Reported Visions of Virgin Mary Draw Hordes of Pilgrims to Bosnian Village

Believers say that Mary calls to them through signs and miracles.

ByABC News
July 1, 2011, 4:17 PM

July 5, 2011— -- The warm surf of La Jolla, Calif., isn't a setting people associate with the Virgin Mary. But on many days, there is a surfer whose passion for the perfect wave is nothing compared to his head-over-heels love for the Holy Mother.

His name is Donald Calloway and he picked up surfing as a military brat bouncing around the United States and Japan.

He also picked up marijuana, heroin, LSD, shoplifting and money laundering for the Japanese mafia. By the age of 20, he had a rap sheet, a drug habit and serious thoughts of suicide.

"After having gone to two rehabs, been in jail, kicked out of a foreign country, I was at my crisis in life. ... I picked up a book that my parents had on their bookshelf about the Virgin Mary," Calloway said.

He devoured it, fascinated particularly by the story of villagers in Medjugorje, Bosnia, who said they saw Mary in all her supernatural beauty. About 200,000 people flooded the tiny town last week to mark the 30th anniversary of Mary's first reported appearance.

"They claimed to see her, and they actually cried because she was so beautiful. ... [When] I got up the next morning, I knew that I had to go talk to a Catholic priest, and I did," he said.

"That began a radical change of life for me, a transformation. I cut my long hair, cleaned up my act and became what I am today."

Today he is the Rev. Donald Calloway, the surfer priest.

"When I paddle out, I say a Hail Mary," he said. "On some of my boards, I actually have little sayings about her ... to keep the sharks away."

Ten years after he was ordained, he finally made the pilgrimage to Medjugorje, the place in his mother's book. It is the biggest ongoing apparition site in the world: "Catholic Woodstock," in Calloway's words. In the past three decades, nearly 40 million people have come to experience the reported monthly apparitions of Mary to six residents.

The story is that almost 30 years ago, two teenagers named Mirjana and Ivanka -- they are now 46 and 45, respectively -- were on a rocky hill behind the village when Ivanka noticed a bright light and said, "Look, it's Our Lady."

Mirjana laughed. "I said to her, 'Yes, sure,'" she said in an interview with "Nightline" anchor Bill Weir. "Blessed Mary have nothing else to do, and she comes to two of us."

But then a boy herding goats joined them, and all three allegedly saw and heard something that would alter their lives, their village and the Catholic world forever.

"I saw in the middle of the hill, one lady in the long dress, with the little baby in the hands. ... She present herself, she said, 'My dear children, don't be afraid of me, I am Queen of Peace,'" Mirjana said.

Three more kids eventually joined them, and in the following days the six would fall to their knees with eerie synchronicity, claiming to see the same 19-year-old dark-haired, blue-eyed woman. They said she was more beautiful than any human.

"We ask her childish question," Mirjana recalled. "We ask her, 'How is possible that you are so beautiful?' And she smile and she said, 'Because I love. If you want to be beautiful, love.'"

When the children told people in their village, there were doubters, including the local parish priest. He was upset that most of his congregation was skipping church to hike the hill, where believers had erected a cross.

The police for the Communist regime then governing Yugoslavia threatened to arrest those who climbed the hill. But every time they tore down the humble metal cross, someone would sneak back up in the middle of the night and replace it.

"Before Our Lady appears, I see a flash three times. That is a sign to me that she's coming," Vicka said.

"She wears a gray robe or dress, white veil, crown of stars, blue eyes, black hair, rosy cheeks, and she's flowing on a great cloud in the air, and she's never touching the ground."

Three days a week, the sick, the frail and their loved ones crowd her street, hoping for a glimpse, a word or, best of all, a touch. For three hours Vicka, 46, tirelessly attends to the pilgrims, and her handlers collect piles of prayer requests.

Flerida Gutierrez is hoping that here is where her cancer will disappear.