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A Beacon for the Faithful and Skeptics : Religion: Some say it’s the Virgin Mary. Others say it’s only sunlight.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thousands of people from California and other states crowded into this small town 55 miles northeast of Sacramento on Saturday to view an image on a church wall that is either a vision of the Virgin Mary or sunlight reflected through stained glass windows, depending on the point of view of the observer.

Beginning on Thanksgiving Day, the image has appeared, for 45 minutes to an hour each morning, above a statue of Christ in tiny St. Dominic’s Church.

On Saturday, more than 3,000 people came to see the image, according to the California Highway Patrol. They began to gather about 5 a.m. outside the 40-year-old church on Auburn Avenue and in the parking lot.

They wore jackets and coats and shawls to fend off the early morning chill. Some were kneeling in prayer. Many brought young children. There were blind and crippled people and those with other physical problems.

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There was an ambulance, several “Wee Chateau” portable toilets and, across the street, parking spaces were being offered for $10 each.

Darlene Pagtakhan and her husband, Chris, drove three hours from Union City, on the east side of San Francisco Bay, hoping to get two of the 280 places that are allotted for the daily rosary service at which the vision is said to appear.

“I think it’s real, maybe,” Darlene Pagtakhan said. “I think it’s her. It’s happened before but it’s always been someplace far away. This is the first time I’ve been close enough to come.”

Anne Bolden, 30, of Davis said this was her third visit. Each time, she said, the silhouetted figure of Mary appeared above a statue of Christ in the front of the church between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m.

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“It’s very beautiful,” Bolden said. “Whatever it is, it has brought people together for a good purpose--spirituality. Whatever it is, I would say it’s a miracle.”

But Al Rhomberg, who described himself as a Sacramento physicist, debunked the idea that this is a miracle.

Standing outside the church, Rhomberg said: “It’s an obvious and simple physical phenomenon. It’s something you’d see with any stained glass window.”

Rhomberg agreed with James Phelps, a physics professor at Cal State Sacramento, who said the image is merely sunlight reflected through stained glass windows at the front of the church, bouncing off a newly cleaned plastic lighting fixture and striking the wall above the statue of Jesus for 45 minutes or so every morning.

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“This isn’t even a first-class illusion,” Phelps said. “Any real optics person would turn up his nose at this.”

Rhomberg said the image could be shown to be false by placing pieces of black paper on the light fixture and the wall, by removing the light fixture’s newly installed plastic holders, by taking the fixture down or by placing a curtain or a large piece of cardboard between the window and the light.

“Or, quicker still, " he said, “just tap the fixture with a stick and the image will move.”

But none was eager to engage in such experiments in front of thousands of people who believe this to be a true vision of the Virgin.

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Madonna Richeson, owner of Madonna’s Classic Kitchen in downtown Colfax, said she placed her hand on the wall while the image was still there one day and “I didn’t see a shadow--it was like my hand wasn’t there.”

Whether the vision is real or not, it is good for business in Colfax, which largely depends on travelers from nearby Interstate 80 and doesn’t get many at this time of year, especially when there is no snow for Sierra skiers.

Richeson, who moved north from Canoga Park four years ago, said her business has doubled.

Across the street from the church, Arnie Strand was selling tie-dyed shirts with the inscription “I Saw the Light--St. Dominic’s Church, Colfax.” The shirts cost $12, of which $2 goes to “feed the needy,” Strand said.

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Another nearby merchant, Harvey Allen of Foothill Feed and Seed, was offering key rings and bumper stickers with a vision theme.

By 9 a.m., the weather was sunny and mild. The church choir loft was filled with reporters, photographers and television cameramen, many of them discussing the appropriate camera aperture and speed setting for filming a vision.

About 30 minutes later, some sort of image began to be visible above the statue of Christ. It looked like the silhouetted figure of the Virgin Mary, holding the infant Jesus, or like a figure eight or like a snowman or like a lot of other things.

It was pretty, pink and orange around the edges at first, changing later to whites and blues.

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By 10 a.m., the image was beginning to fade and by 10:15 it was gone, presumably until the next morning.

The 280 people inside the church left and the thousands waiting outside filed through, to touch the wall where the image had been or simply to look.

Pat Wilkoff, a member of the parish, said, “It’s more vivid every day.”

Phyllis Geary, another parishioner, said, “This time I could see her veil and the infant cuddled in her arms.”

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A California Highway Patrol officer, helping to handle the traffic that clogged Auburn Avenue, said he hoped it would be over soon, whatever it was.

Bishop Francis Quinn of the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento said he would wait awhile before launching any inquiry.

“Customarily, most dioceses do not act precipitously, in the first fervor of a thing like this,” Quinn said. “We’ll wait for things to quiet down a little bit.”

But if the phenomenon continues, especially on dark, cloudy days when the image should not appear if the optical illusion theories are correct, Quinn said he probably would appoint a canonical commission, to interview witnesses, scientific experts and others and publish a report.

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But many people might reject a report that said the cause was a natural phenomenon, the bishop said.

“Devotions like this, as long as they’re not doing anything inappropriate or heretical, are fine,” he said. “It could be that people will want to believe, whatever the evidence might be, and I wouldn’t do anything to suppress that.”


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