This incident happened many years ago, when I lived in Minnesota, but I remember it pretty clearly. I was with a dear friend of mine, a friend who was going to join a Catholic seminary that fall. I was going off to the university, and for reasons I don't care to go into, was trying to avoid being home as much as I could.
This friend of mine liked to visit a church near his home. This was in a rural area of Minnesota, and the church was often unlocked. Even if it had been locked, he was known to the priest, and the priest would open it for him so he could go inside to pray. I'd usually just sit and read a book. I was just as happy to be out of the house, and this church - really more of a small chapel - always felt welcoming.
My friend's family had lived very near to the church, on a family farm, for at least four generations. His great-grandfather was buried in the little cemetery off to the side.
Picture the most idyllic "local boy wants to be a priest, goes to chapel and prays a lot" type of scenario, and you'll get the idea.
The church itself is small (I just checked, it's still there), and can hold maybe one hundred people, tops. It's been there for a good long while - some of the people buried in the cemetery must have been settlers of the area.
At the time, the pews were arranged in two long rows, with a wide aisle down the middle and narrower ones on the sides. There was a little bit of religious art here and there on the walls. Up towards the front, there were two niches in the walls, one on either side of the aisle. They were fairly big - I think they were made for larger statues than were placed there.
One side had a statue of Mary holding baby Jesus. The other held a much smaller statue of another saint (perhaps the one the church was named for). My friend liked to pray near the statue of Mary and Jesus. He'd really get into it, too, eyes closed, praying out loud. Again, I was fine with that. I didn't do anything disrespectful while there, just read. Let's say I was sort of claiming sanctuary.
One afternoon we were there, and I had forgotten my book. That had happened before. Sometimes I'd walk around the cemetery outside, or just look at the art. This time I just sat at the other side of the aisle, looking at the art above the altar and the little statue in the niche... I daydreamed a while, wondering what had been in that second niche before the all-too-small statue had taken its place. I didn't notice it at the time, but the background noise faded. I looked up at the niche.
Instead of the little statue, I saw a statue of the angel Gabriel, complete with spread wings and a sword. Nicely carved, same style as the one of Mary and Jesus. (And it was just a statue, not a real angel)... I was surprised, and stood up to examine it. I looked at it for a very short time - maybe ten seconds - then the sheer weirdness of it overcame me and I turned around.
Instead of seeing the empty pews, I saw a slightly different configuration of pews, *and people sitting in them!* they were mostly transparent, and the color was quite washed out, but I could make out an adult woman in the front row, with a hat and fluffy hair under. She was wearing a dress with puffy upper sleeves. There was an old woman next to her, and I think she had a veil or scarf over her hair. There were a couple of children on the other side of the adult woman, but they weren't as distinct.
I only saw them for a second or two, long enough to see the adult woman's look of surprise, and then I fled down the side aisle and out the door. As I fled, I began to hear the background noise of my friend's praying again. I hadn't heard it at all while all this was going on. I sat on the steps and waited for my friend to finish.
It wasn't too long. I suppose I might have yipped in surprise as I left, or my pounding feet made a racket, and broke his reverie.
Of course, since he'd been praying with his eyes closed the whole time, he'd seen nothing. At his suggestion, I sketched out the statue and the way the pews were set up. I was going off to study art, so my sketch was a fairly good representation. He showed the sketch to his grandmother, who lived just down the road.
She said the statue had been there for a while, and the pews had been set up like that, but it had been more than fifty years ago...