Just before Christmas, on December 17, 1996, a stain was discovered on the glass windows of the Seminole Finance Company in Clearwater, Florida. The stain, which was 60 feet tall and 20 feet wide, evoked the traditional shape of the Virgin Mary.
In the first few weeks after the image appeared, nearly 500,000 visitors flocked to the site, with visitors eventually reaching the millions. Religious devotees were certain that the image was a miracle, but glass experts weren’t so sure. Corrosion of the metallic coating on the glass – a common process in certain types of glass – was largely suspected to be at fault. There was no explanation for why the stain appeared when it did, though, or why it resembled the Virgin Mary.
Mike Krizmanich, who owned the building at the time, believed that the stain was the work of divine intervention. He decided to protect the image by turning the building into a religious shrine. Eventually, Krizmanich sold the building to Catholic ministry organization Shepherds of Christ, who renamed it Our Lady of Clearwater. The Shepherds of Christ erected a large wooden crucifix next to the image and opened a rosary factory on the second floor.
By 2002, interest in the image had dwindled. The white plastic chairs placed in front of the stain for worshippers were typically empty, and the rosary factory had closed thanks to lack of funds and staff. But the parking lot that housed the image remained the site of the annual feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which brought together thousands of members of the Central and South American community.
Then, in 2004, the top three panes of glass were broken, effectively beheading the Virgin Mary. A local teenager confessed to shooting the glass panes with a slingshot and was sentenced to 10 days in jail and two years probation on felony misdemeanor charges. His crime did not have a religious motivation so he was not charged with a hate crime.
Today, Our Lady of Clearwater is little more than an unassuming building on the side of a busy highway – blink and you’ll miss it. Although the Virgin Mother’s face has been replaced with plain glass in the wake of the vandalism, the building still holds religious value to believers. In 2005, bulletproof glass was installed over the part of the image that wasn’t vandalized to protect what was left. The building is still home to Shepherds of Christ Ministries, and the intact panes of glass are still on display should you care to stop by for an impromptu vigil.