For one day almost two decades ago, a West Lubbock church found itself at the epicenter of Catholicism.
Thousands journeyed from across the country to St. John Neumann Catholic Church, traveling on faith and awaiting a miracle.
“There were miracles all over the place,” said Monsignor Joseph W. James, who was pastor of the church on that sweltering August day in 1988.
“The greatest miracle of all that day was having that many people together in faith to see what God had for us,” said Mary Constancio, one of three St. John Neumann parishioners who was thrust into the role of messenger.
The road to what would become the largest Catholic event in the history of the Lubbock diocese — although it remains unacknowledged by church hierarchy — began several months earlier when Constancio said she was receiving messages from the Virgin Mary during Monday night rosary recitations.
“I am still in awe of that and honored by it,” Constancio said. “The humanness inside of you wants to ask, ‘Why me?’ But I also knew I had to accept that calling.”
In the ensuing weeks, two other members — a retired U.S. Air Force master sergeant and a housewife — also said they were receiving messages, which pointed toward a significant event occurring Aug. 15 during the Catholic church’s celebration of the Feast of the Assumption.
The annual event, which dates to the seventh century and has been a teaching of Catholicism since 1950, commemorates Mary, the mother of Jesus, being taken into heaven at the end of her life.
Despite insistence from Michael J. Sheehan, Lubbock bishop at the time, to keep the messages low key, word spread quickly, and the city became a flashpoint for the faithful as people all across the country began planning their pilgrimages. James said the Virgin Mary’s messages told them to prepare for a crowd of at least 20,000.
“We were told through the messengers (the three parishioners) there would be 20,000 there,” James said. “We received specific instructions what to prepare in terms of aid stations, water stations, stations to serve people in need. We were given specific instructions on all of the things.”
The church and the city received extensive news coverage from around the
country as well as from local media outlets, although James said not all of it was flattering.
“We had a couple of parishioners on NBC for an interview on national television, and they were asked, ‘Why Lubbock?’ ” James recalled. “Their answer was, ‘Why not Lubbock?’ A few months afterward, (magazine) Texas Monthly said there were reports of miracles, but they said the miracle was getting 20,000 people to Lubbock.”
The expansive crowd began forming early that day, and the throngs of people were greeted by a cloudless West Texas sky promising lots of sun and little relief. Official estimates that day put the number of attendees at 13,000. James, however, said the size of the crowd was closer to 22,000.
Despite what soon would become sweltering conditions, Constancio said excitement and enthusiasm grew in anticipation of a visit from Mary, as promised by the St. John Neumann messengers.
An early afternoon shower provided the crowd with a brief respite from the merciless heat.
“This morning there wasn’t a cloud in the sky,” James said in an A-J article. “This isn’t enough to wash away the curious, but I had to chuckle. It was just kind of a sign.”
The feeling reached a crescendo around 6:30 p.m. when, according to the A-J article, clouds began moving across the sun, creating patterns in the western sky that, for many, signaled Mary’s presence.
“Somehow I knew she was in a cloud,” Constancio recalled. “A little while later, around 7:30 or 8, is when all kinds of things started to happen. We saw it, and everyone out there got very excited. We saw the sun coming down out of the sky. It was a real manifestation of God. That’s the only way I can explain it.”
Constancio said other events occurred as well such as rosaries changing colors, the sun casting different colors on people in the crowd and no one suffering eye damage as a result of looking at the sun, a practice discouraged in a pamphlet commissioned by the diocese prior to the celebration.
James said medical miracles also occurred that day, describing one involving a boy.
“He was suffering from muscular dystrophy,” James said, “and that caused him to have his hand against his chest. He was unable to open his arm out. When the Blessed Mother came to the fountain at St. John Neumann, he extended out his hand.”
“A lot of people were healed that day,” added Constancio.
The miraculous reports, however, were met with skepticism by those not familiar with charismatic Catholicism and by the diocese, which did not participate in the observance, citing the church’s official position on apparitions and messages.
Sheehan, who had been scheduled to celebrate the Feast Mass, changed his mind and did not attend out of concern for the appearance of lending official approval to the messages, according to A-J reports.
People bask in the hot August sun outside St. John Neumann Catholic Church in 1988 in hopes of being a part of a miracle during the Feast of Assumption.
“The biggest Catholic event in the history of the diocese didn’t happen,” James said, adding that he understood why Sheehan, whom he said was a friend, could not attend that day.
In the aftermath of the event, Sheehan assembled a team of experts to investigate whether any miracles had occurred. The Catholic church’s official definition of a miracle is a suspension of the laws of nature in some way that is not explainable by physical science.
In the end, the panel of experts rejected the claims of miracles taking place or messages being received.
“A lot of good things have happened,” Sheehan said in an A-J story published two months later. “The only thing we’re saying is it doesn’t take a miracle. It doesn’t take a suspension of the laws of nature to explain these good things that have happened at St. John Neumann.”
Almost 20 years later, Sheehan, now archbishop of the Santa Fe diocese, said that day was a heartfelt expression of faith and devotion, despite the lack of miracles.
“Miracles would be a very rare sort of thing the Catholic church would recognize,” he said. “The team of experts that we brought in felt it was not a miracle, but rather sincere people overstating their spiritual experience. There was no sign of miraculous intervention.”
James, now the director emeritus of the Mercy Retreat Center in Slaton, said he was angry for years at the way the event was covered by many media outlets and handled by the church.
“I felt like good spiritual fruit had been squashed,” he said. “Ultimately, they said no miracle occurred. I remember we met with the panel. All the messengers were there. I was there. Before the investigation started, the bishop asked me, ‘Where is your miracle?’ The way I define a miracle is it is an awesome event that brings people to God.”
Constancio, who with her husband, Henry, began the Ambassadors of the Flame Mercy Ministry in 1989. The organization is dedicated to healing and bringing families together in Christ.
“I believe a lot of things happened,” she said, referring to that 1988 August afternoon, “and I believe in miracles every day.”
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