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.