It began, some said, when nine large panes of reflective glass became discolored from sprinkler system residue. It ended seven years later, when a troubled teen aimed a slingshot and sent a handful of ball bearings into the air.
What happened in between was – and is – open to interpretation. Near a nondescript Clearwater intersection, a rainbow-hued image appeared on the south wall of a 22,000-square-foot office building. To the religious faithful, it suggested the Virgin Mary, the Madonna, mother of Jesus, a saint beloved and worshipped by Christians around the world.
This was no mere “subjective vision” in a tostada or a grilled cheese sandwich – the iridescent image towered 60 feet over the Seminole Finance Corporation parking lot.
Though featureless, it looked very much – to certain people – like a woman bowed in solemn prayer. The striking colors resembled stained glass (which, in effect, it was).
The image was discovered by a passer-by Dec. 17, 1996, who reported it to a local TV station. By the following morning, hundreds of believers had made a pilgrimage to U.S. 19 and Drew Street. They wept, they prayed, they left rosaries, votive candles and other offerings beneath the panes.
“She’s come to tell everybody to pray,” a woman told a reporter from the St. Petersburg Times. “That’s all she asks of people is to pray.”
Said Mary Stewart, pastor of Tampa’s Campaigning For Jesus Christian Center: “I stepped out of my car and the presence of God just almost drew me to my knees. I believe it is here to get people’s attention that we are living in the last days … to get ready to meet the soon-coming king.”
Many who flocked to “Mary” had experienced tragedy, or had loved ones suffering with illness. They came seeking not a miracle, exactly, but hope via faith.
“The miracle to me is the way it’s such an uplifting experience to the general population, including myself and my wife,” said building owner Michael Krizmanich, a devout Catholic who mused about the possible cause of the image before exclaiming: “I don’t care why it’s there. I’m going to get a (video) tape, and every time I have a down moment, I’m going to plug that in.”
Dubbed Our Lady of Clearwater by the local media, the apparition made the national news, and then – in a manner of speaking – all heaven broke loose.
Hundreds of the faithful arrived every day to gaze at the image, to kneel on the asphalt and pray. They clutched rosaries and made the sign of the cross. By Christmas Day, almost $8,000 in cash had been donated, stuffed into locked boxes placed there by Krizmanich, who gave it all to local charities. “I’m sure this won’t stop until people stop coming,” he said, “and I don’t know when that will be.”
“Miracle on U.S. 19” T-shirts sold out at the Wagon Wheel Flea Market. Hawkers sold reproductions of the image on key chains and greeting cards. Small framed photos went for $2.50 a pop.
Eight Clearwater police officers – part of a city team known as “Miracle Management” – were assigned to traffic and pedestrian control between 8 a.m. and midnight. After Christmas, as the crowds began to thin out, the city discontinued the service. After that, most of the donated monies went to hire private security.
Jan. 19, 1997: Early in the evening, Clearwater police are called to the site when visitors report a man “acting suspiciously.” There, they confront Wieslaw Skowroneck, a Polish immigrant who speaks little English, and is carrying “aspirin and a drill.” He refuses to leave.
A scuffle ensues, and officer John Smith administers a “knee spike” to Skowroneck’s abdomen. The 44-year-old dies of a ruptured pancreas, in the back seat of Smith’s police cruiser.
By February, it is estimated, near 600,000 of the faithful have been drawn to gaze up at the southern wall of the Seminole Finance building.
May 22, 1997: It is discovered that vandals have defaced the image by flinging some sort of liquid at it, causing unsightly streaking from the top down. “Whoever put the marks on her has a mark on their soul that they’ve got to deal with,” a Miami woman, making her third visit, tells a reporter.
June 25, 1997: After a day of heavy thunderstorms, the image is somehow washed clean and back to its Christmastime glory. “We heard she was healing herself,” a visitor says. “It looks like it.”
Krizmanich leased the building to the Ohio-based organization Shepherds of Christ in July of 1998, after a previous tenant, Ugly Duckling Auto Sales, complained about the crowds. The Catholic ministry beefed up the small courtyard in front of the south wall, with rows of white plastic chairs, concrete benches, a wooden altar for kneeling – and a live video-cam.
That December the group erected an 18-foot crucifix – Christ on the cross – carved in cedar by a Texas woodworker, between the courtyard and the image on the windows.
As it had since it was first discovered, the Diocese of St. Petersburg called the image a “naturally occurring phenomenon,” and urged believers to retain a skeptical eye.
Still, said a spokesman for the Diocese, “A miracle cannot be physically explained. This image can be and has been scientifically analyzed. It’s due to chemicals and all that. But we do believe anything that brings people together in prayer is a good thing.”
Shepherds of Christ maintained it was a genuine “Marian” image, like the ones in Mexico and Portugal. In 2000, the group purchased the building from Krizmanich Holdings for $1,400,000. The Shepherds began holding daily services at the site every afternoon at 6:30, and opened a “rosary factory” on the second floor.
Oct. 31, 1999: Indian Shores resident John Charles Jahn is found dead at the makeshift shrine. Police said the 44-year-old had committed suicide with a shotgun.
Dec. 12, 2000: People – most of them Hispanic – start arriving at the site just after midnight to pray, reflect, sing and socialize. It is the day of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, so named for the image of the Virgin Mary that first appeared in a church outside Mexico City in 1531. The ceremony will be repeated here through 2003.
Over the next few years, the crowds continued to dwindle. The second floor rosary factory was closed down in 2002 for lack of business. Milton, Massachusetts took the spotlight in 2003, when the image of the Madonna and child seemed to appear on the glass façade of a medical office, drawing thousands of visitors. A similar apparition in Springfield, five years later, produced similar results.
By that time, however, Our Lady of Clearwater was gone (or, at the very least, her “power” greatly diminished). In the early morning hours of March 1, 2004, 18-year-old Kyle Maskell, a chronic foster home kid, shattered the top three planes of glass – the head and veil of “Mary” – with ball bearings and a high-powered Marsksman slingshot.
The Clearwater High School sophomore eluded detection until May, when a foster family he’d stayed with found the slingshot, a package of ball bearings and a newspaper clipping about the vandalism in the top drawer of the dresser he’d been using. Maskell tearfully confessed, saying his rage was not religiously motivated. He was angry at his situation, bouncing from one temporary home to another, and was simply in a destructive mood.
A Shepherds of Christ spokesperson said the group was praying for the young man. Charges, they said, would not be pressed.
Maskell pled guilty to criminal mischief and was sentenced to 10 days in jail and two years’ probation. He was also fined $1,200, to pay for replacement windows.
These days, just a handful of the old white plastic chairs await the faithful in the courtyard. The believers still come, as evidenced by the candles, flowers and other offerings at the site, although not in such numbers. They sit in quiet contemplation and gaze upwards.
Although knocks on the front door and repeated phone calls to the Clearwater Shepherds of Christ office went unanswered, a woman who answered the phone at the organization’s headquarters in China, Indiana, said the Clearwater ministry is still very much active, but because of the pandemic is only holding prayer services online.
Outside, Our Lady of Clearwater, headless, still dominates the view. The 18-foot crucifix was damaged by hard years of weather, and has been protectively painted in chalky flesh tones and brown.
All around the glass building, on different levels, are rainbow-swirl discolorations. Although they don’t look like anything much.