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FAKE OR FAITH? FOLLOWERS BELIEVE WOMAN WHO CLAIMS TO HAVE A DIRECT BOND WITH VIRGIN MARY.

Byline: Holly Edwards Staff Writer

CALIFORNIA CITY - With horn blaring and a cloud of dust trailing, Maria Paula Acuna arrives in the barren desert north of California City in a dark green Dodge Caravan filled with flowers and a lace-covered statuette of the Virgin Mary.

Shrouded from head to toe in white linen, Acuna steps out of her minivan and turns her face to the heavens as about 100 people aim their Polaroid cameras at the sky and click furiously.

Flanked by white-clad attendants, the 55-year-old spiritual leader makes her way to the white tent canopy in which she will deliver her sermon. Two men hoist the statuette of Mary on their shoulders and carry it to a platform.

Overwhelmed with excitement, some Acuna devotees rush over to her and drop to their knees.

For the next hour, Acuna prays in English and Spanish, urging her followers to be grateful for their hardships, for it is through suffering that they will find God.

``Always the Virgin Mary says, `Do not torment your souls and hearts for the things in this world, and do not be materialistic,' '' Acuna said. ``She wants us to be close to God and is showing us the path to God by praying the holy rosary every day.''

Wiping tears and beads of sweat from her face, Acuna then kneels at a white cross to say her final prayer. Plastic bottles filled with water surround the cross - it is believed that Acuna's blessing will convert it to holy water.

At the end of the service, Acuna blesses her followers one by one, placing her hands gently on their heads and praying for their eternal salvation. Many tremble and burst into tears, others collapse, when Acuna places her hands on them.

Since Acuna claimed she saw the Virgin Mary 11 years ago in a predawn vigil near Lopez Canyon, thousands of people have come to her with terminal illnesses and tormented souls, seeking a direct link to the Holy Spirit.

Carrying lawn chairs, umbrellas, rosary beads and Polaroid cameras, Acuna's loyal followers gather in the patch of desert in search of nothing less than a miracle.

Acuna's followers gather on the 13th of every month - the Virgin Mary is said to appear monthly on the 13th since she is believed to have appeared to three children in Fatima, Portugal, on May 13, 1917, one of the most famous religious events of the century.

Followers claim to have witnessed Acuna heal the blind and the crippled, and say they see the faces of Mary and Jesus in the sun and the clouds when their spiritual leader is present.

``Look, look right here,'' said 75-year-old Juan Ruvio, pointing to a Polaroid picture of the sun. ``That face is Jesus and over here is Mary, and here is the door to heaven.''

Despite the fervor of Acuna's following, however, the Catholic Church has officially rejected her claims and discourages its members from attending her desert sermons.

After a 1995 investigation, Cardinal Roger Mahoney declared that people were in danger of being misled by ``doctrinal, canonical and financial irregularities'' in Acuna's group.

But for Acuna's followers, the proof of her power lies within.

``You can find peace here, but it all depends on your spirit,'' said Alfonso Nguyen, 27. ``If you believe, it will happen.''

Nguyen has traveled from Sacramento to attend Acuna's services since he was paralyzed in a diving accident in 1996.

``I'm searching more for eternal peace than to get out of the wheelchair,'' Nguyen said. ``But if that happens, that's fine, too.''

But Jose Roig, a 53-year-old North Hills resident, is skeptical. He squints at Ruvio's picture for several minutes and finally says he doesn't see anything but rays of light.

It is Roig's first visit with the group - known as Our Lady of the Rock - but he has been coming to this desert area for some 25 years in search of more earthly treasures, such as fossils and metal coins.

``I'm not a religious guy, and I don't believe in these images people see,'' Roig said. ``But I believe there is a spirit or a force here that is pure energy. I came today because I'm just curious.''

More devoted followers, however, say they sense the presence of God when Acuna is present. The scent of roses fills the air and the faces of Mary and Jesus appear in the sky when she arrives, they say.

Pointing to a Polaroid picture of a bearded man's face in a cloud, 57- year-old Jerry Gibbs of Lancaster explains that the picture was taken by Acuna from the balcony of her California City home.

``She was three hours late arriving one day, and then we found out she was kneeling on her balcony with Our Lord standing right there like that,'' said Gibbs, a volunteer manning a booth filled with rosary beads and Polaroid snapshots of divine images in the sky. ``I've seen her kneel down and put her tongue out, and the communion is there right on her tongue. She's getting communion from the angels.''

After Acuna's ceremony, even the once-skeptical Roig says he is deeply affected.

``She touched me and it made me cry. Look, I'm still trembling,'' he said, holding up a shaking hand. ``She's full of energy. She's like a lighting bolt or a generator. I'm still in shock.''

Many of Acuna's followers are debilitated by disease or injury, and make the monthly trek to the desert in search of physical and spiritual healing.

Fifty-two-year-old Miguel Rodriguez of Burbank says he is dying of heart disease and wants to live.

``I was supposed to be dead a long time ago, but she told me I'm not going to die. I'm OK,'' said a tearful Rodriguez. ``And when she puts her hands on me, I feel peace and tranquillity.''

For the predominantly Catholic crowd, the Virgin Mary has a special place in heaven, acting as the intercessor between God and humanity. If Acuna is in direct communication with Mary, her followers believe, she can therefore communicate indirectly with God.

Since the Virgin first appeared to her in rays of blinding white light, Acuna said she can communicate with Mary's spirit at any time.

``The first time I saw her, my heart almost jumped out of my mouth,'' Acuna said. ``I wanted to hug the blessed mother and not let go. She's very sweet and pure.''

CAPTION(S):

7 photos, map

Photo:

(1 -- color) Our Lady of the Rock spiritual leader Maria Paula Acuna laughs with Jose Roig of North Hills as she greets her followers.

(2 -- color) A woman falls to her knees in tears after being touched by the Virgin Mary.

(3 -- ran in Bulldog edition only) An unidentified man and other Our Lady of the Rock followers kneel and pray as the group's leader, Maria Paula Acuna, prays at the foot of a 12-foot-tall white cross in the desert near California City. The congregation, which is not sanctioned by the Catholic Church, meets the 13th of every month at the site.

(4) A devotee hands her infant over to Acuna for her blessing. Followers of Acuna belive that her touch will bring the blessing of the Virgin Mary.

(5) A devotee Maria Gomez of Pico Rivera kneels to pray near the foot of a 12-foot-tall white cross after an Our Lady of the Rock gathering in the deset ner California City. The congregation, which is not sanctioned by the Catholic Church, meets the 13th of every month at the site.

(6) Believer Juan Ruvio points his camera toward the sun, hoping to record a photo of the Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ - or of the door to heaven.

(7) no caption (Maria Paula Acuna)

Shaun Dyer/Special to the Daily News

Map: Our Lady of the Rock site
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 29, 2000
Words:1303
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