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Clergy Split Over Image on Elm Tree

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some Episcopal clergy expressed dismay Wednesday with the credence given by a colleague to an alleged image of the Virgin Mary on a Chinese elm in a North Hollywood back yard where a largely Latino following has gathered daily for 12 days.

Meanwhile, a tree expert said the discoloration and alleged tears appearing on the image are caused by a fungal disease that causes sap to ooze out.

Peering at the tree trunk as dozens of devotees pressed to see for themselves the shape said to resemble paintings of Our Lady of Guadalupe, arborist Jerome Smith of Culver City nonetheless cautioned:

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“All of this is not to say it isn’t a picture of the Virgin.”

He indicated that natural explanations don’t eliminate the possibility of a religious phenomenon.

About 200 people who believe that the image is authentic attended a Mass celebrated Tuesday night by Episcopal priest Barry Verdi of Holy Family Mission Church in North Hollywood, who plans another service tonight.

“My opinion is that it is a sign,” said Verdi, just as the burning bush and the Bethlehem star were supernatural signs in biblical stories. He said he has asked diocesan officials to investigate the phenomenon. A diocesan spokeswoman had no comment Wednesday, however.

The image was first reported March 14 by neighbors of Hilma Gonzales, who owns the house on Valerio Street where the tree is. Since then, many people have flocked to see the image.

“What you see on the tree depends on the time you look at it, whether it’s raining and on the perception of the viewer,” Verdi said. “It is possible to see the traditional picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

Visions and reported apparitions are common in Roman Catholic popular piety, but relatively rare in the Episcopal Church.

Episcopal clergy in the San Fernando Valley contacted Wednesday conceded that many priests would be cautious about automatically ruling out the miraculous or criticizing something that encourages personal devotion.

“It is unusual, however, for an Episcopal priest to encourage devotions to the Virgin Mary, a practice that is specifically Roman Catholic, rather than directly to Christ and God,” said the Rev. Jose Carlo, an Episcopal rector in San Fernando. Carlo directed Latino ministries for the Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese from 1984 to 1990.

Another Episcopal clergyman, who did not wish to be identified, said: “We would be uncomfortable pursuing the matter as far as Father Verdi has done.”

Verdi calls himself an Anglican-Catholic priest, thus identifying himself with a traditionalist wing in the Episcopal Church. But he is not a Roman Catholic priest as indicated in a Los Angeles Times story published Wednesday.

Many who have gone to see the tree attend Verdi’s Holy Family Mission Church nearly 12 blocks away.

The image was first noticed by two of Gonzales’ neighbors--Jesus Angulo, who looks at the tree from his back yard, and 10-year-old Priscilla Otto, who called her family to see the image of Mary on the tree.

Numerous people said they have seen the image shed tears, and Priscilla offered her explanation Wednesday: “I think she cries for joy because the people are praying.”

Smith, the arborist, said the fluid most likely is sap seeping from the tree where a branch was cut off. “In rainy weather, the sap ferments inside, pressure builds up and it comes out,” he said.

The “face” on the image is the round stub of a branch that was sawed off, he said.

Smith said the sap usually appears white, “almost like foam,” when it first comes out, especially in warm weather. Some photos taken earlier by onlookers show a white border on the image.

The scientific explanations by Smith produced no frowns or arguments from people who overheard his comments.

Little was said, for instance, to discourage Irene Eagles of Chatsworth, who left with a cherished Polaroid snapshot of the image. Eagles said she has been twice on pilgrimages to Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, where daily apparitions and messages of Mary are reported.

With her in North Hollywood on Wednesday was Josephine Gendusa of Palmdale, who left declaring, “I believe.” She said she has seen the sun spin at a devotional site in Santa Maria where a Catholic group hopes to erect a cross in response to alleged holy directives.


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