Faith Flows Around Image Of Virgin Mary In Clearwater




Dec 25, 2003 - Reported in the []. Written by David Sommer. Clearwater FL. For seven Christmas seasons, the faithful have been drawn to a former bank building on U.S. 19. But the massive crowds that flocked to see the image of the Virgin Mary upon its discovery in December 1996 have not returned in recent years.

Instead, a small but steady stream of faithful flows to the corner of Drew Street and U.S. 19 to lay flowers, say prayers and light candles in front of the 60-foot image that mimics the shape of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Catholic patroness of the Americas who left her image on the frock of a Mexican peasant in 1531.

"When I come here, it gives me happiness," Gennet Tekelhaimanot said this week as she visited what has become known as "Our Lady of Clearwater." The Ethiopian immigrant credits the image with answering her prayers to help her mother recover from a stroke. "My mom was sick, so I went to pray and I got an answer from God," Tekelhaimanot said. "It is a miracle. God is good."

Tony Cipolla said one visit to the Virgin Mary's image was enough to change his life. En route from Pennsylvania to the Florida Keys, where he planned to retire, Cipolla said he made a detour to Clearwater after hearing about the Madonna image.

Now, Cipolla has retired to Pinellas Park and visits daily to help maintain the hundreds of candles and dozens of flower arrangements that adorn the side of the former bank building. "That was a sign in itself," Cipolla said of his decision to retire here rather than in the Keys. Long Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant, credits the Virgin Mary image with curing illnesses he and his wife, Phuc, suffered.

"This is faith healing, " Nguyen said. "We feel like we are blessed, and we come see her every day. "Clara Yon, who lives in Miami but has relatives in Clearwater, said she makes it a point to visit the image: "very time we are passing through." "This was a parking lot for a bank, but now it's almost a church," Yon said.

Thousands Once Visited

The evolution of the Virgin Mary site has been gradual but dramatic.

Within days of the image's discovery by a bank customer, tens of thousands of people began flocking to the site. Nearby merchants began hawking T-shirts and trinkets, Clearwater police assigned a squad of officers to direct foot and vehicle traffic, and the city formed a Miracle Management Task Force to deal with the crush of unexpected visitors.

When the holiday season ended, police estimated that more than 400,000 people had visited the Virgin Mary image. The city had spent more than $40,000 on police overtime, a temporary signal light on Drew Street, and amenities such as portable toilet rental.

Meanwhile, visitors donated more than $30,000 that was distributed to local charities and All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. Over the years, detractors contend the rainbow-tinted shape that suggests a stylized image of the Virgin Mary was nothing more than a water stain from an irrigation sprinkler that blew out its nozzle and showered the glass-paneled south side of the bank building.

But the Image proved resilient

In 1997, vandals sprayed the image with an acidic liquid, staining it badly and obscuring a large portion of the face and left shoulder. But a month later, a downpour washed away that stain and the image re- emerged.

The following year, the Cincinnati-based Shepherds of Christ Ministries began renting the building, which the bank had vacated. The group, which prays for Catholic priests, bought the property in December 2000, said Rosie Reed, the ministries' site leader.

Also in 1998, work began on a 21-foot-tall, 1 1/2-ton wooden crucifix that now dominates the shrine built around the glass image. Texas artisan Felix Avalos said God told him [See here] to take a giant cedar log to Clearwater and to carve the crucifix. It took Avalos 2 1/2 years to finish his work, which for that period of time stayed hidden behind a blue shroud. It was unveiled in July 2001.

In A Word, 'Cool'

Now, Shepherds of Christ Ministries stages a prayer service at 6:30 p.m. daily, Reed said. A prayer room is set up behind the image in the old bank building, and Reed's group sells religious items, prayer candles and on-the- spot framed photographs of visitors to raise money to pay the mortgage, she said.

On Monday, 12-year-old Chris Toney, vacationing from New York, paid a visit to the Virgin Mary image along with other family members. "I heard all my family members talking about it and saying we should come and see it," Toney said. "It's nice. Really cool."

Key Dates

December 1996: The faithful turned out in droves to see a 60-foot image that mimicked the shape of Our Lady of Guadalupe at a bank building on U.S. 19. 1997: Vandals sprayed the image with an acidic liquid, staining it badly, but the image recovered. 1998: Cincinnati-based Shepherds of Christ Ministries began renting the building, which was empty had been vacated. Also, work began on a 21-foot-tall, 1 1/2- ton wooden crucifix. 2001: Wooden crucifix was unveiled.



[Address] of the financial building in Clearwater is 21649 US #19 North, Clearwater, Florida 33765