Discovering the Apparitions of Garabandal

A secret lay in the tiny village of Garabandal, like a whisper that moves unheard through the high mountain breezes of northern Spain. It is as significant a secret as one ever kept. And like most secrets, few even know it.

A Mount Rushmore of saints — Padre Pio, Teresa of Calcutta and John Paul II — each knew the secret, but they kept it mostly hidden, choosing instead to fold it up and tuck it away close to their hearts where they could pray, meditate and mourn over it. Pio and Teresa believed it to be true, but they couldn’t speak of it; any commentary would have drawn rebuke. John Paul seemed to indicate his belief in the secret as well.

Garabandal’s Secret      

If you want to know the secret, you might type “Garabandal” into a search engine. But mysteries solved on computer screens unfold with hollowness, like the lonesome soldier in Kandahar who Skype-eavesdrops on his children unwrapping at the crack of Christmas dawn. As with anything worth absorbing, Garabandal’s mystery is best understood; best appreciated in person. 

But I’ll save you the hassle. Since it’s unlikely you’ll be taking off for the Cantabrian mountains soon, I’ll share what my wife, Krista, and I discovered on a recent trip to Spain to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary — when we found ourselves, unsuspectingly, in the tranquil farming village carved into a green rock-strewn mountainside. We had no intention to visit Garabandal; we seemed pulled there. 

An old road in Garabandal, La Calleja, where the initial apparitions took place. Circa 1961 / Garabandal Archives (CC BY 2.0)

Our drive to the interior landscape of Spain proved providential; we felt ourselves finally easing into the vacation while looking out our car windows. Mountains seemed to scrape the sky, casting shadows on the country folks tending to their fields and livestock. Many thousands of sheep looked indestructible in the shifting shadows of the sun and clouds as they grazed within what seemed the upper reaches of the world. We eased past Spaniards who rode bicycles that looked to be assembled during Franco’s reign. 

Santillana del Mar to Garabandal 

We ended up pulling over at the stone-and timber-built town of Santillana del Mar, considered by guide books to be Spain’s most prized medieval village. The Church of Saint Juliana, a former Benedictine monastery that seemed to throw back its shoulders as a proud Spanish artifact of Romanesque architecture, was footsteps from the restaurant where we sat down for lunch. Saint Juliana’s doors were locked, though. 

I pulled out a map of the Cantabrian region while chewing on a wild boar appetizer. 

And I saw that word – that town. Garabandal (you’ll pronounce it correctly if you let it roll off your tongue with silent vowels). Its name surfaced periodically in research for a book I had just finished writing; a plea for heroic Catholic priests — for true Fathers — and a rejection of the modern ones who were causing their flock to vanish. I had no earthly idea where Garabandal was until I saw it on the map I held in my hands. 

I asked Krista to plug it into her cell GPS. G-A-R-A-B-A … It came up 79 km away. 

Getting to Garabandal by car is a bullfight. For starters, it’s nowhere near Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia or any other city or town, really. It’s in proximity to the urban center of Bilbao, but no one goes to Spain for Bilbao. If you do end up making it to Garabandal, there is a final hurdle to overcome — the fierce Pena Sagra mountain range. It rises abruptly into the sky — with a single narrow and wild road that cuts through it like an eel. If your speedometer exceeds 10 mph on the four-mile drive up the mountain, you may become ill. If you’ve just eaten boar and anchovies, it is all but assured. 

The poor little Fiat we had rented finally pushed up and into the village, where I parked on the side of the mountain beside a still-existing phone booth. I didn’t check to see if the phone functioned, but considered using it because my cell phone had been stolen three nights earlier by a gypsy in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. 

Pilgrims in Garabandal , c. 1961 / Garabandal Archives (CC BY 2.0)

We walked up a narrow lane and into an inn that rested like an old black-and-white postcard of tranquility in the heart of the small town square, twenty-five footsteps from the town’s parish church, St. Sebastian. We discovered that our inn was the town’s gathering spot. Carmen, its happy-faced proprietor, offered three home-cooked Cantabrian-style meals a day at staggeringly low prices. 

Meeting Maria

After dropping our bags, we found an outdoor bench that overlooked the square. We learned that few folks spoke English. One woman, Maria from Madrid, did. 

It was when she sat beside us that the mystery of Garabandal began to slowly release, like an incense charcoal meeting a struck match. It was an hour before dusk. Shortly after Maria joined us, a stoop-backed woman — who looked no younger than Moses — was shuffling up a narrow lane, periodically ringing a bell. We looked at Maria quizzically as the woman passed by us, fully occupied by her slow-motion task. 

“She is reminding everyone to pray for the dead,” Maria said. “It is the tradition of this town.” Maria explained that the bell ringing had been passed on for the last few hundreds of years to remind people of their eternal soul. “She’ll walk past each house,” Maria said.

Shortly after the bell ringer turned a corner, St. Sebastian’s bells began a sustained peel. There seemed no reason for it.

“It’s our reminder to pray the rosary,” Maria told us beneath a deepening sky. “Would you like to join us?” Within a few minutes, Krista and I watched Garabandal seem to awaken from the dead, like Lazarus’s town of Bethany. The tight lanes began to fill with spirited farmers, shepherds and visitors holding rosaries, strolling toward their rustic field-stone-built parish church that had a single door swung open. 

We walked behind Maria and took a pew beside her, next to a crucifix that Our Blessed Mother is said to have kissed in 1961. Unlike the near-empty Buen Pastor Cathedral at San Sebastian at Sunday morning Mass, or the locked St. Juliana Church in Santillana del Mar, this little church, within minutes, filled with fifty or so villagers filtering into their dark, candlelit church to kneel for the Holy Rosary. I looked over at Maria and saw that she had covered her blonde hair with a bright scarlet veil. Each of the other women wore black and white veils. Maria stood out like a brilliant cardinal perched on a blanket of snow.

Later, over a lively dinner at the inn with a few new friends, I asked Maria, “Why red?”

“Because it’s the color of blood,” she said. 

Church of St. Sebastian, Garabandal / Lourdes Cardenal [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Apparitions at Garabandal

Thereafter, while drinking coffee, Maria spoke plainly of the Garabandal apparitions – and of the St. Benedict medals that are affixed to the leather cords of the livestock’s tinkling cowbells in the grassy meadows here. I knew what the St. Benedict sacramental stipulated; I straightened in my chair. 

Maria told us that damned souls came to the consciousness of the village in 1965. Pio, Teresa and John Paul’s ears pricked thereafter. When the Beatles were hitting their stride, Mary warned four young schoolgirls on June 18 that many “many cardinals, many bishops, and many priests are on the road to perdition and taking many souls with them.” 

The Church had been corrupted by rotten shepherds, who were dragging millions of souls to hell with them, Maria told us that Our Lady said.

Our Blessed Mother had already turned the village upside-down on a blazing-hot summer day four years earlier. On June 18, 1961, the tender-aged girls – Mari Loli Mazón, Jacinta Gonzalez, Mari Cruz Gonzalez and Conchita Gonzalez – were stopped on a rocky lane (la calleja they call it here) where they each reported that they saw an angel with large rose-colored wings. He appeared as a young boy wearing a long blue tunic. “[His tunic] seemed a piece of the sky,” Conchita said. The angel appeared two weeks later, where the girls claimed he introduced himself as St. Michael the Archangel.

“[Tomorrow] the Blessed Mother will appear to you,” the angel reportedly said. “As Our Lady of Mount Carmel.”

The news spread rapidly to the 65 or so stone-built village hamlets. Within twenty-four hours, most of the entire town gathered on the steep incline of la calleja. It was the Feast of the Visitation; the timing not likely lost on the devout townsfolk. At around six in the evening, the girls fell to their knees onto the rocks. Within a brilliant light that only the girls could see stood a beautiful woman carrying an infant, they claimed. Two angels seemed to stand sentinel on each side. They recognized her as the Blessed Mother holding Jesus.

“We said the rosary while looking at her. She recited it with us in order to show us how to say it well,” Conchita said.

This is Conchita’s description of the apparition. “The Blessed Virgin appeared with a white dress, a blue mantle and a crown of small golden stars; her feet are not visible. Her hands are wide open with the scapular on the right wrist. The scapular is brown. Her hair is long. Dark brown and wavy … Her voice is very lovely, a very unusual voice that I can’t describe. There is no woman that resembles [her].”

Thereafter, preternatural phenomena was both filmed and photographed in Garabandal, including a photo of the Eucharistic host appearing out of thin air and being placed on Conchita’s tongue. (You can view photos online). 

Second Fatima?

Due to Mary’s pleas for conversion, warnings of hell and emphasis on reverence for the Eucharist and recitation of the rosary, Garabandal is referred to in Spain as the “Second Fatima.”

Dissimilar to Fatima, though, lay the secret. Christ’s mother identified Catholic clergy as the source of damned souls — which I imagine might be the reason some readers are hearing the secret revealed for the first time. Today, the town remains a popular place of pilgrimage, but Catholics have been reminded by the Holy See that the Garabandal apparitions are in no way approved.

Three of the greatest saints of the twentieth century testify to the validity of the apparitions. They believed the Church’s skeleton in the cupboard to be true. 

San Sebastian de Garabandal
Mountain chapel dedicated to St. Michael, near an apparition site in
San Sebastian de Garabandal / Vanbasten 23 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The Church today contends the alleged voice of Mary — and her verdict on many bishops and priests and laity — is not to be trusted.

It came to my attention this morning by a priest friend, over my cup of coffee, that Fr. Peter Daly, a retired priest from my diocese of Washington D.C., is offering an October retreat for “Gay Priests, Bishops, Brothers and Deacons.” I’m not sure what to make of this type of spiritual get-away — a pervasive haze surrounds the Church today like an invisible gas.   

Pew Research polls the past few years have repeatedly shown plummeting numbers of Catholics, who pour from the Church in greater numbers than any other denomination. Perhaps even more tragic, due to its corruption, very few want to join the besieged Roman Catholic Church today. Too many see Her as having succumbed to evil. 

Now that I’m back from Spain, I regard events such as Fr. Daly’s October retreat with a new set of eyes. I am just now thinking of the Church-rejected message of Garabandal, proclaimed by the Blessed Mother in arguably the most Catholic town in the world. I see things, for the first time, in a different way. Perhaps the haze pushed me here. 

For instance — who do I believe — Pio, Teresa, and even John Paul?

Or the Church?

Who is the Church? — is it this small triumvirate of saints? Is it the workaday Catholics who arise each day striving to live as Christ?

Or is it merely the Holy See?

featured image: Angel Garcia Jaime /

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Kevin Wells is a former Major League Baseball writer, Catholic speaker, and author of Priest and Beggar: The Heroic Life of Venerable Aloysius Schwartz (Ignatius Press). His best-selling book The Priests We Need to Save the Church was published by Sophia Institute Press in 2019.

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