“I think we passed the turnoff.” As Andrew uttered these words, I realized how many times I had heard the statement during our year of driving 45,000 miles around the United States. This time, however, Andrew and I were neither in a city nor a suburb. We were deep in the heart of the Mojave desert, and we were, literally, lost.
We had driven 25 minutes north of Mojave, California, searching for a Catholic religious gathering in the middle of the desert. The location we were hoping to find was called Our Lady of the Rock, where Mary is said to appear on the 13th of every month. There is no local church connected to OLOTR, no directions online, and when we asked around town, virtually no one had heard of what we described.
After days of searching for directions, we finally struck a chord when getting the oil changed at Valvoline. I just happened to ask an attendant if he had heard of the mysterious Catholic gathering in the middle of the desert, and by chance he had! He and his friend had taken dirt bikes out to the site, where they discovered three crosses that stood in the middle of the desert. All we had to do was go straight on this certain road, and then look for a water treatment plant. What–water out in the middle of the Mojave desert!? I was afraid we were doomed.
A beacon in the desert for lost photographers.
Turning down a dirt road that eventually became deep pits of sand, Andrew and I knew we had gone the wrong way. The Champe Champ, our newly-acquired Ford Focus station wagon, did not have the four-wheel power action that the Dodge Lodge once delivered. It was 10:15 AM, and we were late, hot, and frustrated by being lost in a place that threatened a slow and painful death by dehydration or mutant lizards.
After turning around and continuing on what felt like the correct road, we found a remote ranger station. A gentleman appeared from behind a trailer and pointed us in the right direction. “Oh yeah, Our Lady of the Rock. Those Catholic people get together every month. Just down the road another two miles, then turn left. You can’t miss it.” We were relieved to have found our way. It was 10:30 AM, and we drove the Champe Champ like a bandit out of hell.
Surprisingly, the scene at OLOTR was more subdued than what we expected. As we watched people setting up tents and a sound system, it was clear that we had made it in plenty of time. Looking around, and noting the barren landscape and general proximity to nothing at all, I thought that we may have already experienced a small miracle in finding the location. Back where the men were setting up the sound system, a small wooden structure marked the center of the gathering. Attached to a white picket fence were dozens of colorful streamers that marked the enclosure. Inside the structure sat a statue of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by flowers. This was clearly the altar, or center of the service, where something–but what we did not know–would take place.
The origins of OLOTR date back to 1989, when Maria Paula, a mother of six children, was praying fervently for one of her daughters who had fallen ill to leukemia. Maria Paula drove out to the desert, and was praying in a canyon. At 5:00 one morning, Maria was suddenly enveloped by a white fog and she heard the sound of birds and smelled the sweet aroma of a garden. A woman appeared within the cloud of white, with a rosary in her hands.
She said, “I am your Lady of the Rock, Queen of Peace of Southern California. I come to bring you the peace and love that is so needed. I will visit the homes, and I will form one family for the service of the Lord, Our God. I will form an army, and we will work together. I will bring my angel from faraway lands. In him you will confide and tell all that I am indicating to you. Go in the peace of God.”
Maria Paula emerges with her entourage in some seriously hip shades.
To this day, Maria Paula returns to the desert on the 13th of every month to receive a message from the Virgin Mary. Throngs of supporters and miracle-expectant spectators drive from hours away to take part in a rosary service and receive blessings from Maria Paula. Over the years, Maria has gathered a following, but it’s hard to determine why OLOTR has turned into such a phenomenon. Most gatherings attract 200-300 people, but when the 13th falls on a Saturday or Sunday, 2,000-3,000 people descend upon that barren spot in the middle of the desert. Apart from the general public, Maria’s following includes several other women who travel with her to OLOTR. Like Maria Paula, they are dressed like nuns. However, it’s not certain that the women, or Maria, are actual Catholic nuns. Due to the official response from the Catholic church, it’s very likely that they are not.
The Associated Press reports, “Catholic authorities have officially suggested there is no Mary at Our Lady of the Rock. After more than a year of investigating, they found it to be due to somebody’s imagination, not anyone’s bad will. The diocese in Fresno, which has immediate authority over California City, has concurred with Los Angeles officials, but has placed no restrictions on people gathering at the site.”
Despite the position of the Catholic authorities, thousands of faithful believers return each month seeking blessings and healings from Maria Paula. People also flock to OLOTR hoping to see their own vision of the Virgin Mary. The format of this has taken an interesting form. Instead of looking for the Virgin Mary with their own eyes, these religious spectators come with polaroid and digital cameras, snapping away at the sun in hopes of seeing Her appear in their photo. It’s unclear how this phenomenon was started, but someone must have taken a picture of the sun at some point, spotted the Virgin Mary in their photo, and showed it off to everyone at the event. Now it seems to be the norm.
Behind the main structure, under a large tailgate-style tent, we met a family who had traveled three hours to come to OLOTR. The parents had first come to OLOTR before anyone knew about it and they spoke of their first sighting of the Virgin Mary. Two storm clouds blew in from opposite directions and when they converged, the clouds split, a bright light appeared, and the Virgin was standing within the clouds. They said everyone there saw it. Even little kids were pointing up in the air and saying, “Look, the Virgin Mary!”
The parents now return with their son and daughter-in-law almost every month. The entire family comes to witness potential miracles and wait for visions of the Virgin Mary. They were eager to talk about their experiences and the holiness of the site.
But this family was not the only one claiming miracles at OLOTR. Even the construction workers, who were building a grotto on the site, were converted believers. They told us about the first time they visited the site with Maria Paula to spec the job. As they were approaching the site of the grotto, Maria Paula stopped, knelt down on the ground with her other sisters, and looked up at the sky. The two men followed her gaze, and saw streams of gold light descending upon the head of Maria Paula. They claimed it was a miracle, and since then, other kinds of miraculous things have happened on the job site. When the two men told us their stories, their eyes were wide with wonder, and they could hardly hold back their smiles. Truly, these men had witnessed something miraculous.
Andrew and I heard a great number of stories that day. From healings to prophecies to sightings of the Virgin Mary. But our experience that day was rather un-miraculous–if that’s a word. We witnessed the rosary service, the procession of a statue of Christ, the blessings by Maria Paula, and people taking pictures of the sun. But the only thing out of the ordinary was one woman who broke out in loud cries during the service, and had to be taken to the back of the group. She might have been overcome by the Holy Spirit, but she may also have been struggling with some serious issues. Or possibly, she was overcome by the heat. We were, remember, in the middle of the Mojave desert, at midday.
The AFP certainly isn’t trying to disprove OLOTR. But as journalists, we report what we see. And for someone who has grown up in church, the events we witnessed that day were not foreign, or even bizarre. Had we hoped to see more excitement, more drama, and more people? Yes, certainly. We wished we could have come back the following month to see the crowds and a potential sighting, but the AFP had more miles to cover. We encourage you to make the journey out there and witness it yourself. If you do decide to go, we can help you with the directions.