The parishioners at Holy Family Catholic Church in Artesia walked out into the chilly morning darkness to gawk at the puddle on the sidewalk.

Just minutes before, they had witnessed the spectacle that is the mañanitas Mass: plumed Aztec dancers and traditional hymns to celebrate the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico’s beloved patron saint.

Now, they stared at la jefa herself — not in the flesh, but in the concrete. For the faithful at this church, la virgencita herself shone in the stain beneath their feet.

And she has, they believe, for a year now.

It was last December, just after this same Mass, that Holy Family members say Guadalupe first graced this sidewalk. Pilgrims came from across Southern California; reporters filed tongue-in-cheek dispatches….

But the image never faded away.

That was due, in part, to the industry of members of the church. They created a small shrine and even put four traffic pylons around the spot to protect it from heedless pedestrians who just see a stain. Runoff from the rectory’s sprinklers replenishes the Guadalupe-like image every night, tracing its uncanny contours….

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles has historically frowned upon such claims by laypeople. In 2006, its then-spokesperson told The Times, “The church encourages Christians to see the face of Christ in the homeless, the poor, the destitute and the immigrant — not in a plate of pasta.”

But Ernesto Vega, the archdiocese’s coordinator for adult faith formation for the Spanish-speaking, is more understanding. In his hometown of Jiquilpán in the Mexican state of Michoacán, residents built a shrine around a boulder that they said depicts Guadalupe.

As for Holy Family’s revered water stain?

“I can see very well that it’s the shape of Our Lady,” Vega said. “But we cannot say at this moment that it’s an authentic manifestation unless there’s a movement of conversion of sinners or transformation in the community.”

He brought up the concept of pareidolia, the psychological term that describes how humans think they see patterns or images in random places. And he noted that the official Catholic Church process to verify a divine appearance is long and rarely successful; the only approved apparition of the Virgin Mary on U.S. soil happened at what’s now the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wis., and took over 150 years for church officials to verify.

“Time is going to say if it’s authentic,” Vega said. “Some people will get tired,” but if the faith of the believers is “growing and growing and it keeps going, then that’s something else….”

Read the entire Dec. 19 article from the L.A.Times by Gustavo Arellano.