Faithful see Mary's image in watermark


Dec 19, 2006

Stain from old sprinkler leaves outline on rock wall

By Abigail Goldman

Of all places for the Virgin Mary to appear, here she is in Las Vegas, half hidden behind a scrub brush at the edge of a red rock yard.

Almost three weeks ago, Freddy Montero found what appeared to be an image of the Virgin Mary emblazoned on a rock retaining wall attached to his garage. Since then, the Cobblestone Avenue house near Rainbow Boulevard and Alta Drive has become a beacon for the faithful, who come to stare at the icon's silhouette in color gradations in the stone.

"As soon as you walk up to it, you can feel her presence," said Stacy Veloz, standing in the Monteros' driveway Friday night. "I have the chills right now." She pinched her thin forearm as proof.

"She's trying to touch people that aren't believers, to say, 'I'm here. I'm real. What do you think now?' "

Strangers have started to leave flowers. That's to be expected.

When a candy factory worker in Fountain Valley, Calif., discovered a miniature Virgin Mary cast from chocolate drippings in August, the pious reportedly came en mass to pray before the butterfat statuette. Thousands are said to have crossed themselves before a scorched tortilla resembling the face of Jesus in Lake Arthur, N.M. And a grilled cheese sandwich bearing a burnt Virgin Mary fetched $28,000 on eBay in 2004. (The sandwich was displayed at Las Vegas' Hard Rock Cafe; the chef was supposedly "blessed by the holy toast.")

The Monteros had been living in their Las Vegas home for eight months before learning of the image outside their garage.

Freddy Montero was outside washing his car when he was approached by an older woman. She told him that the house had burned, but the previous owners were spared a fiery death by the grace of the Virgin Mary. Montero, not a religious person , shrugged the lady off. He and his wife knew their home was once in a fire, a fact disclosed before they purchased the property.

Anybody could have found out, Chilee Montero said.

Still, Freddy Montero remembers the woman walking away almost soundlessly. "You don't believe me?" she said. "Well, go look at your wall."

The couple has been quietly spooked since.

"I am not religious at all, but it seems there is a shadow of her," Chilee Montero said. "You can see it best at night. I kid you not."

The couple called their Catholic friends, who came, cried and phoned other family members, who came over. Chilee Montero, compelled by the emotion the image seemed to evoke, began working to get the word out; while friends were telling friends, she posted a notice on the online message board craigslist.

The gawking traffic peaked at midnight Dec. 11, when a small group gathered near the image to light candles in celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose apparition is celebrated annually on Dec. 12. Montero estimates 30 people have contacted her for directions; when she left for work on Friday, she found someone leaning on her fence, looking.

Holy images that appear in mundane forms, such as on a grilled cheese sandwich or the side of someone's garage, must be formally investigated before the Catholic Church will offer any official endorsement, the Rev. Bob Stoeckig said.

"These things happen every once in a while," said Stoeckig, pastor at St. Joseph, Husband of Mary Church in Las Vegas. "If it ultimately leads people to a deeper faith in Christ, it's probably not harmful. But if it takes them off in another direction, it could be. This isn't something that's hard and fast."

The image of Mary outside the Monteros' garage isn't hard and fast either. It seems to be fading slightly. Veloz, snapping photos of the shadow Friday, said this only makes the Mary more powerful. "She's given us plenty of time to see her," she said.

When a reporter mentioned the Monteros aren't particularly religious, Veloz raised her eyebrows and paused, holding them high and taught.

"She wanted to touch somebody in some kind of way," Veloz said, emphatically.

Not everyone is so certain of the divine. Mark Chambers, president of Skeptics of Las Vegas, a group dedicated to promoting science and skepticism, says humans are programmed to see things that aren't really there, whether it be the man on the moon, animals in the clouds or images of the Virgin Mary in your driveway.

"All of these different sightings are the result of us wanting to see things, looking for things, trying to find pattern and organization and meaning in the world around us," Chambers said. "We are pattern-seeking animals."

Chambers, a psychologist and former UNLV professor, gave students inkblot tests to prove the behavior, called pareidolia, or the tendency to see images or patterns in the random. To demonstrate, Chambers posts an inkblot on the chalkboard and instructs students to name what they see: rabbit, bat, buzzard, et al. After the last answer is shouted, Chambers informs the class, "You're all wrong. It's an inkblot."

Freddy Montero decided that his Mary is dried salt residue from a long-gone sprinkler. He doesn't even want to look at the image anymore.

But Gabriela Krozel and others still want to stare.

Krozel brought her 4-month-old baby to the Monteros' house Friday night, and stood, smiling and shivering in the cold. Krozel is a family friend.

Nothing bad is going to happen to the Monteros, she said, nodding toward the wall where the Virgin Mary is made out in shadows. But she's a little jealous.

"I want it. I believe in her," she said. "I want it."