On 25 September 1983, Gladys Quiroga de Motta, a housewife in a small Argentinian city 143 miles (230 km) north of the capital, noted in her diary: “I saw the Virgin for the first time.” Now, nearly 20 years and over 1000 appearances by the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) later, around 300,000 pilgrims descend on San Nicolás de los Arroyos on the anniversary of Gladys’s vision (25 September) every year and have changed the face of the city (population 140,000) for good.
Until the Virgin picked her out, Gladys Motta led the unremarkable life of a quiet, 46-year-old Christian, housewife and mother. But that Sunday, while praying at home, Gladys claims she saw the recognisable image of the Virgin Mary, dressed in blue and pink and holding the baby Jesus and a rosary. She told her neighbour Erlinda Leiva that the Virgin appeared bathed in light at her side, but at first did not dare tell anyone else for fear she would not be believed1.
In the following days, the image appeared again, twice while Gladys was praying. The third time, on 7 October, Gladys asked her what she wanted, and the image of Mary was replaced with that of a temple. The following week, wrote Gladys, Mary spoke for the first time, telling her: “You have obeyed. Don’t be afraid, come to see me. From my hand you will walk, and travel many paths.”
This was to be the first of 1,800 messages, all of which she wrote down, that Gladys (right) claims Mary communicated to her almost daily until 11 February 1990. The messages chiefly deal with the BVM’s desire that people should pray and turn away from sin. They include many biblical and complex theological references2. Gladys left school at 11 with a rudimentary education, but people who have studied the case have been impressed by the sophistication of the messages. These include an Episcopal Commission set up in 1985 by the Bishop of San Nicolás, Monsignor Castagna. After six months of investigation, this Commission – including psychologists, graphologists and psychiatrists – declared that Gladys appeared to be well balanced and nothing indicated that she suffered from psychosis or hallucinations3.
Among the early messages, the Virgin repeatedly said that she was patron of the area and wanted a sanctuary to be built in her honour. Gladys told local priest Father Perez, who says he believed her straight away, but cautioned her to say nothing and wait to see what happened4. On 24 November 1983, Gladys went with a group of six people to the wasteland at the end of Figari Street, a block from her house. The area, known locally as ‘El Campito’, had been the site of a shanty town until its residents were routed by the military government a couple of years previously. There, Gladys claims, she saw a shaft of light falling from the sky, indicating that it should be the new church site. The only other person in the group who saw a light was a nine-year-old girl.
That same week, Father Perez accompanied Gladys to the Cathedral of San Nicolás to find the image that corresponded with her vision. None of the statues there looked like the one she described; then Perez recalled an image in the basement which had been blessed by Pope Leon XIII and given to the parish a century previously. It was deteriorating and its hand was broken off, but Gladys was in no doubt that this was the image she had seen (left). Perez had it repaired immediately.
Soon, rumours spread about what was happening in Figari Street. The first public acknowledgement from the Church – Gladys talks only to church representatives and has never given a press interview – came from Bishop Castagna in March 1985, when he told the local newspaper Diario Norte that the Episcopal Commission was investigating with “great objectivity, an open heart but a cold mind.” He and Father Perez have often repeated the Church line of treating claims of ‘miracles’ with caution, but, from the start, have also compared this case with Fatima and Lourdes.
By the following September, 20,000 pilgrims had arrived by bus from all over Argentina to touch the statue and get a glimpse of Gladys; but she stays hidden, insisting that she is just a messenger. Inevitably, word spread of miracle cures. The first and most famous concerns Gonzalo Godoy, aged seven, who had been diagnosed the previous October with a large brain tumour. His family prayed to the Virgin of San Nicolás, and his grandmother asked Perez to help. Perez, in turn, asked Gladys to pray. Fearing he might die during the operation the doctors had said was necessary, the family asked a priest to administer the last rites. Half an hour after Gonzalo had been given the sacrament, the colour returned to his face; two weeks later, the tumour had disappeared without the need for surgery5.
The stream of pilgrims to San Nicolás turned into a flood. Despite competition from the neighbouring Virgin of Lujén, over a million people now visit the city every year. The small front yard of Gladys’ house is littered with envelopes containing letters from the sick and desperate, beseeching her to pray and intervene. A book of testimonials at the sanctuary that now houses the image details hundreds of apparently miraculous cures attributed to the Virgin. Although there has been no public message from the BVM for over 10 years, Father Perez said – in an interview with La Nación newspaper in 1999 – that she continues to have private conversations with Gladys6.
Gladys’ visions have not been limited to the Virgin Mary; Gladys wrote that she could often smell roses and incense, and that Jesus himself has appeared to her over 60 times. Dressed in a white robe, his messages differ from his mother’s (“Evil has invaded the Earth and darkness wishes to cover all”). She has also experienced frightening visions of monsters approaching her, and blind serpents drowning in green gel. On 31 January 1984, she wrote: “I see a big room, like a café… young men and women, they seem drunk, something very ugly. The Virgin says to me: ‘These are calamities, human offal, no child of healthy parents should come to these places. God is not here, nor in sites like this.’” When, two months later, the upstairs floor of San Nicolás’ only disco, ‘Highland Road’, collapsed during a rock concert, killing five youngsters, this vision entered local folklore as a premonition.
The stigmata first appeared on Gladys on 16 November 1984, and have allegedly appeared every Thursday and Friday during Advent and Lent ever since. Consisting mainly of thumb-sized red sores on her wrists, they have been examined by doctors appointed by the bishop, who have ruled out trickery such as the use of ink. On the afternoon of each Holy Friday, her feet are also affected. Her left foot becomes “fixed” on top of her right foot and once, during an examination, defied the doctors’ attempts to separate them with their bare hands7.
Gladys’s supporters maintain that she has manifested the five classic external wounds and some internal ones, the latter known only by the pain they cause. Dr Carlos M Pellicciotta, one of the examiners, described a typical onset: “It begins with a rash in the forehead [..] like lines of inflammation across the forehead. She had an intense headache… I gave her a corticosteroid pill, but it didn’t help... then the first stigmatisation starts [..] Some pigmentation in the wrists appear… By the Holy Friday she is crucified in bed [..] She suffers terrible pain.”
Gladys’s original visions coincided with a curious ‘flap’ of the kind that fascinates forteans. In September 1985, rumours circulated through the city that wooden rosaries hung on the wall appeared to make cross-shaped reflections alongside themselves. One such report featured in the Diario Norte (25 September 1985) on the anniversary of Gladys’s first vision of the Virgin, and three days later Gladys’s own daughter, Cecilia, called the paper to say the same phenomenon had happened in the Motta house. At the time, the Church dismissed these stories as no more than optical illusions – the image imprinting itself on the retina – but curious believers continued to see them.
Today, behind the sanctuary, a new church is being constructed to hold all the faithful that line to touch the statue. Its gigantic cupola (left) – rumoured to have cost about a million dollars and paid for by pilgrims’ donations – is visible from all over town. On the outskirts of San Nicolás, a huge flame licking the air indicates the site of an older landmark, the ‘Somisa’ steelworks which employed a large section of the local population until 1984, when it was privatised. Then, 11,000 workers (including Gladys’s husband) lost their jobs and the city faced economic disaster.
Within 10 years of the BVM’s appearance, hotels in San Nicolás tripled and the number of santerías – the stores that supply pilgrims with Virgin fridge magnets and canteens to hold the ‘blessed’ water that gushes out of taps at the sanctuary – multiplied from four to 70. The ‘City of Steel’ was saved; it is now known as the ‘City of Mary’.
More Latin American Stigmatics
Irma Izquiedo: Cuba
Irma ‘saw’ all the incidents of Christ’s crucifixion with such clarity that it seemed to her that she was present at a real event; moreover, she experienced the key events – being nailed to the cross and the piercing of His side by a Roman sword – as though they were happening to her. (This is not uncommon in cases where stigmatics have prayed to share Christ’s pain in order to alleviate it in some way.)
In the days before Holy Week in 1956, instead of simply feeling the pain of crucifixion, the five classic wounds appeared in her hands, feet and side. It began with a loss of appetite and vivid dreams in which Catholic symbols predominated. As Easter dawned, Irma sweated blood, her complexion turned slightly orange, and her hair developed a strange texture. She went without sleep for days but felt euphoric. Besides the visible wounds, the letters ‘INRI’ appeared on each thigh (it is not said whether as scratch-like marks or as raised weals).
Ana Luz Hernandez: Puerto Rico
Ana Luz Hernández is one of the rare stigmatics marked with a cross-shaped wound on the forehead. [Apart from Emiliano Aden only two others are known to us; the Spanish heretic Clemente Gomez, who proclaimed himself Pope Gregory XVIII (see FT30:32–36); and the Italian contactee Giorgio Bongiovanni (see FT96: 36–37 ).
Ana Luz’s childhood in Puerto Rico, like that of so many stigmatics, was one of poverty in a deprived region. She was crippled by severe poliomyelitis which also affected her vision. She sought solace and purpose in religion and devoted herself to charitable and missionary work in the Barrasas de Carolina area. A brain tumour affected the left side of her head and eyes, and she underwent chemotherapy, radiotherapy and laser treatment.
On 3 July 1990, Ana Luz travelled to the United States to stay with her sister prior to an operation to remove the tumour. The surgery, scheduled for 6 July, was cancelled at the last minute, and she quickly deteriorated. On the night of 21 July, Ana Luz had difficulty sleeping because of the pain; she thought she could not endure long and commended her soul to God.
Something woke her at 5.30am. She was surprised because she had fallen asleep and it seemed as if someone had been in the bedroom speaking to her. In a moment of fear, she prayed for the strength to move. Despite feeling cold and stiff, she found she could get up; in the bathroom she sank to her knees and prayed. In the morning she felt distinctly better, and had a cross-shaped wound on her forehead.
A few days later, she felt well enough to fly back to Puerto Rico, where she resumed her pastoral work. Because of other illnesses and complications, she was frequently admitted to the hospital, where doctors made a close study of her continuously-bleeding stigmata. Within days, Ana Luz was told the astonishing news that the tumour which nearly ended her life a few weeks earlier had vanished. Doctors could find it on neither X-rays nor in other tests.
Then a new tragedy struck; a thermos flask Ana Luz was cleaning shattered and shards pierced her eyes. It was believed that all the pieces were successfully removed from her eyes but, five months later, while praying, she felt compelled to cry and found fragments of glass in her tears. The story added to the mythology growing around her. Other stories concern ‘miraculous’ flows of an unidentified substance the locals call “resin” which seeps from her hands and from her Bible.