This is another installment of “Into the Archives,” a series that looks back on stories from the Belleville News-Democrat archives.
On the 13th of every month, a small group gathers at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville to pray. They are the remnants of a group who prayed with Ray Doiron, the Southern Illinois man who said he saw an apparition of the Blessed Mother and heard her voice.
In 1994, the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows experienced an influx of thousands of pilgrims and believers from all over the country. They came to practice devotion to the Virgin Mary with Doiron.
News reports said the Virgin Mary stopped appearing to Doiron in October 1994. However, a published collection of the messages Doiron said he received are dated as early as Feb. 11, 1993, and as late as Dec. 10, 2003.
Throughout history, believers have reported seeing the Virgin Mary hundreds of times, but only a handful of these sightings have been approved by the Catholic Church. Doiron’s visions have not been investigated for approval or disapproval by the Church. That does not prevent them from being investigated in the future.
The Catholic Church has recognized some apparitions of the Virgin Mary. These include sightings in 1531 Guadalupe, Mexico; 1830 Paris, France; 1846 La Salette, France; 1858 Lourdes, France; 1917 Fatima, Portugal; 1932 to 1933 Beauraing, Belgium; and 1933 Banneux, Belgium.
Unexplained events have sometimes taken place during these apparitions, including springs of water appearing, the sun seeming to move and dance, and spontaneous healings.
More recently, a bronze statue of the Virgin Mary in Hobbs, New Mexico, appeared to be weeping in July 2018. Bishop Oscar Cantu of the Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces told the Las Cruces Sun News that they had determined the substance was olive oil. He said some witnesses had reported it smelled of roses.
Doiron, a retired Bunny Bread truck driver from Renault, said he saw and received messages from the Virgin Mary at various times and places throughout his life, including while lying on his couch at home and at the Shrine in Belleville. The messages, which Doiron shared, encouraged the faithful to pray and “return to Christian basics,” according to news stories printed by the Belleville News-Democrat at the time.
Originally, Doiron prayed in the Lourdes Grotto area of the shrine with a few hundred others. But after the visions were shared with the community through news stories, a few thousand believers came, and shrine officials moved the group to the amphitheater.
People said they came to pray for healing for themselves or their families. The crowd was so large, an ambulance remained parked outside in case of emergencies.
Some of the faithful said their rosaries turned gold, displayed pictures in which light in the shape of a figure seemed to be descending from the sky, and smelled the scent of roses during prayers.
Doiron died on Oct. 27, 2015. The lid on his vault had a picture of Doiron with his first wife, June, who died in 1995; his second wife, Claradel; and the Virgin Mary.
Doiron’s wife believed his visions
In a recent interview with the Belleville News-Democrat, Claradel Donjon, who was Doiron’s second wife, said she believed Doiron’s visions were true before she met him. Donjon choose to keep her last name after they were married.
“I heard it on TV and read it in the paper — I believed,” Donjon said. “Some people think this isn’t possible and don’t believe it.”
Donjon witnessed some of the miracles reported by the faithful at the Belleville shrine during Ray’s devotions. “There were times when I did smell the roses,” she said.
“Sometimes, this is before I started going, they said there was gold dust that would fall on people,” Donjon said. “The rosaries were turning to gold, the chain and the crucifix. It was not the beads. You wouldn’t have a completely gold rosary.”
She said Doiron had health problems ever since his spinal cord was almost severed during an accident on the job as a bread truck driver, but he was healed after a pilgrimage.
“He was reaching in the truck to get something,” Donjon said. “The spring on his overhead door had broken and it came down and hit him on the back. The pin that goes down into the bottom of the floor to hold the door shut hit his spine.”
Doctors told Doiron he would never walk again. “He came out of that and walked with a cane until he went to Medjugorje back in 2000 or 2001,” Donjon said.
She said Doiron was told by the Virgin Mary to go to Medjugorje, a town in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where six children reported seeing Mary in June 1981. It has since become a popular location for Catholic pilgrimages, though it has not been officially recognized by the Catholic Church.
“The pain he would carry until his death, but he could walk without a cane after Medjugorje,” Donjon said. “He explained to me later on that she (Mary) had told him to go.”
“Why did he not get cured in Belleville?” Donjon said. “I don’t know, only the Blessed Mother knows.”
Donjon said the main message Ray received from the Virgin Mary was, “Pray, pray, pray.”
“The rosary is the most powerful weapon we have,” Donjon said. “It is more powerful than even a bomb.”
According to Donjon, a group still meets to pray on the 13th of every month at the shrine in Belleville.
“The group has really gone down a lot. A lot of people have died,” Donjon said. “We have all gotten older. Some don’t drive; some are in the nursing home. The younger people have their job.”
“They used to take off a special day to come and see Ray. Now that he has passed away, they no longer come,” Donjon said. “But those who remain true to the Blessed Mother still come to pray.”
‘I just wish all of you could see her as I do’
Jan Epplin of Pinckneyville came to pray with Doiron at the Lourdes Grotto and later with the crowds at the shrine amphitheater.
In a recent interview, Epplin said she personally smelled the scent of roses and saw small, intense blinking lights of different colors during devotions with Doiron.
Epplin said, “The moment our Blessed Mother would come, Ray’s eyes would go straight up.” When the visitation ended, Epplin said, his head would drop.
She shared nearly a dozen Polaroid photos of the skies above the devotions to the Virgin Mary at the shrine.
“He (Doiron) would call her ‘my little lady,’” Epplin recalled. She remembered Doiron describing his visions as “so beautiful.”
“Ray would say, ‘I just wish all of you could see her as I do,’” Epplin said.
In his own words
Though Doiron has died, he answered many of the questions that people may have had about his visions in his book, “Messages from our Heavenly Mother to Her Children.”
What was it like when Doiron saw the Virgin Mary?
Doiron wrote: “When Our Lady appears to me, She usually comes on the Visitation of the Rosary. There is a little wind, and when it stops, there is a bright light. With that, Our Lady’s image comes forth. I feel a warm and peaceful feeling all over.”
What did she look like?
“She is the most beautiful Lady I have or ever will see. She is young and very regal. The light seems to glow from Her and in Her. Her whole body appears to be an eternal light, and this light appears to radiate from all around Her.”
“Her face, gown and everything about Her is dazzling as if made of the purest, finest diamonds with elegance, and everything around Her sparkles. Her hair is very dark brown, and Her eyes are a very dark blue.”
Was she always wearing the same thing?
Mary’s clothing changed according to major Church festivals going on near the time she appeared.
Doiron wrote, “She was in all white with a blue waistband, Our Lady of Lourdes. She was all white, Our Lady of Fatima. She was dressed as Our Lady of Guadalupe,” wrote Doiron. “She was in all white with a crown of 12 stars around Her head and the moon beneath Her feet. She was dressed in a white veil and a gray gown, Our Lady of Medjugorje.”
Doiron said she appeared differently “to show you that I am the same person in all the apparitions over the centuries.”
He didn’t always see an apparition of the Blessed Mother — sometimes Doiron only heard her voice. What did she sound like?
“Her voice is soft and sweet, but with discipline. I’d know this voice anywhere. She is very young, but talks to me as if I were Her child.”
Why did she always appear on the 13th of the month?
“Our Lady said that She wished that the 13th of each month would be celebrated as a Marian day of rosary and prayer,” Doiron wrote.
Why did she appear at Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville?
“I (Mary) did so because this is a National Shrine, honoring me and my name. I have chosen and consecrated this place with special graces that my name be here forever. My eyes and my heart also shall be here always.”
When asked for comment for this article, the Most Rev. Edward Braxton, bishop of Belleville, declined. Pope Francis could not be reached for comment.
Monsignor John Myler of the Cathedral of St. Peter in Belleville had no comment on Doiron’s personal and private spirituality, but Myler met and knew Doiron personally.
“He was a fine man, a very humble man, deeply spiritual man,” Myler said. “He was not doing any of this for publicity or anything like that.”
A history of Marian apparitions
“The Miracle Hunter” Michael O’Neill is a miracle researcher and creator of the Marian apparition tracking website, MiracleHunter.com
He is also host of the “The Miracle Hunter” on Relevant Radio and host of EWTN’s “They Might Be Saints” about canonization miracles.
In an email to the Belleville News-Democrat, O’Neill said, “In a Marian apparition, the Virgin Mary is said to make a bodily appearance — not just in a visit in a dream or imagination — to one or more people at a specific location with messages intended for that person, the local community or the entire world.”
“Traditionally most visionaries have been children or people in religious communities in predominantly Christian countries but that pattern has changed a bit in the past century,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill explained how Church investigations are completed into Marian apparitions: “The Catholic Church follows the steps outlined in a 1978 Vatican document “Norms Regarding the Manner of Proceeding in the Discernment of Presumed Apparitions or Revelations.”
“It states that a local bishop would start an investigation into an alleged event and it would escalate up to the country’s conference of bishops and then to the Vatican if necessary,” O’Neill said. “They examine the history, documents and facts of the case (and science where applicable) and interview the alleged visionaries to make sure that there are no red flags like an attempt at money-making, seeking of fame, or psychological disorders.”
“The messages are examined to make sure they do not contradict Catholic teaching. If all these are in place and there is a high moral probability of a miracle having occurred, the local bishop may issue a statement that establishes the apparition as worthy of belief in the supernatural character of the event,” O’Neill said. “The Vatican will not get involved to make an approval, but in extremely rare cases may intervene to overturn a decision or show additional positive recognition from the Church ... with such signs as the visit of a Pope, establishing a feast day, building a basilica, or canonizing the visionary.”
Some of the phenomena reported during Doiron’s devotions have been observed in other Marian apparitions.
“There have been over 2,500 Marian apparitions claimed in Christian history, and the phenomena that allegedly occurs with them varies from case to case. It is quite common, however, that in addition to the visions of Mary allegedly experienced by the seers, that the faithful gathering at these locations may claim to smell roses, witness solar phenomena, see their rosaries turning to gold, showers of rose petals or the appearance of escarchas (gold dust),” O’Neill said.
“While the veracity of such reports can be difficult to establish, they are typical claims made at Marian apparition sites,” O’Neill said.
What is the importance of the Virgin Mary?
“What Catholics have in relationship to Mary is devotion. That’s the key word,” Myler, of the Cathedral of St. Peter, said. “Not worship, not adoration. Those are reserved for God.”
“Sometimes, old newspaper articles will talk about Catholics worshiping or adoring Mary, but that’s not really what we do. Catholic people have devotion to the saints,” Myler said. “There are hundreds of saints or angels. I think a key phrase for me has been that Mary is the first after Christ and closest to us.”
“Mary is not God. She is not the Lord. She is not a member of the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) but she is closest to us, a human being redeemed by Jesus Christ and close to him, as close as a mother and close to us, as a mother,” Myler said. “All around the Catholic world, there is devotion to Mary the Mother of Jesus.”
He described devotions to the Virgin Mary including trust and a love “like one has for one’s mother.”
“Some devotion to Mary and, perhaps one of the most popular, is a devotion to Mary as the Mother of Perpetual Help. It is almost worldwide,” Myler said.
“The bottom line is there is only one Mary the Mother of Jesus. But devotion to her can take many different forms depending on the time, place, the need and the prayers of the people,” Myler said.
“This appearance that Mr. Doiron said was occurring did bring lots of people from all around. Nothing compared to the millions of people that go to Fatima or Lourdes, but it was a small, little thing occurring here,” Myler said.
“No approval or disapproval of what Mr. Doiron said he saw has ever officially been given,” Myler said, “But it has caused people to pray. And it still does. And that’s a good thing.”