CATHOLIC CULT

The Virgin who made a realty killing

Protected by the Church, the followers of a Madrid seer are amassing a million-euro fortune

Followers pray at the site where the Virgin Mary is first said to have appeared to Luz Amparo.
Followers pray at the site where the Virgin Mary is first said to have appeared to Luz Amparo. SANTI BURGOS

The Lord said it back in 1996!" roars the priest to the thousand or so followers in front of the hill where the chapel stands. What Christ said that year was, in short, that we all need to pray more and that society is skeptical and given to vice and licentiousness. The priest goes on to explain that the word of Christ came out of the mouth of Luz Amparo Cuevas, the seer from El Escorial and the assistant picked out by the Lord and the Virgin to disseminate their messages. She is the reason why all these people are spending this cold Saturday afternoon reciting the rosary in the middle of a field near El Escorial, in the mountains outside Madrid.

The Good Lord and the Virgin Mary began speaking through Luz Amparo in 1980 and did not stop until 2002, say her followers. Although she died last year after a long illness, the coffin containing her body remains in the open air next to the chapel, despite orders from local authorities to have the body buried in a cemetery.

Those messages and that coffin are the foundations of the so-called Obra de la Virgen de El Escorial. To some, it is a religious movement that offers charity to those in need; to others, it is a swindle designed to extract money from the elderly and the desperate.

On this particular Saturday afternoon, most of the people in the field are senior citizens, large families and people suffering from diseases or disabilities. Some have brought large jugs to fill with water from a fountain purported to have curative powers. Before mass begins inside a former cattle shed now converted into a church, a young priest announces in a haughty tone that "the 1996 movie" is about to be screened. The film shows the clairvoyant down on her knees, eyes shut, speaking slowly in a falsetto voice. God appears to be improvising: the speech is filled with inconsistent constructions and incomplete sentences, but viewers are certain they are hearing the divine voice.

At first, the Roman Catholic Church disapproved of the visions and did not recognize the presence of the divine in Luz Amparo's messages. But in the 1990s it authorized the movement and the construction of the chapel where around a dozen priests now offer communion. What prompted that sudden change in attitude remains a mystery.

Following communion, the faithful carry the Virgen de los Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrow) in a procession to the old ash tree where they say the Virgin first appeared to Luz Amparo. They are escorted by a group of security personnel with blue vests and earpieces. It is at the ash tree where people pray and leave 20-euro bills to ask for divine help with their personal problems.

The Virgin Mary began speaking through Luz Amparo in 1980

There is precious little documentary evidence that might explain how, seemingly overnight, a cleaning lady became a seer with the power to draw thousands of followers to El Escorial. The psychiatrist Francisco Alonso-Fernández was the only person able to conduct an in-depth study of her case. The conclusions of this professor emeritus who is about to turn 90 helped draft a report whose last chapter contains a few biographical details about Amparo: she was born in March 1931 and her mother died when she was just 16 months old. "She had a pretty complicated personality," he explains. "She had been abused physically and psychologically by her stepmothers, especially the second one. She found refuge in her sister and in religion."

A mother of seven and married to a man who had tuberculosis, Amparo had no choice but to be the breadwinner, cleaning houses to earn a crust. But in 1970 something happened that had a direct influence on her later life as a clairvoyant. After a pilgrimage to Lourdes, Amparo's various heart and digestive complaints suddenly improved. About a decade later, she began to have visions. On one occasion, as Alonso-Fernández recounted, she said she saw a man "wearing a kangaroo-like jacket and dark clothes. 'My daughter, I am your Father [...] The world is in serious danger,' the voice told her."

The apparitions kept on coming. First she had them at the El Escorial monastery, but the National Heritage foundation, which manages the building, was not pleased. After the apparitions were formally (and somewhat comically) prohibited there, from June 14, 1981, the Virgin started appearing to her at the nearby ash tree inside an estate called Prado Nuevo. Her message was similar to that of other famous apparitions of the Virgin Mary, such as the one at Fátima in Portugal. On this occasion, the Virgin also requested that a chapel be built in the field.

Pretty soon a group of people began congregating around Amparo, who became their charismatic leader. But it was the owner of the house where she cleaned, Miguel Martínez Pascual, who really got things moving. Martínez liked to boast about his tough childhood and how he had to drop his studies to go out and repair pianos. His own visions were more long-term, says Alonso-Fernández with a smile. In his book, the psychiatrist called it "the psychogroup," and its members are precisely the same people who now sit on the boards of the foundations that control the El Escorial movement.

The number of people gathering around the ash tree kept growing with each new apparition. Little by little throughout the mid-1980s, the town began filling up with busloads of pilgrims from all over Spain and Portugal. The affair made the news. The Church also showed an interest in the matter and created an investigative committee. It was this committee that used Francisco Alonso-Fernández's psychiatric report. The expert took apart every single phenomenon that was allegedly taking place around Amparo. There were no messages, no apparitions, no stigmata. He underscored her masochistic tendencies and her insecurity, and highlighted how difficult it had been to examine her because of interference from the "psychogroup."

Soon after that, the archbishop of Madrid asked all priests to refrain from participating in the events at Prado Nuevo. "We are aware of the supernatural nature of the alleged apparitions and revelations," said the note, released in April 1985. Lacking Church support, the movement was considered by many a dangerous sect controlled by manipulative minds who were only in it for the money.

But people kept coming regardless. Alarmed by the pressure on the town, local associations cropped up to put a stop to it. "Sometimes the town would wake up and find scores of signs with instructions from the Virgin Mary regarding zoning issues. They [movement members] would show up at council meetings and start issuing orders about what to do," remembers Óscar García Novo, who was only 18 when he founded one of the associations.

At the ash tree, people pray and leave 20-euro bills to ask for divine help

"On one occasion, the city had a fight with them over fencing and access to the estate," recalls Asunción Martínez, a Socialist councilor in El Escorial. "Later we found out the Virgin had spoken through Luz Amparo on the issue of subsidiary zoning regulations."

Relations between the city and the chief of the psychogroup, Miguel Martínez Pascual, were not good. "Once he threatened to register so many people on the electoral roll that he would kick us out of town," recalls Mariano Rodríguez, then the Socialist mayor of El Escorial.

Some people even believe he made good on the threat. "You should have seen the 2007 elections," says Asunción Martínez. "A bunch of nuns showed up to vote. The [conservative] Popular Party won by a small margin."

Pablo Camacho was the parish priest of El Escorial when Luz Amparo began having her visions. He was one of the most vocal opponents of the movement, but died a few years ago and it is his nephew, also named Pablo Camacho, who explains the kind of pressure he was put under. "First they tried to get him to join the cause," he says. "But my uncle did not want to, so it was all-out warfare." According to his nephew, the first thing Camacho did was to go see former Madrid archbishop Cardinal Tarancón. "'Pay no bloody attention. Every month we get some lady saying the Virgin has appeared before her,' the cardinal told my uncle."

Amparo would walk into church when Camacho was in the middle of mass and begin having her visions right there and then. "Once he almost threw the cup at her to get her to shut up," recalls Pablo.

After that, he says, the psychogroup began circulating rumors about him, saying he was running around with women. Then, in the mid-1990s, something happened that changed the history of the movement forever, and the priest's life as well. A local villager came up to Camacho and told him he had seen Cardinal Ángel Suquía around town. By then, the movement already owned senior residences and was holding masses next to Prado Nuevo. Nobody had bothered to warn the priest about the visit of the top Church leader in the territory. "I think they're pushing me out of my chair," Camacho told his nephew.

On June 14, 1994, with no prior warning, Suquía authorized the Asociación Pública de Fieles Reparadores de Nuestra Señora la Virgen de los Dolores (the Public Association of Faithful Repairers of Our Lady of Sorrow). Officially, the 1985 note warning church members to stay away from the group was still in force, but in practice, church leaders were now giving the official seal of approval to what many had until now considered a sect.

Later we found out the Virgin had spoken on subsidiary zoning regulations"

What triggered the change? Why, after ignoring Amparo and the psychogroup, did the Church finally assimilate the movement?

The most widely extended explanation in El Escorial is that the group donated 30 million pesetas (180,000 euros) to the Church so it could complete the construction of La Almudena cathedral in Madrid. After that, Camacho was appointed "defender of the tie," a position consisting in opposing marriage nullities. "They put him behind a desk and busted the parish, which is no longer united," says the nephew. The archbishopric of Madrid declined to comment on the issue.

In any case, Amparo's criticism of the Church ended right there. Camacho died soon afterwards and the clairvoyant alleged his spirit had appeared before her to express repentance and say her prayers had got him into heaven.

But let us go back to Prado Nuevo and the cattle shed that doubles as a church. One of the rooms holds the souvenir shop, where pilgrims buy all kinds of items bearing the virgin's likeness: fans, medals, rosary beads, candles and so on. A subscription to the magazine costs 20 euros. There are also alms boxes for the church's nativity scene and to help maintain the three senior residences. There is also a box next to the ash tree for requests to the virgin.

Besides that, the organization receives other, more substantial donations: the pooled assets of the members of the Association of Faithful Repairers. Critics say these assets are in fact the properties of elderly people who have been manipulated into turning them over to the movement.

The organization has set up several foundations in order to manage all these donations. The main one is the Fundación Benéfica Virgen de los Dolores. The 2010 accounts presented to the Board of Foundations show clearly how the system works. That year the foundation, whose president is piano repairman Miguel Martínez Pascual, had assets of 21.5 million euros and 5.6 million euros of debt. Almost the entirety of that money comes from properties donated by individuals. For instance, in 1989, a Portuguese industrial entrepreneur donated nine apartments in the Madrid neighborhood of Barrio del Pilar. Back then the homes were worth one million pesetas. Some of them were later sold for 11 million.

"I bought it off two priests," says one of the current owners of one of those homes. "I asked them to bring down the price a bit, but they ignored me." The other apartments are being rented out for between 500 and 600 euros a months.

Other group foundations conduct stranger transactions. The Fundación Benéfica San Andrés was created in 2005, and its board comprised several members and sympathizers of the movement. This foundation bought rural land in Ávila that was about to be built on. One of the plots was bought for at least four million euros, and the foundation applied for loans to be repaid within the year. But it never did. The foundation owes money to some of the original landowners as well as the banks.

What's more, it never turned in its yearly accounts, and has no known activity. Most of the board members left the foundation after that real estate transaction. A spokesman for the movement said this particular foundation has no ties to it. But its president, Cándido Martín Hernández, continues to come to prayers at Prado Nuevo.

While such activities may seem suspicious for a religious foundation, no crime has ever been proven. "Foundations get good treatment in Spain," explains José María Peláez of the Tax Inspectors Association. "Their obligation is for the money they receive to revert to their stated goals. If it were proven that they were sending money to tax havens, that would constitute a crime." The movement says all the money it gets pays for the senior residences.

Consolación San Vicente, a 75-year-old housewife from the working-class neighborhood of Orcasitas in Madrid, accompanied her daughters Ana María and María Luisa to mass in Prado Nuevo for nearly five years. The girls, who were then in their twenties, had been introduced to the movement by a friend. Consolación's faith finally faltered, but not that of her daughters, who eventually moved into the movement's residences in Griñón (Madrid) and Peñaranda de Duero (Burgos) to work as a nurse and a cook, respectively. Now they are nuns. Over two decades have passed since then.

"Miguel Martínez Pascual gave my husband and I a choice: either we changed our will to bequeath everything to the movement, or we would never see them again," says Consolación. She opted for the second choice. In all this time, she has only managed to see her daughters once. "They've destroyed our lives," she says.

The daughters offer a different version of events on a YouTube video, where they claim they tried to keep in touch with their family, but their parents would not respect their decision.

It is the same story over and over again with other families who have a member in the movement: at first there is the occasional visit or call. After that, the followers say their relatives cannot understand that they are "happy." These relatives become "persona non grata" and are denied access to the premises.

"She's the one who taught us how to love," reads the epitaph on Amparo's coffin. The Association of Victims of the Apparitions of Prado Nuevo recently filed a complaint over the fact that the body remains outside, next to the chapel. The mayor of El Escorial informed the seer's family that they had three months to bury her, but it's been close to four months and the coffin is still there. The city of El Escorial declined to talk to EL PAÍS for this story.

Meanwhile, spokespeople for the movement said the coffin is the family's concern, and would make no further statements for the press other than express surprise at the fact that the media would be interested in the issue of the apparitions, rather than the work they do at the senior residences. They are already part of the Church, and that is all they want to be.