HARLINGEN — Late one night 12 years ago, a drunken driver careened around a corner and slammed into a mesquite tree, killing two women in the car.
Now what’s left of that tree near Fifth Street and Woodland Drive has taken on the image of the Virgin Mary.
The image appeared a few months ago when a thunderstorm blew down the tree, Brian Gaul, 27, a resident of that neighborhood, said. People began to notice that the tree stump near City Lake looked like the Virgin Mary.
The stump, with swirling lines in shades of gray, rises about 7 feet tall, The top leans slightly forward like a veil covering a woman’s head.
“I have heard people say they have seen the Virgin Mary,” Gaul said.
He was raised in the Catholic faith and grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, he said. While he’s heard many stories about people seeing an image of the Virgin Mary on various objects, “I don’t put much stock in it.”
But others do.
Martha Serna noticed. These days when she walks around the lake, she feels a sense of peace that wasn’t there before.
“I feel nice,” Serna, 55, said. “I feel the wind there. I feel good. When I go walk over there and I walk in front of the little park is when I have time to pray because it’s only me walking there. When you are at home, you are doing this and that. There I feel like I want to be happy.”
Serna feels strongly that she needed to tell people about the image. Her sister had seen it, and then she struck up a conversation with a woman walking around the lake.
“This lady was talking about her sons,” she recalled. “She was hoping God would help them. I don’t know the lady. She was just talking to me. And then she told me, ‘Do you know the Virgin Mary is here with us?’ And I told her, ‘Yes, I see it too.’”
People walking their dogs have seen others taking pictures.
Manuel Medrano, a history professor of the University of Texas at Brownsville, said the experience of seeing images of the Virgin Mary or the Virgen de Guadalupe is ingrained into the culture of many local Catholics.
“I think part of it is tradition, the fact that the belief system has been around for a long time in the Americas,” said Medrano, who also has an anthropology background.
“There was a fusion of Catholicism and of course indigenous beliefs and in the case of La Virgen de Guadalupe; they’ve invested that into their culture.”
La Virgen de Guadalupe refers to the story of the Virgin Mary, who appeared to an Aztec Indian named Juan Diego in the 1500s. She sent him to the bishop with a message to build a church where she had appeared. The bishop asked for a sign, and the Virgen de Guadalupe told Juan Diego to cut some Castilian roses and take them to the bishop.
Juan Diego wrapped the roses in his cape and took them to the bishop. When he opened the cape, it had an image of La Virgen de Guadalupe, as Juan Diego had described. This convinced the bishop that Juan Diego’s story was true and a church was built as directed.
Medrano said that thousands of people visit the shrine in Mexico City on Dec. 12, the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
“Part of it’s culture, part of it’s how it’s been handed down from family to family,” Medrano said. Part of it, he said, is also theological.
Medrano said a former student who worked at pizza restaurant gave him a piece of foil with a grease stain that appears to be an image of the Virgin Mary, with an aura and different colors.
People who believe in the Virgin Mary and the Virgin of Guadalupe see the image clearly. Non-believers see only a grease stain.
There have been numerous incidents in the Valley of people seeing the image in various forms such as in shadows or stains. For many, it’s very significant.
“There are people that sometimes, when they see something like this, their loyalty is increased,” Medrano said. “Or their lives are transformed because they believe this is a sign to them, that something’s going to happen to them, usually positively or that we have to be fearful of something that may happen negatively. And that is as old as man himself. Before there were religions there were omens.”
Although some may feel that seeing an image of the Virgin Mary on an object may be a sign, the position of the Roman Catholic Church is that it’s a personal expression of individual faith.
Brenda Nettles Riojas, spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, said apparitions are different from seeing a likeness in an objection. Apparitions refer to occurrences in which the Virgin Mary appears and bears a message.
“There have been approved apparitions around the world where the Virgin Mary appeared, and that has taken years to validate and look into,” she said.
In any case, it can definitely capture the attention of non-Catholics, although to them it seems more like an interesting curiosity.
A young woman living near the tree, who did not give her name said that, although she is not Catholic, the stump did look like the Virgin Mary. She said that evening is the best time to see the figure.
“It’s best at dusk or at night when you come around the corner,” she said. “It’s not very visible during the day, but at dusk when the headlights hit it.”
She said that, when the thunderstorm knocked down the tree and left the stump, she didn’t notice because of her house’s location.
“A friend of mine who also is not Catholic, she came over one night and said, ‘Have you seen the Virgin Mary?’” the woman said. “I thought she was joking. She said, ‘No, it’s right out there. The tree stump.’ It doesn’t look like it at all from this side.”
Shirley Goodwin, 71, said she didn’t feel it looked like the Virgin Mary.
“When I come around that curve, it looks like a woodcarving of a gnome with a peak hat,” she said.