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She got interested, though, after Reyes had already gone to Europe. This occurred because, as she passed a painting of the Blessed Mother on her way into the kitchen one morning, she heard a musical voice saying, "Good morning, daughter." Heard with her ears, as though it had been a neighbor speaking. And the next morning she heard it again. "I thought, 'I am losing my mind,'" she says.

But she thought other things as well. As the days passed and Reyes returned with his stories of Medjugorje, Estela found herself drawn to his proselytizing in a new way. "I began to feel something change in me," she says.

Other family members were feeling a new religious fervor, too, to the point that they began mentioning it to Estela and each other. "Something unexplainable was moving everybody individually and collectively; there was a real desire to make some changes in our lives," says Armando of the weeks before the visions began. "If it had happened any other way, I think we would all have said, 'Mom has lost it and Dad has lost it. Let's call in a psychiatrist.' But because each one of us began to change, when it happened it was not with shock and was not with alarm. It was very natural."

Which is not to say that Estela's conversion was without its element of extreme drama. On December 3, 1988, a Saturday night when various members of the Ruiz family had gathered to say the rosary, Estela Ruiz saw the Mother of God for the first time.

It is a story that the Ruizes have told and retold until, asked separately, each family member will recount it with nearly the same words. They describe how, in the middle of family prayer, Estela fell suddenly to her knees in front of a portrait of the Virgin and began to cry, "Oh, my God! She is here! She is here! She is so beautiful!"

Estela says that, during the prayer, "I looked up and saw this light just filling the room. I was paralyzed. I couldn't say anything. Then I began to see a mistlike cloud around the picture. I could feel my heart pounding. I looked up and all of a sudden I saw her alive. She was in front of the picture. It was as if she had come out of the picture and changed.

"There were no doubts. I knew exactly what was going on."
Every Saturday since that first one, Estela says she has been visited by the Blessed Mother. She appears to Estela in three dimensions, smaller than life-size, between three and four feet tall. She is solid; Estela cannot see through Her. The Blessed Mother has a long face and when She smiles, which is often, Her eyes turn up at the corners until She looks distinctly Oriental. All Her movements are slow and understated. She wears a white gown and a blue robe except that, on some Christmas and Easter holidays, She has arrived decked out entirely in brilliant gold. She has always come alone except for one occasion when She brought the Christ child with Her, a baby cradled in Her arms.

Neither Estela nor Reyes is dismayed that her accounts of these visions have not received the approval of the Catholic Church. After a commission of inquiry appointed by Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien concluded that Estela's experiences were not miraculous, but that the prayer meetings held every Saturday in honor of the visions could continue, the Ruizes were actually relieved. They say it is the right thing that Estela's visions gain recognition slowly. "Too many things happen that later cause people to lose faith in God," says Estela. "Every time somebody says this is happening doesn't mean that it is. The Church must be careful." Whether the Church believes or not, the Ruizes' lives have been greatly changed by the visions, and Estela's life changed first. Very soon, she says, the Blessed Mother asked her to give up her work as a school administrator and devote her time to God. It was a shocking idea, since Estela was earning $40,000, a salary that was more than twice as large as Reyes'. The couple's income was about $70,000 when the income from some rentals was counted in--and Estela at this prosperous point in their lives was already looking for a bigger and better home than their tiny stucco affair that has grown with uneven add-ons. Moving up was Estela's lifelong dream.

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Deborah Laake