CLEARWATER - Nearly every day for the last eight years, Sam and Jean Meo have sat beneath the image of the Virgin Mary that adorned the glass windows of a Clearwater office building.
The iridescent figure became an international religious icon that drew hundreds of thousands of people after it was first noticed in 1996. Some, like the Meos, find a miraculous healing power beneath it.
Jean, 80, was expected to die after lung cancer surgery. Sam, 81, has endured three open-heart surgeries.
"I pray for her, she prays for me," said Sam. "Prayer has been keeping me alive."
But on Monday morning, the Meos looked up at their sacred Virgin to see she had been beheaded. The three windows that once held her face and veil had been knocked out.
Inside the building, the windows had been reduced to a pile of glass pebbles that glistened like sequins of purple, green and yellow.
"My heart just sank when I saw it," said Rosie Reed, site leader for Shepherds of Christ Ministries, which owns the building. "It's irreplaceable."
Clearwater police said someone shot three small ball bearings at the windows early Monday morning. Police do not think the objects were shot with a gun, but also find it unlikely the ball bearings were thrown with such power by hand.
Investigators suspect a slingshot may have been used. Detectives planned to review video from a surveillance camera aimed at the figure each night. The video is streamed onto an Internet site 24 hours a day and recorded inside the building at night, though the tape may have run out before the vandalism occurred.
With no arrests or suspects, police were unsure if the damage was caused by juvenile pranksters or by vandals who targeted the figure for religious or cultural reasons. If it's the latter, the suspects could be prosecuted for a hate crime.
"We don't know who did it or why they did it," said police spokesman Wayne Shelor.
Religion experts said the vandalism could have been an attack on Catholics, who view the mother of Christ as their intercessor with God.
"It'd be like someone attacking the American flag," said Darrell Fasching, a professor in the department of religious studies at the University of South Florida. "It's something that means a great deal to people, in this case religious rather than political. The attack on the image of the Virgin is an attack on God's mercy and an attack on the religion."
Some who visited Monday think it was motivated by hate because of the precision of the shots.
"Somebody meant to do this - because of the head," said Largo resident Mary Pardy. "How they did it is beyond me."
Some wondered if the vandalism might have been stirred by the film The Passion of the Christ.
"For me, it's the reason," David Gaurin, 32, of Tampa, said of the Mel Gibson film. "Somebody doesn't have any hope. Nothing. People need to respect her, the mother of God."
By Monday night, more than 100 people, some in tears, had come to the site. They lit candles, sang songs and prayed.
For some, the image is a curiosity. For others, it is a religious icon. To most, it should be respected.
"I'm not a religious person. I just think it is terrible that someone would destroy something that gives others so much hope," said Michelle Goossen, 36, of Clearwater, who was crying as she took photos of the busted image Monday evening. "People have come here from all over the world."
Ministry leaders said they planned to board up the broken windows Monday night, then possibly install new ones. Though some visitors expressed hope that God would redraw the Virgin Mary image on the windows, ministry leaders said they don't expect that to happen.
"I think people will still come and hopefully they'll pray more," Reed said. "Six panes of the glass are still here. As long as she's here, we're here."
The image was discovered in December 1996 when a customer of Seminole Finance Corp. noticed the rainbow-hued shape on the two-story building at U.S. 19 and Drew Street. When a TV station ran a story, the parking lot filled with believers.
Within three weeks, police estimated almost a half-million people had come to see the Virgin.
Over the years, the number of visitors slowed to a couple hundred a day.
In the summer of 1998, Cincinnati-based Shepherds of Christ Ministries leased the 22,000-square-foot building, then bought it for more than $2-million and called it "Our Lady of Clearwater."
The image also is meaningful to Florida's Hispanic community because it evokes the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Latin America, and, according to locals, the protector of the 20,000 or so Mexicans living in Clearwater.
"The Mexican community is going to be devastated," said Sonia Morales, a volunteer nurse at La Clinica Guadalupana, a clinic in Clearwater. "They are very spiritual and connected to the Virgin Mary."
Every year on Dec. 12, several thousand Central and South Americans gather on the site to celebrate the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which last year drew 6,000 people.
"I feel a personal attack ... symbols like that are very important for us," said Jose Vidales, who helps organize the event. "This is a symbol we left behind in Mexico and we found something very similar in Clearwater."
The damage was discovered about 6:30 a.m. by a woman who is usually one of the first to the building every morning. She didn't immediately report the broken windows because she believed ministry leaders knew about it.
Word eventually reached Reed, who at first tried to call the ministry president in Cincinnati. No one called police until 9:31 a.m., and that call came from someone out of state who saw the broken windows on the streaming-video Web site.
Police believe the ball bearings didn't immediately shatter the glass, but rather caused the windows to splinter and spider-web, then gradually collapse in pieces from their frames. Two ball bearings were found on the ground outside the building.
This wasn't the first time the building has been the target of vandals. In May 1997, someone threw an unknown liquid onto the windows, defacing the glass panels. The next month, two days of heavy thunderstorms washed away the blemishes, and the image of Mary remained.
Some visitors said even the defacing of such a precious religious icon should prompt people to search their hearts for forgiveness.
"I hope God forgives them," said Arlene Livingston, 69, of Largo.
Others weren't so gracious.
"I think whoever did this should be struck by lightning," said Jim Sarelas, 78, a visitor from Illinois.
Whatever happens, the regulars said they would continue to visit. That includes Sam and Jean Meo.
Jean fell a few years back and fractured three bones in her back. She uses a walker these days and has to lie in bed for a while when she gets home.
During her lung cancer surgery three years ago, she grasped in her right hand a white rosary she received at the Virgin Mary.
"They can do what they want, they're not going to make us weak," Sam said of the vandals. "They're not going to break my religion down."
- Times staff writers Nora Koch, Adrienne Samuels and Megan Scott contributed to this report.
History of Mary image
DEC. 17, 1996: A customer of Seminole Finance Corp. notices a rainbow-hued shape stretching the height of the business' two-story building at U.S. 19 and Drew Street in Clearwater. The customer mentions the shape, which resembles an outline of the Virgin Mary, to employees, who call a local television station. Within two hours, the parking lot is filled with dozens of people.
DEC. 18, 1996: Clearwater police set up a command post for the 15 or so officers who spend the day directing traffic and trying to keep pedestrians from tangling with cars as they rush to see the image in glass.
JAN. 3, 1997: Clearwater police estimate more than 450,000 people - 41/2 times the population of Clearwater - have crossed the intersection of U.S. 19 and Drew Street to see the image.
MAY 1997: Someone throws an unidentified liquid onto the office building, defacing nearly all of the glass panels that form the figure. The image remains visible despite drip marks.
JUNE 25, 1997: After two days of heavy thunderstorms, the blemishes are no longer visible. The image looks as it did when it was first noticed.
JULY 7, 1998: Ohio-based Shepherds of Christ Ministries begins leasing the building and eventually purchases the 22,000-square-foot center for more than $2-million. The group, which calls itself a Catholic ministry, refers to the building as "Our Lady of Clearwater." The Catholic diocese of St. Petersburg disavows any connection to Shepherds of Christ, calling the image a "naturally explained phenomenon."
DEC. 17, 1998: The ministry unveils an 18-foot cedar crucifix to stand next to the image of Mary. The president of Shepherds of Christ says that Mary herself directed the crucifix to stand there.
FEB. 2000: Shepherds of Christ opens a rosary factory on the second floor in a room overlooking U.S. 19. The factory is a classroom with bowls of colorful baubles and white plastic crosses on small tables, and pictures of Jesus and Mary on the wall.
DEC. 2002: Interest in the site has ebbed. The crucifix is hidden from view because the wood couldn't take the weather. The hundreds of plastic white chairs set up in front are empty most of the time. The rosary factory has closed because of lack of staff and money.
MARCH 1, 2004: The three panes of glass that contain the image of Virgin Mary's head are found smashed. Police suspect vandals but no arrests are made.
- Compiled by Times staff writer Megan Scott. Information from Times files was used in this report.