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Faithful Claim a Holy Vision : Religion: Hundreds at a Catholic church in Santa Ana say they see an image of the Virgin Mary on a tile mosaic.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

To the fog-shrouded church they came, seeking a miracle.

From across Orange County, hundreds were drawn by word that the Virgin Mary appears each morning at 7:30 as the faithful recite the rosary in Our Lady of the Pillar Roman Catholic Church in Santa Ana. Real or not, the sightings have captured the imagination of everyone from fervent parishioners who see an apparition of the Madonna to television news producers who see visions of higher ratings.

Early Friday morning, there was no sunshine to slant through a stained-glass window and cast the usual warm glow on a 30-foot mosaic of the Virgin Mary behind the altar. Even so, many of the 500 people who jammed the pews reported seeing faint details of a face here or there on the mosaic tiles.

Vincent Aguilar couldn’t make out an image. But the 71-year-old Seal Beach man sobbed anyway because, he said, “Our Blessed Virgin told me she was in my heart.”

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Since early November, a growing group of parishioners say they have seen visions appear in the left half of the mosaic, just below the word Gratia, to the left of the towering portrait of Mary, depicted as a vision to St. James in AD 42. As word has spread beyond the parish, hundreds have flocked to the church on West 6th Street to witness the early-morning spectacle, which diocese officials say is the first reported sighting of the Virgin Mary in Orange County.

Irma Villegas claims to be one of the first to see the apparition. She said it appeared three weeks ago, a glowing form to the left of the head of an angel dressed in green. The vision, she said, first appeared to her as she and about 20 other women recited the rosary after the 7 a.m. Mass.

On Friday morning, the 48-year-old Santa Ana woman wiped away a tear with the sleeve of her sweat shirt, then pointed out the vision to another of the strangers who approached her.

“She is right there,” Villegas said, gesturing toward a gold-flecked area near the head of the angel. “But when the sun comes, it reflects her very well. . . . She is telling us she wants us to pray the rosary more every day . . . to save the world.”

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Officials of the Diocese of Orange declined to speculate on the authenticity of the visions but urged parishioners to use caution.

“If such an alleged vision is taking place, that would have to be what we commonly call a miracle, and miracles do happen,” said Msgr. Lawrence J. Baird, a spokesman for the diocese, which numbers 750,000 Roman Catholics. He added:

“But in something like this--and there have been many, many such cases reported--we try to explain things first through natural causes. And in this case, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to suggest it is more than that.”

Baird added that church officials often worry that reports of such sightings can “trivialize” the Catholics’ fundamental belief in the Virgin Mary as the mother of God. He said no investigation to verify the apparition is planned at this time.

Gerald Larue, adjunct professor of gerontology at USC, dismissed the sighting as another in a string of dubious visions reported from California to Eastern Europe in the last decade.

“People have seen (religious apparitions) in a tortilla; one saw an image on an oak tree; another saw it on a rusting silo, and another saw it on a plate of spaghetti on a billboard,” said Larue, who is also a professor emeritus of religion and author of the 1989 book “The Supernatural, the Occult and the Bible,” which included a chapter on such visions. “Once it starts, it’s contagious. . . . Pretty soon, everybody wants to be part of this thing.”

Father James D. McGuire, assistant pastor at Our Lady of the Pillar, first learned of the apparition in his own church through a local newspaper report. He has not seen it himself, but if such visions are real, Our Lady of the Pillar is an ideal place for them because the whole of the church’s interior is devoted to representations of the Holy Mother, he said.

After seeing Friday’s crowd--the size normally expected on Sundays--plus assorted crews of television reporters and camera crews along with other members of the media recording the morning devotions of the faithful, McGuire worried about the impact on regular parishioners.

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“A lot of commotion like this is not conducive to a spirit of prayer and reflection,” he said.

Commotion took over the tiny Northern California town of Colfax after parishioners at St. Dominic’s Roman Catholic Church reported seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary on a church wall last Thanksgiving Day.

The “miracle” was ultimately attributed to the sun shining through a window and reflecting off a light fixture, but not before thousands upon thousands of faithful descended on the town 55 miles north of Sacramento, waiting in lines a quarter of a mile long for a chance to see the multicolored vision.

“It was getting so bad, we were losing parishioners because there wasn’t room for our own people, it was so crowded here,” said Ed Malloy Jr., whose father is a caretaker at St. Dominic’s and who claimed to be one of the first to spot the illuminated Virgin.

Interest dwindled as the image, seen only after the 9 a.m. Mass, faded from the wall shortly after Christmas. But Malloy said Friday that the eerie glow has returned and is growing larger.

“It started about a week ago, so I guess it really must be the location of the sun and the reflection of something,” Malloy said.

Mila Grant was one who made the pilgrimage to Colfax last winter. As soon as she heard about the vision at Our Lady of the Pillar, the 38-year-old office manager from Santa Ana hurried down.

“I was able to see (the Virgin Mary) six times in three days when she was appearing there in Colfax,” Grant said Friday from the second pew. “I haven’t seen her today, but I believe she is here. . . . And I hope to be fortunate enough to see her again. If I do, it would be icing on the cake.”

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