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And Then Along Comes Mary

None of the regulars at the Trackside Bar on the outskirts of Holly has seen the Virgin Mary on Yolanda Tarango's bedroom wall. Most have seen the TV reports, though. A few even saw the news helicopter land. And no one is shy about throwing their two cents in.

"I don't have no plans of going over there and checking it out," says Jerry Watkins, a water-well driller in this town on Colorado's southeast plains. "I think it's just a stain." Far from resembling the Virgin, adds Watkins, who saw the stain on TV, "it looks like Alice Cooper."

"It couldn't be a stain," jokes Verne Schweitzer. "It hasn't rained much here in February."

But these days, anyone--even the dubious Tracksiders--is welcome in the Tarango household, where no one raises an eyebrow when yet another pilgrim knocks hesitantly on the screen door.

Tarango, a thirteen-year resident of the town, discovered the vision this past February. And she's been a dutiful host to the tourists who've been trooping through her living room since she broke down and called the Lamar Daily News with the scoop a few weeks ago. On a recent weekday afternoon, the 26-year-old Tarango gets a glass of water for someone's child and tells her story again and again with what appears to be a great reserve of patience. The melodramatic strings of the Days of Our Lives theme play on the television in the next room as visitors are ushered in.

"Oh, my God! I'm gettin' chills major! You can see her eyes and mouth!" says Janice Sorrow, a Lamar resident who has brought her mother and two children with her.

"The break on the wall," says her mother, Fabby Cluck, pointing to a hairline crack that's barely visible, even up close. "That's the sacred heart of Mary. It is so awesome."

As the ladies stare intently at the stain, their eyes grow more discriminating. A newspaper picture of the stain is taped right next to the image, and Cluck swears she can see a cross above the Virgin--but in the news photo, not on the wall.

The pair are no strangers to the supernatural. Cluck's niece Mona saw a porcelain statue of the Virgin in Kansas crying blood. "I've heard of that one," Tarango says with a nod. "I want to get up there and see that."

"I think a scientist or whatever checked to see if it was blood," notes Sorrow, who adds that the scientists concluded it was not, say, red dye, but the genuine article.

Cluck wants to touch the image, but she can't. Less than a foot high, it is encased in a glass frame that has been glued to the wall. Peering through the glass, one can make out what looks very much like a hooded head, and a white triangle that could well be hands clasped in prayer.

Tarango says she put up the frame because she was worried that kids might accidentally rub the stain off the wall--or that a disbeliever would deface the Virgin. Then she surrounded it with Christmas lights, which stay on at all times. "It feels natural, like I'm adding to my collection," she says, gazing at the image.

In fact, Tarango has been collecting likenesses of the Virgin Mary in one form or another for years. The first item was a Mary silkscreen when Tarango was seven. Today she prays every night before a shrine she has nailed into one corner of her bedroom.

Skeptics say Tarango drew this latest Mary on her wall to attract attention. "I'm not an artist," she responds. Others say it's just a water stain. There are pipes on the other side of the wall, she counters, but the stain was dry when she found it and resisted smudging.

One Denver radio host compared Tarango's brief spot to a friend's claim that he could see Elvis in his throw rug. Tarango doesn't mind the ribbing. "I know it's there," she says with a shrug. "I'm not gonna force anybody else."

When Tarango first saw the stain, she says she knew who it was but figured nobody would believe her. So she didn't tell a soul--not even her husband, Raymundo, who apparently didn't notice it.

It wasn't until one of her sisters, visiting from New Mexico, spotted the stain and announced that it was, indeed, the Virgin of Guadalupe that Tarango says she knew she wasn't nuts. "After that, my sister spread the word around quickly," she adds.

More sisters came (Tarango has five, plus two brothers). Then a few neighbors. Then came Father William Doll, who lives across the street from Tarango and runs the Catholic church in Holly where Tarango and her husband worship. He asked her the usual questions:

Was it wet? No, she replied.
Had the roof leaked? It hadn't.
Next came the crowds, whose arrival marked the first time anybody had paid much attention to Holly, population 877 and the boyhood home of Governor Roy Romer, in a long time. "The biggest excitement we ever had before was the flood in '65," comments retiree Manford Notestine, a resident since 1950.

Tarango, who quit her job at a nursing home to stay home with her five-month-old son, Guillermo, estimates that more than 100 people came last week alone, some from as far away as California and Michigan. One pair of truckers heard about the image on the radio and detoured through Colorado.

All the publicity has been "a little embarrassing to some," says Father Doll. "Others don't know what to make of it. People aren't used to this kind of publicity. It's kind of a shaky thing."

But Holly is only the latest out-of-the-way place to receive a visit from Mary, who in recent months has been on nothing less than a tour through America. She has popped up on a window in Florida and has shed tears of blood in the Kansas statue.

In 1992 Mary appeared as a shadow on the wall in the northeast Colorado town of Julesburg. A year earlier Highlands Ranch resident Theresa Lopez claimed she saw the Virgin at the Mother Cabrini Shrine just west of Denver. The 6,000-plus pilgrims who flocked to Cabrini from across the country apparently saw nothing but the sun, and too much of it at that--about two dozen people suffered eye damage from staring at it too long.

The Catholic Church is famously fastidious on the question of whether such appearances are bona fide. And Father Doll won't say if he believes the image on Tarango's wall is real or not. "We're probably more skeptical than an atheist on matters like these," he admits. "It's a remarkable design, I'll grant you that. I don't know how it got there or why it's there."

Randy Dodge, an EMT for Holly's volunteer ambulance service, estimates that about 15 percent of people in the town think the image is real. The rest, he says, are evenly split between uncertainty and downright disbelief.

So far, no miracles have happened that anyone's aware of, though Tarango and her sisters say their family has grown closer. But the stain is proof enough for Cluck and Sorrow, who after twenty minutes of conversation are pretty well convinced it's the real thing. They leave a tiny donation in the basket (so the candles that burn beneath the stain can be replaced, explains Tarango) and make plans to visit again soon.

Before leaving, Cluck, who runs a restaurant in Las Animas, explains how the names of different Marian visions--Lady of Fatima, Lady of Guadalupe--derive from the names of the towns where they have occurred. "So, like, if they wanted to make this one, they'd make it the Mother of Holly," she says.

Yolanda smiles at the thought. "I hope she stays forever," she says, leading her guests out. "But if she does happen to fade, I'll have something of her preserved."

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