the queen of heaven, in both Spanish and English. It lasted for about 90 minutes.
Lopez sat in a white plastic lawn chair beside the fountain with a lace scarf covering her head, holding a pink rosary. When the saying of prayers was completed, she slipped off the chair and knelt on a cushion on the ground with her hands folded in prayer. She remained silent for several minutes, her face contorted. Then she uttered a guttural whisper. A volunteer held a microphone to her mouth so that the audience could hear her words. Christine Ruffolo held a tape player so that the message could be transcribed, printed, and distributed to the public. Lopez talked in a hard-to-follow mixture of Spanish and English, in a voice that sometimes dropped almost to a whisper, for about 30 minutes.
Mary had asked that the Mass be said in Latin, rather than in the common tongue that the church allowed post Vatican II in the 1960s, Lopez explained. She implored husbands and wives to stay married. And she spoke out adamantly against abortion. Later, Lopez said that Mary arrived holding baby Jesus in her arms to show the importance of motherhood. "The apparition of your mother in different parts of the world is very important," Mary said through Lopez, "because the end of time is coming soon for humanity and the world. But don't be afraid; the world will not end. What will end is apostasy; the generation that lives in promiscuity and in disobedience to the church will end."
Martinez's divine cure didn't last through the night. Perhaps it was just an adrenaline rush of the moment, mind over matter for a few pain-free hours. At 11 p.m. that Sunday, the pain returned. She was in more agony than ever before, if that was possible. Frightened, Martinez rushed to the emergency room. If she had waited, a doctor said, she might have died. This time, the ultrasound showed a huge clot in her leg. If it had traveled to her lungs, it would have killed her.
Martinez spent five days in the hospital. Now back home and back at work, she injects herself with an anticoagulant medication twice a day.
Because the miracle wore off, you might think Martinez would question whether Lopez is an authentic messenger. But her faith has remained unshaken. "I kept going to the hospital, and they couldn't figure out what was wrong," she says. "They couldn't diagnose me. I believe that [Mary] did help to guide them to know what was wrong.
"One of the doctors even said that someone up there must be watching out for me."