Eden or evil?

SAN ISIDRO DE GRECIA, Costa Rica On the edge of a lush coffee plantation, San Antonio Catholics with careers ranging from law to biochemistry invest their faith in a shaggy, black-haired prophet who never made it past third grade.

Drawn to this hilly compound by the belief that Juan Pablo Delgado is God’s messenger, the pilgrims reject three bishops’ warnings not to be tricked by the enigmatic 24-year-old, who shares with them daily messages from a Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary only he hears and sees.

They follow what they feel in their hearts and sniff from Delgado’s socks which they smell in praise for the sweet scent that’s said to come from wounds on his feet similar to those of the crucified Christ.

And they laugh at outsiders who compare them to doomsday cultists like Jim Jones’ People’s Temple followers, who committed mass suicide in Guyana in 1978, or David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, who perished in an inferno ending a federal siege of their compound near Waco in 1993.

“We are engineers, lawyers, doctors we are not crazy people,” said Guadalupe Nypaver, 64, of San Antonio.

But leaders of the Catholic Church, who admit to having laymen spies, paint a far different picture of this Eden in Central America.

Delgado’s spiritual adviser is Father Alfredo Prado, 73, who recently was dismissed from his Oblate order and accused of sexually molesting two San Antonio teenagers more than 30 years ago, when he served at St. Timothy’s Catholic Church.

The legally blind Prado, who denies any wrongdoing and defies the church by continuing to celebrate Mass and hear confession, never has been charged with a crime and says he’s being unfairly attacked.

But his link to Delgado has deepened suspicion of the younger man.

Church leaders contend what happens at Delgado’s compound is tragic, if not sinister. They believe Delgado cuts himself to make the Christlike wounds, and they’re skeptical of the messages, from the purely devotional to the grimly apocalyptic, that Delgado delivers on his knees, into a microphone, before a rapt audience.

And the local archdiocese thinks Delgado, whom some believe could be schizophrenic, is making money by deceiving people.

“It is very, very dangerous because he is manipulating the people with fear by saying the Virgin says the world is going to end and you have to be here or you won’t be saved,” said Father Sixto Varela, an administrator for the Costa Rican diocese of Alajuela.

Father Glen Gmez, a spokesman for the Catholic bishops’ conference of Costa Rica, claims he recently was beaten by young men claiming to be “children of the Virgin Mary” after he spoke out against Delgado.

On the advice of two Costa Rican bishops, Archbishop Patrick Flores of San Antonio took the unusual step of warning his flock not to visit.

“I caution everyone in San Antonio not to get involved,” Flores wrote in a column published in Today’s Catholic in November. “I recommend this for your own good and the good of the universal church.”

Prado said he believes debate will continue over Delgado, but the compound will grow to 100 times its current size and draw thousands.

“It is difficult to explain to a nonbeliever because you know the saying: for the nonbeliever no explanation will suffice,” he said. “For the believer, no explanation is needed.”

Warnings of destruction

Church officials keep records on everything from the names of Delgado’s dogs, Kadosh and Petrus, to photographs and government identification numbers of several followers.

Delgado, who canceled an interview for this article that was said to have been approved by the Virgin during a midnight session, hasn’t had a traditional job in years and he’s young enough to be a grandchild to many of the pilgrims. But that doesn’t stop his followers from looking to him for answers on how to live and kissing his feet.

Nypaver and other pilgrims form a core group of about a dozen Alamo City Catholics who learned of Delgado through friends, family, church and Bible study.

They come, sometimes monthly, to be in a place with an incredible view, a blessed stream, a guesthouse, wooden chapel, and plantings of sugarcane, coffee and banana.

The compound’s life-size mannequins of Christ and the Virgin are dressed in crowns and regularly changing elaborate outfits designed by Delgado and made by a dressmaker follower.

“We haven’t given up on the world, but at the same time we don’t need to prove anything to the world,” said Alicia Trevio, 56, who owns a San Antonio day-care center and was here on her 19th trip.

Followers said they spend their days praying, discussing faith and waiting for messages. For them, this is paradise.

“I cannot imagine the Garden of Eden was any more beautiful,” said Kathy Gruber, 60, a retired clinical biochemist from San Antonio.

Delgado’s followers don’t have death wishes, they say. And that recent bulldozing some thought was for bunkers? That actually was part of expansion, which is funded largely by Texas donations and includes another two-story guesthouse.

For Nypaver, Gruber and the others here, this is a mystical world where nothing happens by chance. Whether finding a pair of glasses lost in a stream, managing the stress of daily life or seeing a child survive risky surgery, it all is the will of God.

They don’t easily trust outsiders, who they believe spread lies about their paradise and secretly monitor and photograph them for church officials challenging their claim to a reserved seat to heaven.

Delgado’s followers believe he is on the same road to sainthood taken by others once plagued by doubters. Through history, reports of the Virgin’s appearing to people have been numerous and worldwide.

Such people have power regardless of the truth of their claims, said Martha G. Newman, director of religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

“He or she becomes an actor in a drama that lifts him or her out of the everyday and offers a special position as an intermediary to the divine,” she said. “They provide (believers) … with a strong sense of community, a strong sense of a connection with their God, and often a sense of consolation, instruction or confirmation of faith.”

Some nearby residents said they avoid Delgado and his followers.

“Nobody gets involved with them and they don’t get involved with anybody,” said Andrea Alfaro Rojas, 25. “They are nice enough people, but we don’t share their beliefs.”

Words of the Virgin

Followers watched carefully on a recent evening as Delgado, wearing a black robe, went to his knees and stared at a spot 8 feet up the chapel’s wall.

Clutching a microphone near his moustache and small goatee, Delgado spoke what his believers consider to be the words of the Virgin.

A teenage assistant, studying to be a priest, rang a bell to alert the area to the incoming messages.

“I tell you that I am the always virgin holy Mary, mother of the only and living God,” he said in a soft, high-pitched voice in Spanish. “All my children, I, your mother, receive all your prayers. I intercede for all your needs.”

Most of the 83 onlookers, many of them from Mexico, knelt. The elderly sat. Children lie on the floor.

Some wrote down the words and recorded his voice. Others cried. Delgado’s voice has a higher pitch when communicating messages from the Virgin and a lower one when reciting those of Christ or St. Michael.

Delgado has had thousands of such visions, which started four years ago.

The messages deal with love, fire, brimstone and on occasion, practical matters. During one vision, he told a couple who own the compound site that they and their two children should give him their house and build a new one. They did.

There have been warnings to avoid the tumult that will come with the “destruction of the greater part of the world,” descriptions of the earth shaking and seas rising in a vapor, even a prediction the pope will be assassinated by priests.

One message stated that when the world ends, only those in the compound will be saved. Last May, Delgado quoted the Virgin saying, “My warning has again been rejected, the punishment has arrived. This war will be worse than any other.”

Delgado’s visions, some of which are transcribed and posted in English on the group’s Web site, come most nights after 6 p.m.

But once they came at 4 a.m., to accommodate pilgrims leaving on a morning flight.

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