07.26Mother Mary Comes to Me
by Perry DeAngelis
The Virgin Mary makes yet another appearance, this time in our own
Hartford, Connecticut, and NESS investigators take a look.
As Juan Ramon Gordils sat in his Hartford living room watching TV at two in the morning, the hot July night was suddenly broken up by a vision of the blessed Virgin Mary. Being a veteran of such visions, having encountered them multiple times, Gordils immediately recognized the import of the occasion and listened intently as the vision told him to seek “her” in a black locust tree on a certain grassy knoll, with the then- cryptic number 7047 also being conveyed. He followed the vision’s directions to such a place on Wawarme Avenue located in Hartford’s Colt Park, land that was given to the city in 1905 by Mrs. Samuel Colt, the famed gun manufacturer’s widow. The cryptic number soon gave up its mystery, as Gordils saw it on a sewer cover near the patch of trees he was mystically lead to. Within the patch resides the 30-foot-high black locust tree, and Gordils had found the third place that the Virgin Mary had directed him to in his 51 years.
Three’s a Charm
The first time Gordils encountered the Holy Mother was in Puerto Rico as a small child on April 23, 1953 at Sabana Grande.1 Although the well-known case in Sabana Grande never mentions Gordils as one of the three child visionaries, he claims that he witnessed the many miracles of that visitation, which culminated in a similar “miracle of the sun,” like the more famous one said to have occurred in Fatima, Portugal in 1917.
The second time was only seven years ago in Meriden Connecticut. The Virgin appeared to him then right in his own backyard in yet another tree near his ramshackle fence. That sighting also drew crowds until Gordils claimed “she just went away,” but could not guess why.
It is the latest vision, however, that began attracting significant public attention on August 23rd of this year and the NESS decided to look into it. Word of mouth had grown about the vision, further publicized by a shed used as a shrine that Gordils had erected near the tree. The fact that the spot happened to be across the street from a Hartford Courant office, the city’s primary newspaper, also helped. Hundreds began to gather in hopes of sharing in Gordils’ visions of the Virgin, and soon many others claimed that they were also in fact blessed by the visions.
Mass delusion, the power of suggestion, and pareidolia are all well documented psychological phenomena. Pareidolia is the neurological/psychological phenomenon where vague images are interpreted by the brain as specific images. This is the case when we see shapes in clouds, faces formed of potato chips, Elvis in the knot of a tree or an infamous face on Mars. Often the image discerned is one of a face, due to the hardwired part of our brain that is dedicated to recognizing faces. Carl Sagan described it as follows:
“As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper. These days, nearly every infant is quick to identify a human face, and to respond with a goony [sic] grin.” (Sagan, 1995)
It is no surprise, then, that people can make out a face in the random patterns of the bark of a tree. This is reminiscent of the Virgin’s appearance due to an oil stain on a bank window in Florida several years ago.
As we will see, pareidolia is not the only phenomenon at work in such cases. I have already mentioned the phenomenon of the sun miracle, whereby people looking up at a sunny sky might suffer from an optical illusion in which the sun appears to dance in their vision. This has been interpreted as a miracle in many historical Mary sightings, only the most famous of which is the aforementioned Fatima.
Even without optical illusions and the neurological propensity for seeing faces, there are also purely psychological factors driving miracle claims. There are several identified types of mass delusion, for example, one of which is called “collective wish-fulfillment” (Bartholomew & Howard, 1998). In such cases, belief spreads from an original stimulus, driven by a collective desire or need for belief in the particular claim. Such claims are often religion based, but may also involve UFO sightings, fairies, or even Elvis sightings.
Suggestion can also be a powerful psychological factor, even when emotional need is eliminated. One of the most famous cases of this phenomenon is the story of the panda that escaped from a Rotterdam zoo on December 10, 1978 (Van Kampen, 1979). For two days following the newspaper reports of the missing panda, there were over a hundred sightings of the panda all over the city. Unfortunately, none of these sighting could have been accurate since the panda was later found to have been hit and killed by a train only 500 yards from the zoo. Yet, it only took the suggestion of a panda loose in the city for hundreds of people to believe that they had seen the panda.
All of these factors may conspire to create and spread a belief within a community, even from a single testimony. When deeply held and cherished religious beliefs are involved, the effect will be increased many fold. Believers may grasp onto and propagate such visions out of a desire for hope, to vindicate their faith, and to confound skeptics.
Of course, anyone can claim to see anything. However, if the average person heard that someone was claiming a flying pink elephant was hovering over their head a casual glance would be all that was required to easily dismiss the claimant as inebriated. Yet, veil your vision with religious relevance and all such critical thinking skills are left at the door. The need to believe in pink elephants is very low, the need to believe in the Virgin Mary, for some, is very high. The intellectual filters are put aside and the eyes strain to see the culturally familiar vision.
The desire to validate religious visions is often magnified by the fact that it is often claimed only the most faithful can see the blessed sight. If your faith is weak, you will be denied its glory and wisdom (and validation). So your threshold of belief becomes even lower as your emotions take over more and more. Others around you at the sacred spot that you have traveled far to attend can see the vision, so why can’t you? Not wanting to be seen as weak of faith, your mind begins to convince itself that perhaps you do see the vision also. This type of group pressure can be seen in other situations as well, such as group therapy sessions for alleged victims of repressed memory, where individuals are encouraged to remember a repressed memory in order to begin the healing process.
Virgin Mary and Jesus sightings are by far the most common religiously motivated visions that are reported. There have literally been hundreds of such sightings in the past 600 years. 5
NESS Visits Blessed Ground
When we arrived at the sight of the Gordils vision, we were greeted with a crowd of about 70 spectators milling about between the triad of the tree patch wherein the vision is actually claimed to be seen, the Gordils shed/shrine and the food truck. Shortly after arriving a concerned young woman watching us strain to see the face of the Virgin in the bark was kind enough to point out the exact tree and spot where the face was said to be seen. We thanked her and continued to strain. We then discovered that we were directed to the wrong tree, and in fact the Virgin Mary could be seen on the bark of another tree. We were then later told by others that in fact the vision of the Virgin Mary actually appears in the branches of the tree well above our heads and only appears from time to time. Apparently the stories of the vision(s) were not as yet universal. See photo below.
We were next drawn to the chanting coming from the shed/shrine (also pictured below), a crude structure of thin wooden framing covered with blue plastic sheeting. Inside amongst the hundreds of burning candles, rosaries and portraits of Mary, people crowded in the small space and prayed. Several Asian people were the source of the chanting and a relative nearby informed us that they were also praying in their own tongue and custom.
We spoke with several of the pilgrims, and received a mixed bag of responses. One person commented that children can more easily see the Virgin than adults. A teenaged girl told of how she saw two doves fly in and circle the tree several times and then fly off just before the vision of the Virgin materialized to her and several others then present. She described the vision just as one might imagine from the multitude of well accepted portraits of Mary we have seen all our lives. However when NESS questioned the husband and wife that ran the concessions truck, both of whom had been present at the spot for weeks, they claimed to never have seen a thing. They said that only a part of the crowd ever seems to see the vision, yet this lack of a personal religious vision did not seem to deter them from their lucrative spot. Hey, pilgrims have to eat too.
The Church Speaks Out
To their credit, the Catholic church has a long and detailed process that a claimant must go through before they will give their stamp of approval on any paranormal phenomenon. Gordils’ site happens to fall in the parish of the Rev. Michael Galasso, pastor of St. Peter’s Church on Main Street. The 54 year old priest was suspicious of Gordils from the first time he met him. In an interview with the NESS, Rev. Galasso revealed many troubling things about the alleged visionary.
Gordils had made the claim repeatedly that a chapel used to stand some 50 years ago on the site where the locust tree now stands.
“Ridiculous. Of course not. That land used to be owned by the Colt family and they had an extensive dyke system installed there to supply their large garden with water. St. Peters has been here a 140 years, and was the only chapel in the area at that time,” reports Galasso.
Rev Galasso also informed the NESS that the exact same claim, a phantom chapel, was made by Gordils at the time of his Meriden vision in `92. He claimed that a half century earlier a chapel had stood in what was then his backyard. Such claims are so easily checked by a simple glance at the town land records, one wonders what Gordils could be thinking when he makes such obviously false statements. Perhaps he’s thinking that many of the pilgrims he draws to his alleged sightings will not bother to look at land records, being too preoccupied straining to see his visions.
Further, the Reverend told the NESS that Gordils had been telling people that he had given him $1000.00 to come to the site and bless it.
“He did no such thing, but when you’re asking people for money, they’re going to start asking you what you’re doing with it,” said Galasso. Gordils had been requesting donations to rebuild the phantom chapel on the spot. In a previous interview with the Hartford Courant Galasso said the following:
“I’m just afraid a lot of good people will be hurt by this. Everybody’s got an angle. Now he wants to build a church there and he’ll be asking people for money.”
The priest said he declined Gordils’ invitation to visit the alleged apparition site because “my presence would only lend credence to his claims.”(Renner, 1999) It is interesting to note here, that when a reporter from the paper asked the simple question of the pilgrims as to how people could know whether or not the claim was a hoax he was met with hostility and told that it was Satan who was asking that question.
Galasso has been pastor of St. Peters for over 20 years, and he knows his flock well. When many of them asked him about the Gordils visions, he counseled them to stay away. “Your presence there will also lend credence to his claims.” He told his parishioners that Gordils was not a member of his or any other parish, even though he claims he to be devote Catholic. When Gordils came to see Galasso in his office to try and get the priest to validate his claim (Galasso has stuck to his convictions and has never visited the site, though he did say he drove by it), Galasso told him that he should seek out a spiritual counselor and discuss the matter in detail before making any other public claims as to visions. He said Gordils had absolutely no interest in seeking such counseling, and when Galasso went on to ask him about his live-in girlfriend, a domestic situation Catholics consider living in sin, Gordils promptly ended the meeting and left.
The City Speaks Up, and Tears Down
A delayed reaction by Hartford city officials has come close to making a martyr out of Gordils.
His makeshift shed/shrine was erected illegally on public property, and was an obvious fire hazard with its hundreds of open flames. City officials had hoped that interest in the visionary would simply fade away and thus the problem with it. (The NESS could have told them this was a vain hope.) They were reluctant to move in because it was a matter of religious faith. Had the shed been erected by an archeologist or botanist doing work in the park, it would have been torn down the day it was built and its erectors fined. So, in a misguided attempt to be sensitive to both the pilgrims and the very religious Latino community (about one third of the city’s 120,000 residents are Puerto Ricans) (AP, 1998), in which the park resides, the shed/shrine was left, illegal and a serious safety hazard, for over a month.
Since this was a city park, issues such as the need for city council permission, possible deed restrictions and the separation of church and state arise, said Ivan Ramos, a lawyer in the city’s corporation counsel office. (Weiss, 1999)
Gordils, always concerned for his pilgrims, said he was not afraid of the safety problems because, “the Blessed Mother will protect me.” Perhaps, but she did not deign to protect the shed/shrine from the slow but steady hand of the city of Hartford.
In early October, Gordils was asked to come to the office of the City Manager, Saundra Kee Borges, ostensibly to discuss making the shed safe. Yet, while he was there, city workers were dispatched to dismantle the structure. By the time Gordils returned to the site in the afternoon, he found the shed cordoned off by four police cruisers and the structure in a state of deconstruction. His tears and the shouts of his faithful did not deter the workers, although they were continually screamed at and told that they and the city were going to hell. Not even crisis workers sent from the city’s human services department could quiet some of the fanatical, who said this was a direct attack on their faith. In the end, Gordils tried to tell them not to worry because they would one day have something built on the spot that was much nicer than the shed (and would no doubt be much more expensive).
As of this writing at the end of October 1999, only a few of the most devout still mill about the wreckage of the shed and seek shelter under the branches of the blessed tree as the coming winter quickly chills the New England air. We can only hope for their sake, that the next time Gordils is visited by a vision, it’s in a nice coffee shop somewhere.
2) Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark. (New York: Random House, 1995).
3) Van Kampen, H. 1979. “The Case of the Lost Panda.” The Skeptical Inquirer 4(1) Fall: 48-50
4) Bartholomew RE, Howard GS. UFO’s & Alien Contact (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998)
6) Wednesday, September 15, 1999, Page:A4 Section:MAIN Edition: STATEWIDE Type: Illustration: Source:Gerald Renner; Courant Religion Writer
7) Associated Press: Jun 24, 1998 – 19:21 EDT
8) Saturday, October 9, 1999, Page:B5 Section:CONNECTICUT Edition: STATEWIDE Type: Illustration: Source:Eric M. Weiss; Courant Staff Writer