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    Image of Mary beckons few now

    What looks like the Virgin Mary on a building at 21649 U.S. 19 once attracted thousands; now just a few faithful still come.

    By EILEEN SCHULTE
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 28, 2002


    CLEARWATER -- Every day for six years, 61-year-old Tony Herbert has driven from his St. Petersburg home to the Virgin Mary image, sat in a white plastic lawn chair in front of her, bowed his head and said four rosaries.

    But on a recent windy, overcast Wednesday morning, Herbert, grandfather of 13, was praying alone to the blessed mother at the Shepherds of Christ spiritual center at 21649 U.S. 19.

    Few people come anymore to visit what some Christians consider a sacred place.

    The novelty has apparently worn off.

    Six years ago, it was a different story.

    Weeks before Christmas, on a building then being leased by the Ugly Duckling car rental company, an image of what looked like the blessed Virgin Mary materialized.

    Overnight, the ordinary glass building at U.S. 19 near Drew Street became a mecca for both the Christian and the curious.

    For the first few months, it was pandemonium. Clearwater police say half a million people visited the building. So many people crowded around for a closer look, the department had to set up barricades and walkways to ensure nobody got hit by a car trying to get to what they felt was a new holy site.

    Believers may disagree, but glass experts who examined the rainbow-colored image determined it was the result of a chemical reaction and corrosion of metallic elements in the building's glass coating.

    Now, nearly a decade later, interest in the site is dying out and the crowds have long since gone.

    A huge cedar crucifix sculpted from 1998 to 2001 by Texas artist Felix Avalos is now hidden from view by a blue plastic tarp to protect it from the sun and rain.

    The wood couldn't take the Florida weather. It has deteriorated and must be treated with a sealer and restored before the tarp can be removed.

    The chain-link fence holds pictures of Christ, bouquets of flowers and unlit candles.

    Hundreds of plastic white chairs are set up in neat rows. Much of the time, they are not filled. A handful of people gather at the building during the day and into the night to pray.

    "It's seasonal," said Ellen Sartori, a friendly volunteer who hands out pamphlets and welcomes pilgrims. "When the snowbirds get here there will be a lot more people."

    The faithful light candles at the base of the image and say novenas quietly.

    "Most come for a specific prayer," Sartori said. "Young boys come. They kneel and pray and quickly leave. Usually, it's about a girlfriend."

    The building was bought by the Shepherds of Christ, an organization in Ohio that distributes newsletters and other publications to priests. The group is struggling to make ends meet, according to Emily Lehrter, 24, Shepherds of Christ site leader.

    She said the $10,000-plus monthly payment is made -- barely -- with donations and sales of framed pictures of the Virgin, CDs, videos and crucifixes in the gift shop.

    "We struggle with it every month," Lehrter said. "We've always had problems with finances. But somehow, every month, we make it."

    A tired-sounding Lehrter said the rosary bead "factory" upstairs had to be closed because of lack of staff and money.

    Although the image of the Virgin Mary no longer attracts masses of pilgrims, a steady stream of visitors from all over the world still come to see it.

    "People come from almost every single country," Lehrter said. "Mary inspires us to pray. She teaches us how to pray."

    Celesta DiLeonardo, 84, who said she has made more than 1,000 rosery beads for Catholic missions worldwide, came from her home in New Jersey last week to visit her son and see the image.

    "I believe (it's Mary)," she said. "I was kind of shocked by all the candles and flowers."

    Bishop Antonious traveled from Manfalout, Egypt, to see the image. Wearing a long black robe and skullcap, he shopped for rosary beads in the gift shop last week after paying homage to the Virgin.

    "It's very nice," Antonious said through an interpreter friend. "She appeared on a bank to tell people money is not everything. God is first."

    -- Eileen Schulte can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or schulte@sptimes.com.

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