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Thursday, March 01, 2007                                                                                       View Comments

Mary appears in a pizza pan -- Mama Mia!

They kneeled. They cried. They asked for healing.

Before them, on an altar of roses and prayer candles, was a metal baking sheet, stained with what hundreds of Houston Catholics now believe is an image of the Virgin Mary.

Guadalupe Rodriguez, a Pugh Elementary School cafeteria worker, discovered the possible miracle on Ash Wednesday, while scrubbing away the last crumbs from the pizza lunch.

By Friday, a steady stream of people were filing through the southeast Houston front yard of Sylvia Calderon, a PTA member who took in the sheet pan after school leaders decided they couldn't accommodate the curious crowds.

At dawn, one woman arrived at Calderon's home in the Denver Harbor neighborhood asking to see the Virgin's image before her 8-year-old son had surgery. That afternoon another woman came for a blessing bearing a picture of her grandson, who has cerebral palsy.

Scientists call this phenomenon religious pareidolia, when the eye sees religious images in objects such as tree trunks and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Believers say it's a miracle.

"It was beautiful," said Angie Bentancur, who left the picture of her grandson beside the sheet pan Friday afternoon.

On Wednesday, Rodriguez, a longtime kitchen worker, was leaning over the sink of the cafeteria at Pugh Elementary washing sheet pans — the kind that normally hold rows of chocolate chip cookies or chicken nuggets.

It was with the last pan, pulled from the cold rinse, that the Virgin appeared, Rodriguez, 59, said.

"I started looking at it, and started looking at it, until I realized it was the Virgin," she said.

The pan appears to be stained, maybe by grease, with an image several inches tall. A splotch of missing color resembles the Virgin Mother's down-turned face, a slight rainbow stain running alongside this could be a shawl.

Her hands still wet, Rodriguez took the pan to the cafeteria, and held it up to her co-workers. What do you see, she asked?

The Virgin Mary, they said, undeniably — on a sheet pan.

Someone got the cafeteria manager, Coralia Pacay, who said the same: undeniably, the Virgin Mary — on a sheet pan.

Pacay and Rodriguez went to Principal Lyda Guerrero. They asked her what she saw.

"It was a silhouette," Guerrero recalled. "A silhouette of the Virgin Mary."

For believers, there is no doubt about Rodriguez's discovery. It is a message from God. The find created a logistical problem for school officials. When they got home Wednesday, many pupils who had seen the sheet pan told their parents, many of whom returned to school to see for themselves. Pacay propped up the pan near the lunch line.

The crowds grew to include neighbors, and soon district officials, including Houston Independent School District Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, who agreed the tray had to go somewhere else. That's when the PTA agreed to take it to Calderon's house.

"Right now because it is attracting a lot of attention, we just don't want it in the school," said Rebecca Suarez, HISD spokeswoman. "But we want to treat it with respect."

Calderon, who has a 7-year-old daughter at Pugh, has been up since dawn and stayed awake until near midnight every day since then. She only takes the sheet pan in when she sleeps.

A steady stream of people continue to shuffle into her yard. Most are women, some with children. They walk from neighboring houses or park down the street. Some hold bouquets, others candles or pictures.

They brush the Virgin's image with their palms, fingertips, the backs of their hands. They close their eyes and make the sign of the cross.

Some hope to set up a permanent spot for the baking pan in the neighborhood, where anyone can visit, day or night.

Regardless, school officials say they doubt it will go back to the wash bin any time soon.

"I think someone was watching over us," Guerrero said. "I think someone is watching over this community and this school district and this school."

Religious simulacra is the name scientists give to images, like Mary or Jesus, that people say they see in inanimate objects.

• Sandwich: In 2004, Florida resident Diana Duyser sold her grilled cheese on eBay for $28,000. She claimed the sandwich was 10 years old, and she had kept it, preserved in a plastic container, after noticing a shape that looked like the Virgin Mary on the bread.

• Tortilla: In 1978, a woman frying tortillas in New Mexico said she saw an image of Jesus within the pattern of burn marks on her tortilla. She set up a shrine and thousands came to see it.

• Egg: Last year, villagers in Kazakhstan said they found an egg with the word "Allah" inscribed on it in Arabic. A chicken laid the egg just after a hail storm hit the Kazakh village, state media said.