WATSONVILLE, Calif. — Thousands of people have walked the dirt path leading to the shore of Pinto Lake County Park in the 20 years since a Watsonville, Calif., woman reported seeing a vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe in an oak tree there.
Her reported vision initially drew crowds of several hundred to the park and sparked creation of a shrine that is still being renewed daily by flowers, candles and other items brought by visitors.
And while the crowd has slowed over the years, the unofficial shrine still draws a steady stream of those seeking solace and intervention from the beloved Roman Catholic icon who is said to have first appeared to a peasant, Juan Diego, on a hillside near Mexico City in 1531.
The shrine, near a walkway through tule reeds over the water, is a kind of rustic outdoor chapel, with an altar.
Benches and tables are filled with colorful bouquets, candles, figurines, photographs and notes left by visitors. Colorful flags stream from the trees and the quiet is filled with the sounds of birds.
Visitors come from San Francisco, Sacramento, Oregon, Mexico and other places. The site once drew a lot of media attention, with Our Lady of Guadalupe being a central icon of the Catholic Church in Mexico.
Twenty years ago, Anita Contreras Mendoza was having marital problems when she began taking walks in the park, said her cousin, Elvira Mendoza de Vidales. On June 17, 1992, the mother and cannery worker saw a vision of a woman suddenly appear before her, Vidales said. The woman told Mendoza she was Maria de Guadalupe and to tell people she was there to receive their prayers, that it was a sanctuary, Vidales said.
The woman also told Mendoza the poor needed her, Vidales said. The woman told Mendoza to close her eyes, and when she opened them, the image had vanished, but Mendoza saw her image in the trunk of an oak tree, she said.
When Mendoza became too ill to maintain the shrine six years ago, she asked Vidales to do it.
These days, Vidales has a mirror that she readily brings out for visitors, tilting it with an experienced hand to shine a beam on an oval-shaped image in the bark of the tree. It is visible, several feet up the live oak.
Vidales, 62, visits the spot daily, culling the dead flowers and gently uprighting the vases that have fallen and doing the same for the candles and mementos left there.
She prays for her own five children, too, asking for help with one son’s addiction, another who is working too hard, she said.
Vidales laughs, saying she has started seeing images in other trees at the park, and even on the ground.
“It’s making me crazy,” she said. “But I clean here every day and people visit every day. Some come only to see, but most come to pray.”
Eloisa Naranjo of Watsonville said she visits frequently.
“It’s wonderful to see people come here, to see their faith,” Naranjo said. “It’s just a beautiful place and unique, to pray in the trees. Any time I have a problem I come here to pray. It feels like someone is here just listening, and they are.”
Masses are held in the grove on the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Dec. 12, and on June 17, when the reported vision first appeared.
Vidales became concerned about the tree’s health when a large branch fell about three weeks ago.
Yet Gretchen Iliff, the county’s park maintenance manager, said that while the tree has been in decline for many years, there were signs of new growth on it this year.
It may be suffering from being too close to the water, compaction from people walking above its roots and/or a number of pathogens that affect live oaks, Iliff said.
“If it falls, it will fall to the outside, so we’ll keep it up and monitor it,” she said. “It’s trying to hang in there and people go there for that reason. I remember when CNN was out there.”
Vidales said she doesn’t consider her daily duties there a chore.
“I like to come here every day,” she said. “There is much peace here.”