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Image graces Bradenton church

A cleaning crew uncovers a ghostly image that can't be washed away. The church's pastor says it's a sign.

By TWILA DECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2000


photo
[Times photo:Pam Royal]
An image is apparent on the brick side of Palma Sola Presbyterian Church.
BRADENTON -- The crew of pressure washers used acid, bleach and torrents of water to remove the stain from the side of Palma Sola Presbyterian Church.

No matter how hard they tried, the image still peered down from the wall.

Now, the 15-foot figure, which appears to be topped with a halo, has become the latest pilgrimage for people looking to be healed or to be closer to God.

The image appeared Wednesday morning on the east side of the church after the structure underwent its first cleaning since it was built in the early 1970s. "I am very humbled by it," said Alice Leonards, an 11-year member of the church. "I have never experienced anything like this in my life."

Five-year-old Becky Gish, who arrived with her mother, said: "I have never seen Jesus. He just appeared to help people."

By late Thursday, as word spread, a steady stream of cars arrived at the church, with at least 30 people inspecting the image most of the day.

Some carried cameras. Others carried pictures of a similar sighting -- the image resembling the Virgin Mary, which has appeared on the side of a building in Clearwater for four years.

Last fall, Palma Sola, a 900-member congregation, held a fundraiser to clean the church, at 6510 Third Ave. W.

About 20 minutes after Baber Painting finished its work Wednesday morning, the figure emerged.

Before telling the pastor what they found, the crew tried to get rid of the image.

"They were so afraid I would think they did this during the spraying," said the Rev. Richard Dennis.

Dennis went outside, looked up and was astounded.

"They asked,"What do you see?' "

"I said, "I see the face of Jesus,' " said Dennis, who believes it is a sign that his church is doing good things.

The phone hasn't stopped ringing. But Dennis says not all the calls have been good. Some people are concerned about the church's use of water.

To keep the image visible, the building has to be wet. So, every hour or so, a church employee has been wetting the wall. Dennis says he's trying to be mindful of water restrictions.

"We're aware of the drought," he said. "We are trying to be as careful as possible."

John Zimmerman, water manager of Manatee County, said he also has received a few complaints. But Zimmerman said he's not about to tell the church to stop watering the wall.

"We don't see any restriction on the use of water to maintain the image of Christ," Zimmerman said, chuckling. "We don't want to go there."

For many, the image is the latest sign that Jesus is near.

Many of the same people who gathered at Palma Sola already have been to Clearwater, where an image resembling the Virgin Mary appeared in 1996 on the side of the Seminole Finance Corp. building. That sighting has drawn more than 600,000 people, Clearwater police say.

Dennis says he doesn't expect the Jesus-like image to generate as much interest as the Virgin Mary, although he does not know what to expect.

He says he will continue to wet the wall as long as he can so the community can share in the image.

Hoping for a miracle, Beverly Pearce arrived at the wall Thursday with her 93-year-old mother, Yolanda Ione Braverman, who is deaf. She said the sighting was the talk of her mother's condominium complex in Bradenton.

"I made her get dressed because she's stone deaf," Pearce said of her mother.

"She thinks everyone out here are a bunch of fruitcakes. When she gets here, she sees people in wheelchairs and carrying pictures of the wall in Clearwater. But if she starts hearing again, I'm sure she'll change her mind," Pearce said. "She'll probably join this church."

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