Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Miracle Detective

An Investigative Reporter Sets Out to Examine How the Catholic Church Investigates Holy Visions and Discovers His Own Faith

by Randall Sullivan

“An intrepid Portland journalist crafts a fascinating exploration of how the Catholic Church investigates purported sightings of the Virgin Mary; a globe-trotting, first-person spiritual odyssey that took him to northeastern Oregon, Arizona, Bosnia, the Vatican and beyond.” –The Seattle Post

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 464
  • Publication Date April 10, 2005
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4195-8
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

A gripping investigation into the extraordinary phenomenon of Virgin Mary sightings around the world, the priests and scientists who investigate them, and a powerful examination about what constitutes the miraculous in the contemporary world

In a tiny, dilapidated trailer in northeastern Oregon, a young woman saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in an ordinary landscape painting hanging on her bedroom wall. After being met with skepticism from the local parish, the Catholic diocese officially placed the matter “under investigation.” Investigative journalist Randall Sullivan wanted to know how exactly one might conduct the official inquiry into such an incident, so he set off to interview theologians, historians, and postulators from the Sacred Congregation of the Causes for Saints. These men, dubbed by the author as ‘miracle detectives,” were charged by the Vatican with testing the miraculous and judging the holy.

What Sullivan didn’t know was that his own investigation would lead from the Vatican in Rome to the tiny village of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where six visionaries had been receiving apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Amid a tapestry of believers, skeptics, and apostates, we meet the compassionate Father Slavko Barbaric, an intellectual priest who is known as the Medjugorje seers’ ‘spiritual director,” and the legendary Father Groeschel, who is continually called upon to investigate supernatural–or at least strange–phenomena across America. Sullivan’s quest turns personal, taking him from the halls of the Vatican, where Pope John Paul II counts himself among Medjugorje’s numerous believers, to Scottsdale, Arizona, site of America’s largest and most controversial instances of Virgin Mary sightings, culminating an eight-year investigation of predictions of apocalyptic events, false claims of revelation, and the search for a genuine theophony, that is, the ultimate interface between man and God.

The Miracle Detective is a gripping investigation into the extraordinary phenomenon of Virgin Mary sightings around the world and the priests and scientists who investigate them, as well as a powerful examination about what constitutes the miraculous in the contemporary world.


“I could hardly put this long, mysterious book down because of the high spiritual and emotional drama of Sullivan’s own religious conversion, the unconventionality of which struck me as profoundly real, and profoundly human. I’ve been telling everyone I know who has the remotest interest in religion and spirituality to get this book. For me, it ranks with Thomas Merton’s classic The Seven Storey Mountain as one of the most affecting spiritual biographies of our time.” –Rod Dreher, The Dallas Morning News

“A remarkable book . . . A thin line–and a deep abyss–separates believers from the class of unbelievers such as Melville, who could “neither believe nor be comfortable in his disbelief, and who, as Hawthorne reported, had “pretty much made his mind up to be annihilated.” Sullivan straddles this abyss and gazes both ways. This tension is the engine that drives The Miracle Detective.” –The Oregonian

“Like its title, this book has something miraculous in it. Imagine, if you can, a book . . . that will interest, and satisfy, both the pious and skeptical. That book is this one. Mr. Sullivan’s cast of unlikely characters recalls the inhabitants of other mountains, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain or Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain.” –The Washington Times

“When it arrived, I flipped over The Miracle Detective to read the description of the author: “Randall Sullivan is a contributing editor at both Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal.” Oh, great, I thought: some hip, ignorant big city journalist, out to make fun of the Catholic Church. I opened the book to page one–and was still reading hours later . . . a laudable achievement by an unbeliever who started out investigating apparitions on a cynical whim, and ended up profoundly changed. . . . The Miracle Detective is exceedingly well-written, deeply involving and oddly inspiring.” –Kathy Shaidle, relapsedcatholic.com

“Plying his remarkable skills as a reporter and writer, [Sullivan] has written a book that operates and succeeds on a number of levels. It is an intriguing up-close look at the lives of mystics, an insightful study of the post-Vatican II Catholic Church and its institutional struggles with manifestations of the supernatural, a powerful documentation of the reality of miracles and demons, a detailed history of Marian apparitions and the context of the reported happenings in Medjugorje, and most of all a compelling story of personal conversion. . . . The result is a book of great scope and balance.” –Jay Dunlap, catholic.net

“This is a truly amazing book, hard to describe and very hard to put down. Gripping, well-observed, and fascinating, full of human portraits as complex as they are interesting, it is also one of the most destabilizing books I have ever read. There are moments when the hair rises on the back of your neck, and your blood runs cold; other times when your heart signs with joy; others when you want to weep. Deeply engrossing, profound, intelligent, it is also the portrayal of the journey of a soul. It does not attempt to proselytize, convince, or hector, though Sullivan makes no secret of his feelings, and his doubts too. This is an unforgettable, unique book, which I most highly and unreservedly recommend.” –Renee Artest, Quadrant

“The casting couldn’t be more varied and colorful–saints, cardinals, theologians, medical experts, scientists, visionaries, seekers, soldiers, eccentrics, and rogues–Sullivan encounters them all, in person and in historical records, as he investigates the supernatural and fights through fear, confusion, and doubt on his way to faith. . . . It’s a book you’ll want to give to skeptical and unbelieving friends.” –Angelo Matera, Godspy

“An intrepid Portland journalist crafts a fascinating exploration of how the Catholic Church investigates purported sightings of the Virgin Mary; a globe-trotting, first-person spiritual odyssey that took him to northeastern Oregon, Arizona, Bosnia, the Vatican and beyond.” –The Seattle Post

“Sullivan is there as both reporter and seeker. He brilliantly interweaves stories of his meetings with remarkable women and men, including the visionaries and the priest who serves as their ‘spiritual director,” with incidents from his own spiritual turmoil.” –Vernon Peterson, The Oregonian

Miracle Detective . . . is an adventure for any Catholic (new, life-long, lapsed, born-again) or skeptic alike. . . . Sullivan speaks to us in two voices: One fully immersed in mystical experiences as an ecstatic convert, the other as the skilled contemporary Rolling Stone journalist. He strikes the highest ground toward the end of the book, culling from the sage and scholarly.” –Meredith Rolley, Santa Fe New Mexican

The Miracle Detective contains vivid passages, nicely rendered theological history and suspenseful incidents. . . . Sullivan, a contributing editor of Rolling Stone, retains a sharp journalistic instinct, and his exhaustive rendering of the Medjugorje story is, if not the best journalistic account of the subject (the Medjugorje literature is too vast to allow a confident claim), certainly the best one I have read.” –Tim Cavanaugh, The Washington Post Book World

“His book delves so deeply into mind and soul that one cannot help but be moved and changed by it.” –Statesman Journal

“[The Miracle Detective] is a stunning mix of the personal and the historic, interviews and experiences, with Sullivan incredibly nimble at making the worlds overlap–in a way, just as visionaries do. . . . If what [he] writes about is astounding– sightings, healings, possession– the breadth and depth of his work is rather astonishing as well. . . . His writing draws readers into his search for answers, and soon we find ourselves sharing his excitement.” –Ilene Cooper, Booklist (starred review)

“It stands out from the crowd on this fascinating topic with its deeper inquiries into what makes a miracle, how to determine ‘miracle” status, and who decides these things. Sullivan’s is no casual study. . . . Offers the reader an inherently fascinating journey of spiritual discovery.” –Bookwatch

“[Sullivan’s] tone here is droll, chatty and appealing, that of a curious skeptic who is willing, or perhaps waiting, to be convinced.” –Arizona Republic

“Sullivan’s journey is a religious one, a Christian one. But what happened on that journey and what it might mean to people of all–or no–faiths makes this book unique and valuable.” –Dan Hays, Austin Statesman Journal

Miracle Detective, [Sullivan’s] third investigative non-fiction book, is an adventure for any Catholic. . . or skeptic alike. . . . Sullivan speaks to us in two voices: One fully immersed in mystical experiences as an ecstatic convert, the other as the skilled contemporary Rolling Stone journalist. He strikes the highest ground toward the end of the book, culling from the sage and scholarly.” –Meredith Rolley, The New Mexican

“The reporter for Rolling Stone is a skillful writer on a subject that fascinates the faithful and skeptical. . . . Mr. Sullivan crafts a compelling narrative.” –Ira J. Hadnot, Dallas Morning News

“[Offers] a fascinating glimpse at the paradoxes of religious faith. . . . [Sullivan is] a talented, intelligent writer. . . . Even before Sullivan gets to Medjugorje, a town transformed by the influx of tens of thousands of pilgrims, the project begins to affect him.” –Laura Miller, Salon.com

“In what often reads like a spiritual whodunit, author and Rolling Stone magazine contributing editor Sullivan takes readers on a journey into the labyrinthine world of religious apparitions and miracle investigations. . . . Much has been written about Marian apparitions, particularly those at Medjugorje, but The Miracle Detective may well emerge as one of the most comprehensive and engaging modern works on the subject. Well-told and expertly researched, Sullivan’s book should appeal to skeptics and believers alike.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Sullivan’s account of the six teenagers who witnessed the first of the apparitions in Medjugorje is fascinating, even to a non-believer.” –Lois Wadsworth, Eugene Weekly

“Anyone fascinated by Catholic miracles and mysticism . . . will be rewarded by taking this journey in the company if Randall Sullivan.” –Catholic Register

“This is a compelling investigation into the phenomenon of Virgin Mary sightings around the world. Sullivan writes with great thought and insight.” –Emery Pinter, Chapter 11, Atlanta, GA, Book Sense quote

Praise for The Price of Experience

“Entertaining . . . [an] excellent study of those creatures who walk among us with their wonderful smiles and convincing words, even as they plot to take our money, our hearts, our souls, and sometimes our very lives.” –The Washington Post

“Riveting.” –USA Today

“A huge, mesmerizing book.” –The New Yorker

“Randall Sullivan . . . tells a story of sociopathic greed, pie-eyed gullibility, and sheer incompetence. . . . The pages seem to turn themselves.” –The Boston Globe

“Masterful.” –Seattle Post-Intelligencer



The first apparition had lasted twenty-four hours exactly and was witnessed by nearly one thousand people, most of them Mexican Americans, according to newspaper accounts of the event in northeastern Oregon. I read about it initially in the Portland Oregonian on Valentine’s Day, 1994.

Shortly before sunrise on the morning of February 3, in the tiny, dilapidated trailer where she lived with her parents amid irrigated fields and arid rangelands in the high desert hamlet of Boardman, a young woman named Irma Munoz had been startled, then terrified, and finally enthralled by a glowing figure. The ‘stylized image,” as the Oregonian article described it, had appeared in the upper right-hand corner of a landscape painting that hung in a master bedroom measuring five feet wide by six feet long.

Irma, then twenty-three and not at all religious, said she immediately recognized the glowing figure as the Virgin Mary. Irma’s mother, whose name was Lourdes, saw the Madonna also, and fell at once to her knees. Irma’s two sisters, summoned from their own trailers nearby, spread the word.

Irma still stood behind her kneeling mother, staring at the radiant image, when first ten, then twenty, then thirty, then forty of her neighbors crowded into the trailer. They saw the Virgin also–or saw at least a woman wearing a veil–and most of them went to their knees with Mrs. Munoz.

There were, of course, skeptics. Two men raised the painting slightly to check its underside. Several people stood in front of the canvas, or ran their hands across it, to see if shadows would darken or disrupt the ­image. They even wiped the surface clean with a wet cloth. Finally one of the men got up the nerve to lift the painting off the wall, to see if some strange play of reflected light was at work there. No matter where they moved the painting, though, or how they manipulated it, the glowing image remained. It would fluctuate in ­brightness, occasionally seeming to flare intensely, but this had nothing discernably to do with the painting’s angle or position.

Someone called the Spanish-language radio station in Walla Walla, Washington, with the story, which was picked up that afternoon by a local TV station. By five p.m., several hundred people had seen the image, and outside the Munoz trailer was a line three hundred feet long; men, women, and children waiting in subfreezing temperatures for a look at the wonder. Inside, people sang, wept, fainted, and prayed.

Reports of the apparition in Boardman “have stirred many of the devoutly Catholic Mexicans in Oregon’s Hispanic community,” reported the Oregonian article. ‘more than 3,000 people have flocked to see it, some from as far away as Utah.”

Later, when I met her, Irma Munoz said that what had hurt and angered her most was the way the media made the Madonna’s appearance “a Mexican thing.” Nearly half the people who came to her family’s trailer in Boardman were Anglos, Irma said, but one never would have known that from the newspaper coverage. The Oregonian had consulted experts to interpret this ‘spiritual anachronism.” Randall Balmer, the Columbia University professor who wrote a religion column for the New York Times syndicate, offered an opaque comment: “The power of faith is very real.” The local authority who weighed in was the chairman of the religious studies department at a liberal arts college outside Portland, a man who had lived for eighteen years in Bolivia. Such sightings of the Virgin were examples of ‘syncretism,” the professor explained: a marriage of Christian and pre-Christian beliefs in which the Madonna’s apparitions either were linked to sacred sites of the Incas, Aztecs, or Maya, or in which the mother of Jesus had assumed the identity of some Native American fertility goddess. In other words, a Mexican thing.

The Oregonian article also managed to incorporate a brief history of Marian apparitions. Three such events during modern times had inspired worldwide interest among Roman Catholics. First among these, of course, were the visions reported during 1858 by the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous in the grotto at Lourdes, France. The second had involved the alleged appearances and purported prophecies of the Virgin at F”tima, Portugal, in 1917. The third event still was in progress at a small village in Bosnia-Hercegovina called Medjugorje, where a group of children had been claiming daily discourses with the Madonna since the early 1980s.

It was the first time I remember seeing or hearing the word Medjugorje (Medge-you-gor-yi-a). My ignorance would amaze many of those I met in the months that followed, but none of the well-educated, well-read, well-informed people I knew back in 1994 had heard of the place either. This schism between the secular and the religious would become the consuming context of my life during the next several years, yet at the time I was far too temporal to see it as significant.

Any number of claims were made for the Boardman event. Most arresting was the claim that the apparition in eastern Oregon was the first appearance by the Madonna ever captured on videotape. I watched the video when it was broadcast by a television station in Portland. At first all I saw was a spectacularly ugly oil painting of a sunset in a Sonoran desert: segauro cactuses, crumbling rocks, and cirrus clouds, all rendered in shades of reddish orange and black. Desert Aglow, the artist had titled it. Then I noticed that there was, indeed, an oval of light in the upper right-hand section of the painting. Suddenly the light flared, and for a moment I could see . . . well, something. Maybe I saw a woman in a veil standing with her hands pressed together only because that’s what I was looking for.

The television news reader reported that unnamed “experts’ had speculated that the image might have been created by a holographic projector. Irma Munoz was still shaking her head over this one when I met her. “If we could afford a holographic projector,” she asked, ‘do you think we would have been living in a place like that?”

The place Irma referred to was a trailer about two-thirds the size of my living room, which her parents had purchased for four hundred dollars five months earlier. Reporters who described the family’s abode as “a small mobile home” were being polite to the point of misrepresentation. The trailer’s painted aluminum skin was covered with scabs of rust and hung loose at the seams. It sat on bald tires among the ­broken branches of half-dead fruit trees upon which laundry was hung even during winter. Inside, the quarter-inch plywood that covered the walls didn’t reach all the way to the ceiling, so that the wind (and in Boardman, less than a mile from the Columbia River, there is always wind) entered from both above and below. The roof leaked and the floorboards were so loose that one could see through to the ground in places. A propane heater was all that kept the temperature in the trailer above freezing during winter months. The bedroom where the apparitions had taken place was barely large enough to contain a double bed, meaning that those who inspected the landscape painting on that first morning had climbed across the mattress to get to it.

‘my mom just let them,” Irma recalled. ‘she didn’t want to deny anyone the opportunity.”

My meeting with Irma had come as a relief. To make contact with her, I went through an Anglo lady from nearby Hermiston who had assumed the role of mentor to the young visionary. This was Marge Rolen. Although Marge was entirely sincere, deeply reverent, and quite ­generous, she also was what most of the people I knew would have called a religious nut. Born and raised in rural Kansas, Marge had been homeschooling her children to keep them away from the sort of bad influences a town the size of Hermiston (population almost ten thousand) can breed. In her spare time, she had helped set up the community’s pro-life Pregnancy Crisis Center, and for months had been engaged in ‘spiritual warfare” with her parish priest.

She was downriver in The Dalles with Dr. Rolen (an optometrist) when word of the apparition in Boardman reached her, Marge recalled: ‘my husband said, “You may not go!” He knows I get carried away. I was thinking, “I know I have to obey my husband, but how can I not see this?”” She consulted with a priest in Pendleton who suggested Marge offer the Munoz family some blessed salt and holy water to sprinkle at the apparition site, in order to expose any demonic presence that might be involved. Her husband, outranked, consented to a trip to Boardman.

Early the next morning, Marge was sitting with the Munoz family in their trailer, watching the video they had made on the afternoon of the first apparition. She saw not only the Blessed Mother, Marge reported, but also the face of Jesus, and the silhouette of St. Bernadette. Furthermore, her rosary had turned to gold. Marge showed me a string of beads that looked as if the tarnished silver finish had worn away to expose a metallic alloy containing, perhaps, a bit of brass.

Irma was an earthier sort, attractive despite being at least forty pounds overweight, with enormous eyes and a musical laugh–a young woman whose greatest difficulty was understanding why the Mother of God would choose a person such as herself. “I mean, I’m not exactly holy,” she explained. Irma had been to church just once since her baptism, when her father was sick and her grandmother insisted the whole family must kneel at the altar and pray for him. “To me, religion was something old people talked about,” Irma said. “It had nothing to do with me. Going through high school, I was taught about evolution, that we were monkeys, and there was really no God. That’s what I believed.”

Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley on the Texas side of the border, she refused to learn even the Our Father or the Hail Mary. Like her parents, though, she would resort to prayer occasionally, when the family was strapped for cash. Irma prayed also after her tragedy, when she went to the hospital in her ninth month of pregnancy and was told that her baby had died in the womb. ‘my parents took me to this shrine of Our Lady of Guadaloupe, down in the valley, and I had never seen anything like it,” Irma recalled. “All these candles burning, all these people praying. It scared me. I remember there was this couple kneeling next to a little crib where their baby was hooked up to all these tubes and tanks.”

She and her husband, an Anglo from Georgia, divorced soon after, and in 1991 Irma came north for the summer with her parents. The family went back and forth for three years, then bought the trailer in Boardman to be close to Irma’s older sister. The painting of the desert landscape they had purchased for five dollars at a garage sale. “I hated the thing,” Irma said. “I was always telling my mom, “It’s so ugly and big. Get rid of it.””

The morning the apparitions began, she woke up at four-thirty, which was a miracle all by itself, Irma said. Her father, who worked for a local rancher, left the trailer at five, and Irma was on the sofa watching TV when her mother called from the bedroom to ask if she would fix a cup of coffee. Irma said no at first, but then did as she was asked. “I was walking into her room, toward her, where she was lying down, facing me, and I was holding the cup of coffee, and then I looked up at the picture and saw the light. I said, ‘mom! Mom! There’s something behind you!” She goes, “What?” I said, “The thing, the Lady, what you call–the Virgin.” That’s all I knew to call her. I didn’t even know her name was Mary. But I knew who it was the moment I saw her. My mom sort of shook her head, but I kept insisting, ‘mom, turn around.” I was still holding the coffee, and it was shaking in my hand; I think that got her attention. I said, ‘mom, I swear to you on my son’s grave. Please just turn around.” I wondered if I was going nuts. So she turned around, and the next thing I know she’s jumping out of bed, and she’s on her knees, doing the sign of the cross, praying. And I said, “You see it too?” And she said, “I see it.””

Everyone that day saw it: “The minute they walked in, they were on their knees. I thought, “Well, at least I know I’m not goin” nuts.””

Irma worked as a nurse’s aide, and hadn’t missed a day on the job yet, but called in sick that morning. “I didn’t want to be away from Her. I never did kneel and pray like the others, though. I was just standing there watching, amazed by the love and devotion of these people, some of them getting on their knees way before they got to the door. Wow! And they just kept coming and coming.

“I was thinking, “Why us?” People told me, “Well, if She’s here, so is the Devil.” That scared me really bad. I started crying, thinking, “What did we do?””

The image of the Madonna remained fixed for hours, changing only in brightness, fading and glowing. “Then She turned her head,” Irma recalled. “It was almost evening, and She just sort of slowly turned Her head to the other side. Somebody said it was Her telling us to pray, to get closer to God. And that was when I realized how bad we were. We never went to church, never said a prayer.”

By dusk, the line of people stretched from the front door of the trailer to the street nearly three hundred feet away. A team of sheriff’s deputies arrived for crowd control; Irma’s sister was furious when she heard one deputy say to another, “Hey, let’s call Immigration–they could get “em all in one swoop.”

People kept coming all through the night, and Irma stayed up until the next morning, when the image disappeared at exactly the time she first had seen it the day before.

For the next forty-eight hours, the trailer remained full of those who wanted to see the painting or touch it. “They said they could still feel Her presence. It upset me. We couldn’t take a bath or have any privacy. My mom, though, she left the front door open and let in anyone who wanted to see. People were jumping over my dad while he lay in bed to touch the spot where Our Lady had been, or to check if we had anything hidden behind the painting, or if anything was shining on it.”

At least a half-dozen people who visited the trailer on the first day brought video cameras. Irma’s parents decided they should rent a cam­corder themselves, thinking of their relatives back in Texas. The Munoz video (the one that played on the local news in Portland) showed the illuminated figure in the corner of the desert landscape quite distinctly. All of the other people who aimed their cameras at the apparition, however, reported that the image of the Virgin they saw with their naked eyes had not been recorded. “Which was weird,” Irma remembered. “Because it was very clear on our tape. We kept checking to see if it was still there, and it was.”

The family made a second video when the image of the Virgin reappeared six days after the first sighting, at the same hour of day, and in the same place on the painting. Irma and her family kept quiet this time, wanting to have the Virgin to themselves. While they sat watching and waiting, someone knocked at the trailer’s door. Irma told the man outside to come back another time, that her mother was ill and needed rest. When she returned to the bedroom, the image of the Madonna had disappeared. It was a lesson in unselfishness, Irma decided: The Blessed Mother’s presence was to be shared with all who believed.

After this, the Munoz family accommodated visitors whatever time of day or night they arrived. The bed in the little room was removed, replaced by an altar loaded with candles and flowers. The video of the apparition played nonstop on the television in the living room.

For Irma, the overwhelming question had become “Why me? I knew there must be some reason She appeared to me, but I had no idea what it could be.” Visitors to the trailer kept bringing her books and pamphlets, mostly about Lourdes, F”tima, and Medjugorje (she’d never heard of Medjugorje either). “People knew I was the first one who saw Her, and a lot of them, like, wanted to touch me.” They asked if She told me anything. And I said, “No, or if She did I didn’t hear it.” I said I was sorry, but I didn’t have any message. I kept apologizing.”

By March 1994, Irma had partners in her search for meaning. Three women joined her to form a prayer group. The first of these was her coworker Kim Hickey. The daughter of a retired army officer well known in Hermiston, Kim was the first Anglo in whom Irma had confided, phoning her at home on February 2. “I wanted her to tell me if I was nuts.” Kim had left the Catholic Church fourteen years earlier, but that afternoon found herself consumed by curiosity, and drove directly to the trailer court. There was a long line out the door, but she pushed her way to the front, telling those ahead of her, “I’m Irma’s friend, let me in.”

She squeezed into the bedroom, looked at the painting, and saw the Virgin immediately, Kim recalled. She stared at the “image of light” for a few moments, then approached the painting and touched its surface. “It was like my hand went through a cloud. You knew who it was because you could feel it. In fact, as soon as you saw, you knew, because there was this feeling that you had, not like any other feeling, a feeling of knowing, and of awe. And everybody who saw Her had it. ”

Irma and Kim soon brought in another adult care worker, Irene Virgen. They tried not to make too much of Irene’s last name, but still. . . . The three said the Rosary on their fingertips until Marge Rolen arrived with her strings of plastic beads and made them four. “We knew there was a purpose to what had happened,” Marge recalled, “and so we prayed to discover what it was.”

They weren’t getting much help from their parish priest, Father Paco Vallejo. The Munoz family called him for counsel the morning of the first apparition, but the priest already had been notified by at least a dozen other parishioners. His office received more than 150 calls during the next twenty-four hours, Father Paco said; the telephone lines seemed to be ringing constantly. Yet the priest made no effort to visit the Munoz trailer, and from the start expressed not only skepticism but outright antipathy. “It happens all the time,” he told the high desert’s largest newspaper, the East Oregonian. “It’s natural things that are thought to be supernatural. But God is always present–He’s here right now.” Father Paco was troubled by people more interested in a romantic relationship with God than in “the hard-core, day-to-day relationship” that a true believer maintained by regular attendance at Mass. His bishop had advised him to remind the people in his homily the following Sunday that even authentic apparitions were merely private revelations and amounted to little beside the revealed truth of Scripture.

Jesus Himself had said you could know a tree only by its fruit, Father Paco observed. “Call me Monday morning,” he advised the newspaper of the Portland diocese, the Sentinel, “and see how many people come to church this weekend.” Church attendance actually was higher than normal that Sunday, and Father Paco dutifully visited the Munoz trailer on Tuesday morning. “I went and saw nothing,” the priest would tell me later, before adding archly, “but they said it wasn’t happening that day.” Patience and prudence were the best policies to follow in dealing with such matters, he reminded his congregation on the Sunday after that.

The priest had asked Mr. and Mrs. Munoz if he might take custody of the painting. “But all the people told my mom and dad, “No, this is where She came,”” Irma recalled. “”This is where She wants to be. Keep it.” So we refused to give it to him. And after that, Father Paco didn’t seem to want to have anything to do with us.” Their parish priest was one of those people who believe such events should happen in church, and then only to someone very holy, Kim told Irma. “He thinks he knows the Blessed Mother,” Irma’s friend said. “But he doesn’t understand Her at all.”

While on the one hand she felt truly blessed, Irma said, the weeks that followed were among the most agonizing of her life. She was frightened by those who spoke of the Devil. Worst were the ones who said the apparition was itself the work of Satan, and that she was possessed. Her own brother, a Jehovah’s Witness, told Irma she was a tool of evil. Strangers phoned in the middle of the night and threatened to burn the trailer with Irma inside. “Witch!” she heard shouted after her when she went into Hermiston. Even those who meant well upset her, warning that Satan hated above all others those who had seen the Virgin Mary, and that she and her family would be “under attack.”

She started to think it might be true when a call came from Texas on February 11, informing them that Irma’s grandmother had been found on the floor in her home, unconscious and bleeding from the head, apparently the victim of an assault. Mr. and Mrs. Munoz flew south the next morning, but by the time they arrived the old woman was in a coma. She died on Valentine’s Day.

“People told me this was the Devil’s work,” Irma said, “and I was afraid it might be true. At the same time, though, I could feel that seeing the Blessed Mother had helped me, and my parents too, deal with my grand­mother’s death better than we ever could have before. For the first time, I really believed there was a God and a Heaven. Her visit had changed me, changed us all.”

Irma’s parents stayed on in Texas through that winter. They called one evening to say they had visited a guarandero in Brownsville who said: “Your daughter, the one who saw the Blessed Mother; Our Lady wants her to prepare a shrine. When the shrine is standing, she will return.” Irma and Kim made the best shrine they could in the bedroom where the picture still hung, assembling as many candles and flowers and holy pictures as they were able to find. “It seemed so pathetic,” Kim remembered.

People from Oregon and Washington continued to make pilgrimages to the trailer in Boardman all through that spring and into the summer. Irma was sustained by the stories they told. One of her favorites came from a lady who had arrived at the trailer to kneel before the painting soon after the apparitions ended, to pray for her daughter, the one who had run away from home more than a year earlier. A missing person’s report was on file, but there had been no word of the girl since the day she disappeared, said the woman, who did not know at this point if her daughter was dead or alive. In the Munoz trailer, the woman told Irma, she had begged the Blessed Mother to let her know that her daughter was well, and to hear the girl’s voice at least one more time: That very night, her daughter phoned from California and said she was coming home.

The visitor who made the greatest impact was a young man who had been in a Portland hospital, dying of AIDS, when he saw the video of the apparition on the local news. He recognized the Virgin at once, the young man said, and in that moment knew She was blessing him. He had been told he never would leave the hospital, but the young man convinced his family to arrange for his transport in a medical van, where he lay on a stretcher, hooked to life-support systems, for the entire two- hundred-mile drive to Boardman. “They brought him in in a wheelchair, with all the wires and tubes and machines,” Irma recalled, “and we let him sit alone with the painting. When we went to check on him, he was crying, telling us that She had come, that he could see Her clearly. I looked and didn’t see anything, but that doesn’t mean She wasn’t there for him.

‘my mom ended up getting very close to his family, and to him. He told us he had lived a very bad life, in crime, and had been on drugs, but that now he felt very happy and like his life had been worthwhile, because he got to experience this while he was still alive. And before he died, he asked if he could have the painting in his room with him. So we took it down, and he spent his last hours with it. I don’t know what he saw, but he was smiling.”

Apart from the man dying of AIDS, the only others who reported seeing the Virgin again were children. “They’d say, “There She is. Don’t you see Her?”” Irma recalled. “And I couldn’t see anything.” Kim said probably the pure of heart could see Her best.

The miracle of the peach tree astounded them also. Irma and her fam-ily thought the tree just outside their trailer’s front door was dead, or at least dying. The year before, it had put out only a few leaves that turned yellow and shriveled. But that spring, the branches were covered with flowers, and in the summer, they were so heavy with fruit that Irma and her family gave away peaches by the bagful. “And the rosebushes that people had brought,” Kim added, “every one of them bloomed huge blossoms that lasted even into the wintertime.”

“Because of Her,” Irma said. “We knew that.”

The members of the prayer group still felt something more was going to happen. What that might be they had no clue, until April 1995, when a call came from a wealthy Portland land developer named Joe Locke. Back in May 1992, Locke had undergone a heart transplant, and for most of the next two years prayed every day that he might live long enough to care for his ailing mother until her death. One morning late in 1993, Locke awakened from a prophetic dream with the understanding that his prayers had been answered, and that in thanksgiving he was to do ‘something special.”

His mother had been in a Portland hospital during February 1994, when she saw the TV news report of the apparition in Boardman. Knowing that her son owned property in Boardman, his mother called from the hospital, Locke said, and told him, “Joe, this may be the something special from your dream.” She died two weeks later.

On the first anniversary of his mother’s death, February 25, 1995, Locke felt compelled to retrieve the Medjugorje Messenger magazine he had received from a friend the previous September. He opened the magazine to a full-page photograph of the Shrine to Our Lady of Peace recently constructed in Santa Clara, California, and immediately felt a need to visit it. When he arrived in Santa Clara and knelt before the shrine, Locke knew what his ‘something special” would be: a shrine to the Blessed Mother in eastern Oregon.

By March, Locke had formed a nonprofit corporation to develop an Our Lady of Grace shrine in Boardman. Securing a site was a problem, however, and the project languished until a local Catholic family offered to donate ten acres outside Hermiston at the Umatilla Army Depot. At first, the idea that the Virgin’s shrine would lay just feet from the entrance to the forbidding army base disturbed some supporters. Inside the depot’s barbed-wire fences, behind its abandoned barracks, at the bottom of its deep concrete bunkers, was the second largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the United States: tanks of nerve gas and blister agents (most developed during World War II) attached to explosive devices that made them more deadly than any weapons on earth, after hydrogen bombs. The mustard gas in the canisters at the Umatilla base was alone sufficient to kill 90 percent of the U.S. population.

How, when, and where to dispose of the chemical weapons had been a source of contention in Washington, D.C., for more than two decades. And in the high desert of eastern Oregon, the dispute had produced some horrifying imagery. During my first visit to Boardman, I read a leaflet sent out that week by the federal government instructing locals to ‘shelter in place” should an accident occur that resulted in “leakage.” Since it would be impossible to determine at once where a plume of the deadly vapors was headed, area residents were advised to do what they could to seal their homes (close air vents, stuff towels beneath doorways, turn off air conditioners, apply duct tape around windows, et cetera), then “await rescue.” People shook their heads in outraged resignation when the Oregonian reported that their wait might be a long one, as local officials had no protective suits for rescuers, and that warning sirens installed around the depot were not at present functional. “They’ve admitted to us that anybody ten minutes downwind is dead,” one local politician said.

After meditating upon the matter, most of those who had joined the Our Lady of Grace Shrine Corporation agreed that no more perfect spot could have been selected if they’d had the whole county to choose from. To see ground filled with poison transformed into a landscape of prayer and devotion would be a tremendous tribute to the Virgin, observed Marge Rolen. Like Marge, Irma saw much meaning in the fact that Kim’s father had for years been commander of the Umatilla Army Depot, helping design the plan to incinerate the chemical weapons stored there. “I’m sure now that the shrine is the outcome, the reason for the vision,” Irma said. Kim agreed: “This is about coming full circle, from war and division to unity and peace.”

It still wasn’t selling with the parish priest. The bishop had made it clear that the church would not support the shrine if it was directly linked to the supposed apparitions in the Munoz trailer, Father Paco said. The priest’s position had softened, but he still was far from persuaded. He did not believe that Irma Munoz and her family were delusional or dishonest, Paco allowed, and even considered it possible that they had ­received some sort of private revelation. However, he saw no sign, of anything more. The priest was particularly troubled that Irma Munoz and her family did not appear to have experienced a thoroughgoing conversion. “They seem to have become just slightly more religious,” he noted. “One of the daughters asked to have her child baptized. The mother came to church a couple of times.”

Irma became defensive when I repeated the priest’s complaints. She went to church also, but in Pendleton rather than in Hermiston, Irma said, because she preferred the pastor there to Father Paco. “I can’t say I’m a very devout Catholic,” she admitted, “but I can say that what happened changed my life. I pray a lot more than I ever did before.” Irma seemed to become suddenly very sad. “I don’t know what everybody expects from me. Should I become a nun? All I can tell people is that I don’t have any doubts that it was the Blessed Mother, and that there was a purpose.”

Father Paco’s personal stance remained “wait and see”: “If I see fruits, I may change my mind,” the priest explained, then added a remark that my friends would find far more amusing than I did: “Your interest is actually the most impressive thing I’ve seen so far.” Only a few days earlier, the Oregonian had run a prominently displayed, enormously flattering review of my recently published book, and Father Paco regarded the fact that a noted author–one who wasn’t even Catholic–might write something about the Boardman apparition as a significant development.

“You’re fruit,” he told me. “Real fruit.”

Copyright ” 2004 by Randall Sullivan. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

Author Q&A

1. You are an investigative reporter with a primary emphasis on true crime incidents. What drew a true crime writer to investigate miracles?

Well, I don’t think of myself as either an investigative reporter or a true crime writer, and never have. The Price of Experience was essentially a cultural history, and LAbyrinth was a political broadside couched in a crime story. Be that as it may, I was drawn to those initial reports of an apparition in that trailer park in Eastern Oregon by the realization that I was unwilling to simply dismiss them as hallucinations or confabulations, and that to me the fundamental source of them was a mystery. Admitting the mysterious left me with a sense of wonder, in both meanings of the word: puzzlement and awe. I wondered what was there, and I wondered how I felt about it. Also, I felt compelled to learn more about how the Church proposed to “investigate” an alleged miracle or purported revelation. What possible criteria, I wanted to know, would one apply?

2. What began as a simple inquiry into a Virgin Mary sighting in Oregon turned into an eight-year investigation into predictions of apocalyptic events, false claims of revelation and the search for a genuine theophany. The resulting book is not a religious screed but rather a work of narrative inquiry and history, much like Krakauer’s Under The Banner of Heaven. Why did THE MIRACLE DETECTIVE take so long to research and write?

My first visit to the Vatican in the summer of 1995 was an overwhelming education in the theological underpinnings of Catholicism, of how the Church operates as an institution while at the same time acknowledging that it’s origins are in the designs of supernatural agency. I became fascinated not only by how the church goes about authenticating miracles, but also by how it deals with its mystics, and their claims of divine revelation. And the more I learned about the controversy surrounding Medjugorje within the Church, the more remarkable it seemed to me that an event considered to be on par with Lourdes and Fatima was happening right now in a country that was being torn apart by the bloodiest European civil war in fifty years. I had to go there.

3. What is a miracle and who gets to decide? What are the criteria?

A miracle is defined by the Church as “an extraordinary intervention of God” in human affairs. Nearly all decisions about what is a miracle are made at the Vatican by separate bodies of scientists and theologians, who must agree, then submit their findings first to the College of Cardinals, then to the pope himself.

4. What is the Vatican’s position on miracles?

The Vatican takes the position that the affirmation of a miracle is done only in the context of beatification and canonization–the making of saints–and as a practical matter nearly all of those approved are medical in nature, and must be passed by the esteemed physicians recruited from major universities and prestigious clinics who make up what is known as the Consulta Medica. Apparitions and other “private revelations’ are never formally approved by the Church, although some (Lourdes and Fatima being most notable) are implicitly endorsed. Medjugorje has become the principle contemporary vehicle for discussing how this should or should not be done .

5. In the book, you offer many harrowing instances of how you sought an explanation of the miraculous, specifically in Bosnia-Herzegovina, while experiencing the worst of humanity: war, ethnic cleansing and mass graves. How did that backdrop of a war-torn country impact upon your investigation?

The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and all its attendant horrors was an essential aspect of my experience and of this book. This was the first time I had ever seen the effects of war in person, and I doubt anyone is not changed by the direct and visceral engagement of humanity’s capacity for savagery. In that place, at that time, it was difficult to doubt that evil exists. Equally impressive, though, was the human capacity for heroism, for charity and for sacrifice. I realize this may sound terrible, but for me the war was tremendously clarifying. One finds oneself in a world where there is no room for the petty, the trivial, the banal. Everyone around you is living on the ragged edge of their mortality, not knowing what will come next, forced to proceed on faith. I sensed almost immediately that the events in Medjugorje were somehow inseparable from the war, and I wanted to understand how that could be. What I learned about this was disturbing and inspiring in equal measures.

6. How has the investigation shaped your spiritual beliefs?

Profoundly. I was raised by a pair of athiests who took the Jesse Ventura view of religion–that it is a crutch for the weak-minded. Both my siblings are avowed athiests. I was never really comfortable with this; even as a child I sensed that there was a divine source. As a young adult I was more drawn to Eastern than to Western religion; the Hindu cosmology made more sense to me than the Christian one, and Buddhist beliefs accorded better with the scientific skepticism I had absorbed as a youth. What happened to me in Medjugorje was a kind of conversion experience. I had an experience of God’s mercy and of Christ’s sacrifice that was unprecedented in my life, and that I found myself unable to deny and unwilling to disavow even after I returned to my secular reality in the U.S. At this point, I consider myself a Christian–although I’m not always certain what I mean by that. I haven’t formally become a Catholic, but that remains something I feel inclined to, and nearly all the religious services I have attended during the past eight years were in a Catholic context. The fact that I had my children baptized Catholics tells you, I think, where my heart really lies on this matter.

7. Do you believe in miracles?

Absolutely. I don’t pretend to understand their operation, or even their specific purpose, and I live with doubts about every assertion I’ve heard or read in these regards. But I’ve come to the conclusion that to believe in God is to believe in miracles. And I believe in God.