Spokane hairdresser Tom Millersmith believes he heard God’s voice on a dirt road outside a village in Bosnia and saw golden rings radiating off the sun.
“There’s a peace in that area, regardless of all the war and the killing going on there,” said Millersmith, 58, a Roman Catholic.
Millersmith is among more than 500 people from the Inland Northwest who have made religious pilgrimages to Medjugorje, Bosnia, in the last nine years. They seek messages from Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, in a land struck by one of the most brutal wars on the globe.
This weekend, 3,000 people are expected to attend the Spokane Marian-Eucharistic Conference at Gonzaga University’s Martin Centre. Thirteen speakers will discuss reported sightings of Mary, primarily those at Medjugorje.
The most famous speaker will be Scott O’Grady, the Air Force captain who was rescued from northern Bosnia in 1995 after being shot down by a Serbian missile. He will appear at 10 a.m. Sunday.
O’Grady says he prayed to Mary during his ordeal. “It wasn’t like I saw someone walking in a forest, but when I’d pray to Our Lady of Medjugorje, I could see her,” he told a Catholic magazine.
The conference is sponsored by the Spokane Center for Peace, which organizes trips to Medjugorje twice a year.
In June 1981, six Yugoslavian children reported seeing a vision of Mary floating on a cloud wearing a crown of stars.
Since then, believers say, she has appeared daily to the visionaries, who are now adults, and brought a message for the world on the 25th of each month. Her messages usually ask for peace, greater religious harmony and devotion to God.
On March 25, for example, the message began, “Dear Children: I invite you to decide again to love God above all else.”
These messages are translated and faxed that day around the world.
An estimated 20 million people have visited Medjugorje since the original apparitions, seeking healing, miracles and renewed faith.
“It’s contagious,” said Dick Sprute, who volunteers as administrator of the Center for Peace, which is located in a small office on North Division.
Many visitors to Medjugorje believe they have seen the sun spin, smelled the fragrance of roses traditionally associated with Mary, or noticed their rosaries turn from silver into gold.
Sprute and Sylvia House, a Spokane travel agent, were so affected by the experience that they began organizing non-profit tours.
“There’s hardly anybody who has been to Medjugorje who has not had their life changed,” said Sprute, a retired electrical engineer. He has made 14 trips there.
In June, Sprute and House will fly again to Medjugorje with 32 people to witness the 15th anniversary of the first apparitions. The cost per person is $1,975.
House, the daughter of Yugoslavian immigrants, speaks Croatian and acts as translator. She said she has seen the sun spin in Medjugorje, and watched a mountain cross light up.
The Rev. Arnold Schoffelmeer, a priest who retired from St. Thomas More parish three years ago, has been to Medjugorje seven times. He has never witnessed anything supernatural.
But joining tens of thousands of religious pilgrims and experiencing the simple, devout lives of the villagers has deepened his faith, he said.
He believes that conditions in the world are worsening and that Mary appears to warn people that they must seek God.
“We have to return to prayer, fasting and penance, or God knows where we are going,” Schoffelmeer said.
The Roman Catholic Church has investigated the apparitions, but has made no official ruling on them.
Priests have conflicting opinions about the phenomenon.
“I tend to be somewhat skeptical,” said the Rev. Jim Dallen, chairman of the religious studies department at Gonzaga University, “because it doesn’t have any direct relevance for faith anyway.”
Roman Catholics take their faith from the Bible and traditional church teachings, not from the visions and personal experiences of individuals, Dallen said.
“The risk is that some of these apparitions and visions tend to distract people from the person of Jesus,” he said.
According to Millersmith, his experience in 1987 on the road to Medjugorje, enhanced his faith.
“I didn’t make dramatic changes,” he said. “I go to church just as much as I ever did. It’s more of a feeling. I have a better feeling about myself and my relationship with Christ.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos; map of Medjugorje area