National News

People Still Pray at Florida Site Where Many Believe Marian Image is Displayed

People peer out at a rainbow-like image, described as a likeness of the Virgin Mary, on the glass windows of a building in Clearwater, Fla., on Dec. 18, 1996. (CNS Photo)

WASHINGTON — It’s been almost 30 years since a rainbow-hued image on the windows of a Clearwater, Florida, office building drew huge crowds for what many saw as a likeness to an outline of the Virgin Mary. 

Spotted in late December 1996 and covered by a local TV station, the image was described first as a Christmas miracle and then fondly as Our Lady of Clearwater. 

Crowds came in droves. They prayed, lit candles, and left flowers. Within months, more than 500,000 visitors came to see the image. The city had to install portable restrooms and sidewalks, and a team of local police officers, dubbed “Miracle Management,” was assigned to help with traffic control. 

Explanations of the image — at least 50 feet high and more than 20 feet wide — ranged from glass distortion, chemicals in the glass, corrosion of a glass coating, or a stain caused by the building’s water sprinkler, but believers didn’t buy that and instead described the image as a spiritual sign. 

At the time, a spokesman for the St. Petersburg Diocese told The Tampa Bay Times: “People should exercise a great deal of heavy skepticism” about the image. The diocese also described the image as a “naturally explained phenomenon.” 

There has been no formal investigation by the Catholic Church of apparitional claims with this image. 

Five months after it initially made headlines, the image was temporarily defaced by liquids that had been flung at it that cleared a month later after a few big thunderstorms. 

Gradually, crowds began waning, and then they did even more so in 2004 after an 18-year-old shattered the top window with a slingshot and ball bearings, breaking the panels that had appeared to be Mary’s head. The panes were restored, but the top of the image was no longer there. 

A few years after the image was first seen, the building was leased to a Catholic group called the Shepherds of Christ Ministries, which eventually purchased the building and, at one point, converted the office space into a rosary factory. The group describes itself as a “movement dedicated to the renewal of spiritual life.” 

According to its website, the group primarily focuses on the “spiritual welfare of priests.” They publish spiritual books, newsletters, and audio cassettes and promote the rosary, eucharistic adoration, and prayer groups. 

Now the Florida office building, named the Mary Image Building, houses a religious gift shop and prayer rooms. The group installed a huge crucifix outside, a statue of Mary, and two grottos. 

Doris Jones, president of Shepherds of Christ Ministries, spoke to The Tablet from Indiana, where the group is currently headquartered, on May 11. 

“We’re still there,” she said of those praying outside the Clearwater building. She said a small group of people shows up each day outside the office building, and they join in prayer together three times a day. 

On the fifth day of each month, there is a special day of prayer at the location when they are joined by a woman who claims to be a visionary and said she has received words from Mary about this specific image. 

“Mary is still on the building, even though her head is not there,” Jones said. 

She said the image “means a lot to people” and that many who continue to come back are “turning to Mary, asking for help.”