By all accounts, it began in April, 1953 near the Puerto Rican town of Sabana Grande when a group of children reported seeing a "beautiful woman" standing next to the spring where they were hoping to get a drink.
Based on the account they gave later, the children all reportedly felt an immediate attraction to the woman though they had no idea who she was (despite repeated sightings, she never gave her name). The same children later reported seeing the woman on several other occasions and, though they weren't entirely consistent in the stories they told about who they saw and what she said to them, it was enough to spark a media firestorm. Despite the fact that the woman had never been seen by an adult, many true believers became convinced that the children had seen a visitation by the Virgin Mary.
To prove the mystery woman's identity, several of the children were shown a series of religious icons representing the Virgin Mary and they were asked to identify who they saw. One of the children, a twelve-year-old girl named Ramonita Belen confidently picked out the icon showing the Lady of Fatima though skeptics objected to the unscientific nature of that particular test. Also, to the disappointment of the believers, the beautiful woman provided no religious message similar to what was reported at other Marian sightings in Portugal and elsewhere.
Given Puerto Rico's predominantly Catholic population, the prospect of their island being blessed with its own Marian visitation generated intense excitement. Unfortunately, that excitement wasn't shared by the local bishop, James Edward McManus. As he pointed out publicly, many of the things that the children describing the beautiful lady as doing, including sitting on a storm drain and riding on a jeep(!) didn't fit the traditional view of the Virgin Mary. He also accused the adults who had interrogated the children of planting ideas that influenced the children's testimony. Though he wasn't prepared to accuse the children of making up the entire thing, he did suggest that what they actually saw was a ghost or a "dead person" rather than the Virgin herself.
Many of the locals actually credited the idea that their town was being haunted by a restless ghost and started looking at recent deaths to determine the best candidate. Since no obvious candidate emerged, the belief that it was actually the Virgin won out eventually. Stories of miracles began to circulate including some pilgrims claiming to be cured of their ailments after drinking from the spring that had become known as the "Virgin's Pond",
Since the children (or the adults who were influencing them) had announced that the beautiful woman would return on May 25 and prove herself with a great miracle, public excitement grew as that date came closer. An altar was built on the site of the first reported visitation and it soon became crowded with all the offerings left by pilgrims. But even as May 25 drew closer, pilgrims were still debating the identity of the mysterious woman though the various peddlers selling religious trinkets showed no doubt that it was the Virgin Mary herself. Certainly the various icons, rosaries, and bottles of holy water on sale (at grossly inflated prices) all had the Lady of Fatima's image.
And, sure enough, the numerous pilgrims who came on May 25 came with the full belief that miracles would occur. It was hardly surprising that many of the pilgrims suffered from assorted ailments that they were hoping the Virgin would cure. Considering the stories about the "Miracle of the Sun" that supposedly happened in Fatima, Portugal on October 13, 1917, expectations were running high that something similar would be happening at Sabana Grande. According to newspaper stories, an estimated 75,000 pilgrims came and police were forced to blocke all traffic within two miles of the town due to the sheer volume of cars trying to get closer. Even a heavy rainfall did nothing to dissuade the pilgrims who refused to budge for hours.
Despite conflicting reports of what actually happened that day, several eyewitness accounts stand out. Not only were journalists from other countries in attendance, but so was Princeton University sociologist Melvin Tumin who was investigating the Sabana Grande phenomenon firsthand. Along with a team of researchers, Tumin conducted numerous interviews of people in the crowd, many of whom either had incurable illnesses themselves or who were hoping to obtain a miraculous cure for family members or friends.
As Tumin later reported, many of the pilgrims reported seeing a "dancing," "moving," or "colored" sun at Sabana Grande that day and similar reports would come out in other parts of Puerto Rico as well. Despite the obvious similarities to the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, many newspapers dismissed the reports. There was also a remarkable sunset on May 27 that was interpreted as a miracle linked to the visitations which, along with reports of miraculous cures, led many believers to insist that the Sabana Grande visions were real. No matter how convinced the believers were that they had witnessed something miraculous, Tumin, his colleagues, and the various journalists present saw nothing remarkable at all.
Part of what fed the religious fervour surrounding the Sabana Grande visions were the many attempts to compare them to what had happened in Fatima decades earlier. Given that Fatima was widely regarded as being a "genuine" miracle, it became the standard which the Sabana Grande visitations were expected to follow. Even newspapers, whether supportive or skeptical, often invoked the memory of Fatima in describing what had happened on May 25 and afterward. Puerto Ricans also took pride in the number of believers who had crowded into Sabana Grande on May 25th (even more than the witnesses at Fatima).
That a big budget Hollywood movie, The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, had come out just months earlier likely helped as well, especially given how popular it was in Puerto Rico. This popularity also led to theatres running other well-known movies featuring Marian appearances, including the Song of Bernadette. which had come out ten years earlier. That many of the details in both these films seemed to play out in the eyewitness accounts of the various Sabana Grande "miracles" was hardly surprising The spring where the beautiful woman had first been seen soon took on a local reputation very similar to that of Lourdes, and a special grotto was built which resembled its French counterpart in many ways.
Another factor that seemed to be driving devotion was the concern people had for Puerto Ricans fighting in the Korean war which was still going on at the time. That the apparition at Fatima had taken place during World War I hardly escaped attention and many people began to believe that what was happening at Sabana Grande was somehow linked to the new war. Many family members shipped water from the Sabana Grande spring to servicemen fighting overseas with the hope that regular prayers to the Virgin of Sabana Grande would keep the service men safe.
Through it all, the Church refused to acknowledge or sanction the informal cult that had sprung up. Instead several chapels commemorating the Lady of Fatima were built nearby and worshipers were encouraged to direct their devotion there rather than at Sabana Grande. But the religious fervour encouraged many enthusiastic pilgrims to describe their own Marian visions, including the various "messages" she supposedly conveyed. Rumours also sprang up that the Virgin had provided the original children with a series of written messages inscribed on seven scrolls (much like at Fatima). Though some of the (largely generic) messages were made public, the rumours also insisted that some messages remained hidden for some future occasion (again, like at Fatima).
Interestingly enough, the squabble between skeptics and true believers over what had happened at Sabana Grande was largely split along social class lines. Journalists certainly noted that poor rural Puerto Ricans tended to be overrepresented among the pilgrims while the skeptics themselves tended to be more well-educated and better off economically. Some of the more cynical journalists also noted that many politicians, no doubt hoping to gain popular support, began pushing for full public recognition of the visions. That what was happening gained them international recognition, something that was pretty rare for rural Puerto Rico, probably helped the process along.
Eventually though, the fervor died down and the international press turned its attention elsewhere. Though some of the seers continued to report receiving messages from the Virgin Mary long after 1953, new Marian reports from other parts of the world meant that Sabana Grande was quickly forgotten. Still, while what happened in Sabana Grande in 1953 doesn't seem to have made much of a theological impact, it continues to be a graphic demonstration of the power of belief and the role that suggestibility seems to play in shaping those beliefs.