When an image of the Virgin Mary appeared on one of their pizza pans on Ash Wednesday the dinner ladies at Pugh Elementary School in Houston knew that it had to be more than just the cheese and pepperoni talking. This had to be a message from God.

Guadalupe Rodriguez, 59, who had scrubbed at the greasy stain to no avail, hastened to the head teacher for a second opinion. Indeed, the principal confirmed, the school kitchens seemed to have been singled out for divine intervention.

Within hours the apparition had become the talk of Houston and the pan a focus for pilgrims. One woman arrived at dawn the next day to seek healing for her disabled grandson; another prayed for God's blessing on her eight-year-old's forthcoming hospital operation. Throughout the weekend worshippers flocked to the home where the pan is now on display to pay their respects. "I see an image of the Blessed Mother. It's a sign that something is going to happen," one visitor, Vincent Santiago, said.

This is not the first time that the Virgin Mary's face has appeared in unlikely places. Previous examples of simulacra - religious images appearing on inanimate objects - include a grilled cheese sandwich bearing the outline of the Madonna, which fetched $28,000 (ยฃ14,250) on the internet for its Florida owner in 2004. In 2005 hundreds of visitors left flowers, candles and rosaries in a Chicago underpass after salt residue created a stain resembling the Virgin Mary.

The so-called miracle of Pugh Elementary unfolded as Mrs Rodriguez scoured the pans that had been used to cook the pupils' lunch of pizza, chicken nuggets and cookies. "On the third rinse I started watching it, trying to discover what it was," she said. "It showed to me like it is the Virgin Mary."

Anel Villareal, a pupil, recalled the excitement around the school. "They said, 'The Virgin is in the cafeteria,' and I ran over there to see and, my God, it was the Virgin. I cried when I see her with my own eyes."

The hallowed item has been put on show outside the home of a member of the parent teacher association. But others, including Mrs Rodriguez, say that they want a slice of the action - prompting talks over who should have custody.

Ultimately, interest in the pan might end up being about more than just religious belief. But Mrs Rodriguez, who has been told she can take ownership from today, said: "It's all about faith."