OUR LADY OF CLEARWATER
OUR LADY OF CLEARWATER TIMELINE
1929 (January 15) Father Edward J. Carter, S.J was born.
1991 Rita Ring began receiving "private messages from Jesus and Mary.
1991 (September 1) Mary appeared to five women in a field in Indiana, identifying herself as "The Lady of Light. One of the women was the anonymous visionary who came to be known as "The Batavia ( Ohio) Visionary"
1992 The Batavia Vissionary predicted that the Virgin Mary would appear at the St. Joseph Church in Cold Spring, Kentucky.
1992 (May) Mary announced that she would select three priests as "special ambassadors."
1992 (August 31) Carter saw what he described as an image of the Virgin Mary in the trees at St. Joseph Church.
1993 Carter began receiving locutions from Jesus.
1994 Carter founded the Shepherds of Christ Ministry after the Batavia Vissionary was instructed to include him with the other priests who were to receive messages through her and to carry out the special mission of establishing the Shepherds of Christ.
1996 (May 31) Carter and the Batavia visionary saw Mary in a field and then began receiving messages until September 13, 1997
1996 (December 17) A customer at the Seminole Finance Company in Clearwater, Florida noticed an iridescent outline resembling the Virgin Mary on the glass paneling comprising the south wall of the building.
1996 (December 19) Two days after the image was first reported, Rita Ring, an active member of the Shepherds for Christ Ministry, received a message from Mary authenticating the image.
1997 (January) Clearwater police estimated a total of nearly 500,000 visitors since the initial sighting.
1997 (May) An unidentified vandal defaced the image by spraying the window with corrosive chemicals.
1998 (July 15) Ring reported a message from the Virgin Mary requesting a crucifix be built and placed beside her image.
1998 (Fall) Ugly Duckling Corporation leased the 22,000 square-foot building to the Shepherds of Christ Ministries, who subsequently purchased and renamed it “Our Lady of Clearwater.”
1998 (December 17) The Shepherds of Christ Ministries unveiled 18-foot crucifix, sculpted by Felix Avalos at the site.
2000 (December 18) Father Carter died.
2000 (February) The Shepherds of Christ opened a factory manufacturing rosaries on the second floor of the building.
2003 (December) The rosary factory closed due to a lack of funding and labor.
2004 (March 1) An assailant shattered the three topmost window panes which had revealed the head of the image.
FOUNDER/ GROUP HISTORY
On December 17, 1996, a customer at the Seminole Finance Company in Clearwater, Florida noticed an image bearing striking
resemblance to the Virgin Mary on the window paneling comprising the south wall of the building. The image occupied about a dozen glass panels on the building and was approximately 50 feet in height and 35 feet in width (Trull 1997). The customer who first noticed the image contacted local media, and within hours a crowd had gathered outside the building to witness the “Christmas miracle.” Devotees, skeptics, and otherwise interested tourists began to flood the city. The Clearwater city council was forced to take immediate action to accommodate an influx of visitors, estimated at 80,000 per day during December, to which the city was not accustomed. Within two months of the original sighting, Clearwater police estimated that "almost a half-million people” had visited the location and established a "Miracle Management Team" to handle the crowds of pilgrims (Tisch 2004:2). By the spring of 1997, the city had already “spent over $40,000… for crowd control” and later installed a traffic signal at the intersection of U.S. 19 and Drew Street, where the building is located (Posner 1997:3).
After the initial outpouring of public interest, the number of pilgrims gradually waned. Declining public interest in the image was reversed when, in May of 1997, the image was defaced by an unidentified vandal who sprayed corrosive chemicals onto the window, temporarily obscuring the image. However, the following month “two days of heavy thunderstorms washed away the blemishes; some pilgrims referred to this event as the image "healing itself" (Trull 1997; Tisch 2004:3). Despite the suddenly rekindled interest, in the years following the initial sighting and consequential fervor, the numbers of visitors to the site had decreased to about two hundred per day. Nonetheless, the Clearwater apparition underwent “a series of developments…that led to its institutionalization as a devotional center” and thus relative longevity compared to many other apparition sites (Swatos 2002:182). Among these factors were the relative permanence and resilience of the image until its final destruction in 2004, the emergence of a visionary who provided messages associated with the image, and a connection to the Shepherds of Christ Ministries.
At the time of the sighting, the building as well as the Seminole Finance Company was owned by Michael Krizmanich, a devout Catholic who subsequently sold the business to Ugly Duckling Car Sales Inc. The extremely large number of pilgrims to the site had a negative impact on the Ugly Duckling's sales, and the company ultimately decided to lease the building to the Shepherds of Christ Ministries. The Shepherds renamed the building the “ Mary Image Building” and converted the interior into a shrine. Some members of the Ohio-based Shepherds of Christ Ministries relocated to Florida. Among them was Rita Ring who received a message authenticating the image in Clearwater on December 19, 1996, just two days after the initial image sighting.
In a later message received by Ring on July 15, 1998, the Virgin requested that a large crucifix be built and placed next to her image on the window panels. Funded by the Shepherds of Christ Ministries, the eighteen-foot crucifix sculpted by Felix Avalos, was unveiled on December 17, 1998, two years after the first sighting.
On March 1, 2004, the image was irreparably damaged when an assailant shattered the three topmost window panes. It has been
theorized that the vandal used a slingshot to propel several small metal balls through the panels containing the image’s head. Despite the damage to the image, the Shepherds of Christ Ministries retained the Mary Image Building, and Rita Ring continued to receive messages from the Virgin and Jesus However, the permanent destruction of the apparition has greatly diminished visitation to the Clearwater site.
Rita Ring has been the central visionary at Our Lady of Clearwater. Although Ring had reported receiving messages from Jesus and Mary since 1991, the messages following the appearance of the image on the Seminole Finance Company were closely linked to the Clearwater image. Ring’s first message following the discovery of the image on December 19, 1996 authenticated the image and connected the image to its location: "...I appear to you, my children, on a [former] bank in Florida. You have made money your god! Do you know how cold are your hearts? You turn away from my Son, Jesus, for your money. Your money is your god... " ("News" n.d.)
Ring reported that Mary requested a widespread dissemination of the present messages, of those which would follow, and of the “Mary Message,” a tape recorded message received seven days prior at the annual feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A similar message was received on January 23, 1997, in which Ring reported Mary’s request for the distribution of not only “Mary’s Message,” but also several other books published by the Shepherds of Christ Ministries, including God’s Blue Book and Rosaries from the Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Further, many of the messages conveyed God’s wrath with human sinfulness and the failure to listen to previous messages, threatening humanity with fire, even citing religious negligence and divine wrath as the source of contemporary wildfires across Florida. There have also been prophecies of an imminent Endtime. All of Ring's messages have been discerned by Father Carter.
The religious activity associated with Clearwater is clearly largely rooted in Catholicism and parallels the belief of many similar apparition groups for a need to return to the teachings of Christ. The Shepherds of Christ Ministries also has sought a degree of ecumenism. When the Shepherds decided to acquire the bank building in 1998, the group stated its intention to “make [the] site available to people of all faiths for quiet prayer and refection,” and questioned religious divisions, asking “Do we not all pray to the same Heavenly Father?” (Swatos 2002).
Shortly after the initial sighting of the Clearwater image, a provisional shrine was constructed at the apparition site containing benches, a donations box, candles, rosaries, photographs, flowers, candles, and prayer requests. Visitors to the site commonly leave offerings to the Virgin, such as “candles, flowers, fruit, [and] beads, and participate in individual acts of piety (Posner 1997:2). Mary’s requests for pilgrims, as reported by Ring, include prayer, a daily recitation of the Ten Commandments at the site, recitation of the rosary, and an observance of the First Saturday devotion. In order to fulfill the Virgin’s requests to distribute her messages and lead others into prayer, audiotapes of “Mary’s Message” are played and rosaries, pamphlets, and brochures are provided by site staff (Swatos 2002:192). The focus on individual worship, rather than “the communal sense of the Mass,” is one of the primary factors setting the Clearwater group’s organization apart from traditional Catholic configuration (Swatos 2002).
Pilgrims to the site also contribute to the perception of a sacred presence and the potential for miraculous events. For example, among some pilgrims from the Latino community there was a sense that Mary might assist a young refugee from Cuba who sought asylum in the U.S.: "Tessy Lopez, 62, of Miami Beach beamed with joy as she regarded the
apparition. Like many others gathered at the site, Lopez said she considered it to
be a sign of an impending miracle for Elian, the 6-year-old Cuban rafter who
survived a voyage that killed his mother and 10 others….I think that boy is blessed. Many people gave their lives for that boy, and he lives blocks from here,'' Lopez said. ``We must realize this is an important sign'' (Garcia 2000). Barbara Harrison (1999) visited the site on Christmas, 1996 and reported a message from Mary in which she was told "I have selected you as a vehicle through which my message will be spread….You must tell of this day and of our previous meetings in a book….You must tell of the miracles of birth and adoption."
Little is known about the life of one of the two central figures in Clearwater apparition. Rita Ring is simply described as a married woman with four children, a mathematics professor at the University of Cincinnati, and a devout Catholic and active member of the Shepherds of Christ Ministry. She reportedly began receiving "private revelations" from Jesus and Mary in 1991, several years prior to reporting messages associated with the image at Our Lady of Clearwater. More is known about Father Edward Carter. He was brought up I Cincinnati, attended Xavier University, was ordained in the Jesuit Order when he was 33 years-old, and taught theology at Xavier University for nearly three decades. Carter reports having begun receiving messages from Jesus during the summer, 1993, and on the day before Easter in 1994 was told that he would now begin to receive messages for others (Carter 2010). He founded the Shepherds of Christ Ministry in 1994 after the Batavia Vissionary was instructed to include him with the other priests who were to receive messages through her and to carry out the special mission of establishing the Shepherds of Christ. Carter also received a message from Jesus in which he was told to undertake this mission and to include Rita Ring: " I am requesting that a new prayer movement be started under the direction of Shepherds of Christ Ministries…. I will use this new prayer movement within My Shepherds of Christ Ministries in a powerful way to help in the renewal of My Church and the world. I will give great graces to those who join this movement…. I am inviting My beloved Rita Ring to be coordinator for this activity" ("About" 2006).
On December 19, 1996, two days after the image on the Seminole Finance Company Building was reported, Mary authenticated the Clearwater apparition to Rita and instructed Rita to begin the work in Florida. Ring began serving as the locutionist, and Cartervalidated ("discerned) her messages. For a time she received messages daily that were made available in the Message Room along with video tapes. Ring visited what became the " Mary Image Building" on the fifth of each month. Beginning in 2000, the year of Jubilee, the image has appeared to turn completely gold on that day.
The Shepherds of Christ Ministries describes itself as "a multi-faceted, international movement, made up of a number of ministries all dedicated to "bringing the Catholic Church's faithful to deeper love and respect for the Hearts of Jesus and Mary." Open to priests, religious and the laity, the ministry currently has over 150 prayer chapters in its worldwide network devoted especially to the spiritual welfare of priests" (Shepherds of Christ Ministries n.d.). The organization devotes itself to promoting the welfare of priests and encouraging those interested in a spiritual life to recite the rosary and participate in the Eucharist. A major objective is to encourage priests to "become more holy, hence traditional, and abandon modernist tendencies” (Swatos 2002:182). The Shepherds of Christ Movement lists its ministries as including the Apostles of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, which pledges members to praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament for two hours each week; a "24 hour Adoration" located in China, Indiana, support for a nursing home; a "Consecration of Homes" for individuals and families; and a program to supply hand-made rosaries free-of-charge to Catholic schools ("Ministries n.d.)
The Shepherds of Christ Ministries began leasing the bank building in 1998 and eventually purchased the 22,000-square-foot
center for more than two million dollars. The group began to refer to the building as "Our Lady of Clearwater." On July 15, 1998 the daily message from Mary stated that "i wish a crucifix to be placed at the site near the main window beside my image. My eyes are always on my son Jesus crucified and my heart knows his resurrection from my dead`` (Desrochers 2007). The 18-foot crucifix was sculpted by Felix Avalos, was unveiled on December 18, 1998. The Shepherds subsequently opened a rosary factory in the building in 2000 and constructed a chapel for worship.
By 2002, however, public interest in the site had dramatically declined; the crucifix was covered due to weather-precipitated deterioration; the parking lot where pilgrims gathered was largely empty; the rosary factory was unable to support itself and closed; the group was not successful in supporting the site by selling tiles inscribed with the donor's name. The partial destruction of the apparitional image in 2004 furthered weakened an already struggling apparitional site.
One notable controversy surrounding the image at Clearwater is the source of the image itself. While Ring reported that the Virgin Mary authenticated her appearance two days after the initial sighting on December 17, 1996, a photograph taken in the building in 1994 reveals that the image had been present for some time and was only noticed when palm trees partially covering the window, were removed. Further, according to Posner, “any religious pilgrim, reporter, or casual visitor need only to walk around the building to note that the ‘Mary apparition’ is hardly the only such colorful image present. Indeed, iridescent staining of a similar nature is apparent around its circumference wherever exposed reflective glass was used, and is particularly vivid where vegetation and sprinkler heads are in close proximity to the glass. Along the low hedges, the stains appear to hover just above their tops; where the palms grow high, the stains follow” (1997:1). A local chemist examined the windows and suggested the stain was produced by water deposits combined with weathering, yielding a chemical reaction like that often seen on old bottles, perhaps due to the action of the water sprinkler. However, adherents to the divine nature of the image argue that what is miraculous about the image is not its origin, but the fact that “this combination of elements formed itself into this image, rather than, for example, an amorphous series of waves” (Swatos 2002).
The image has also drawn mixed reviews from visitors. For example, "I see the reflections, but I don't see it,'' said Carmen Rodriguez, 50, with a tinge of disappointment. "I think some people can see it and others not. Perhaps it's based on necessity.'' And, Eulalia Asencio, 29, expressed skepticism. She said she had carefully touched the window pane to see if air conditioning might have caused the image to appear. "It looks like when you get Windex and then you have that rainbow action going on,'' Asencio said. "I really think it is the reflection of the light" (Garcia 2000). On the other hand, for most pilgrims the image provided a dramatic experience of divine presence, as evidenced by the enormous crowds, the gifts and prayer requests left at the shrine, and the testimonies of miracles. Barbara Harrison (1999:20), who was not Catholic, reported that when she arrived at the site "Awestruck crowds were staring up at the rainbow image of the Blessed Mother Mary. I was unprepared for the rush of emotions I experienced…. I was astonished, and the sanctity of the moment took my breath away.
There has been a modest level of tension between the Roman Catholic Church and Our Lady of Clearwater leaders. The Shepherdsof Christ Ministries presents itself as a lay Catholic organization but has no formal relationship to the church. Site representatives have taken care not to challenge Roman Catholic Church authority. For example, the group indicated that it would seek permission from the local diocese before constructing a chapel at the site. Father Carter has repeatedly stated that "I recognize and accept that the final authority regarding private revelations rests with the Holy See of Rome, to whose judgment I willingly submit" ("News" n.d.). The Catholic diocese of St. Petersburg has disavowed any connection to Shepherds of Christ and has called the image a "naturally explained phenomenon." However, the diocese has not launched an investigation of the site and has not condemned it ("Clearwater Madonna Changes Hands" 1998; Tisch 2004:4). There have other criticisms from within the Catholic community that conclude the apparitions are not authentic (Conte 2006).
It is estimated that there have been 1,500,000 visitors to the Our Lady of Clearwater apparition site since 1996. Despite the sharp decline in both pilgrims and tourists to the Mary Image Building following the 2004 destruction of the image, the Shepherds of Christ Ministries has continued to hold recitations of Mary’s daily messages at the building. Transcripts of the messages have been posted on the Shepherds of Christ website as well as printed in the books published by the organization."
"About." 2006. Shepherds of Christ Ministries. Accessed from http://www.sofc.org/ABOUT/abouthom.htm on 10 March 2013.
Carter, Edward. 2010.Tell My People: by Fr. Edward Carter, S.J. Accessed from http://deaconjohn1987.blogspot.com/2010/10/tell-my-people-by-fr-edward-carter-sj.html
" Clearwater Madonna Changes Hands." 1998, July 11. Accessed from http://www.witchvox.com/media/mary_shrine.html on 10 March 2013.
Conte, Ronald. 2006. "Claims of Private Revelation: True or False? An Evaluation of the Messages of Rita Ring." Catholic Planet. Accessed from http://www.catholicplanet.com/apparitions/false45.htm on 10 March 2013.
Desrochers, Claude. 2007. "Jesus and Mary in Clearwater, Florida." JPG, 30 November. Accessed from http://jpgmag.com/stories/2033 on 10 March 2013.
Garcia Sandra Marquez. 2000. Mary `Appears' Near Elian." The Miami Herald, 26 March. Accessed from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/elian/mary.htm on 10 March 2013.
Harris, Barbara. 1999. Conversations with Mary: Modern Miracles in an Everyday Life. Osprey, FL: Heron House Publishers.
"Ministries." n.d. Shepherds of Christ Ministires. Accessed from http://www.sofc.org/ministries2.htm on 10 March 2013.
"News." n.d. Shepherds of Christ Ministries. Accessed from http://www.sofc.org/news_1.htm on 8 March 2013.
O’Neil, Barbara. 2000. “Believers Hear: Make Rosaries,” St. Petersburg Times, 15 October. Accessed from http://www.sptimes.com/News/101500/NorthPinellas/Believers_hear__Make_.shtml on 5 March 2013.
Posner, Gary P. 1997. “ Tampa Bay's Christmas 1996 'Virgin Mary Apparition',” Tampa Bay Skeptics Report. Accessed from http://www.tampabayskeptics.org/v9n4rpt.html on 3 March 2013.
Shepherds of Christ Ministries. n.d. "Virgin Mary Tells Cincinnati Visionary Why Her Image Appears on FL Office Building." Accessed from http://www.sofc.org/news_1.htm on 10 March 2013.
Swatos, William H., Jr. 2002 “Our Lady of Clearwater: Postmodern Traditionalism.” Pp. 181-92 in From Medieval Pilgrimage to Religious Tourism: The Social and Cultural Economics of Piety, edited by William H. Swatos, Jr. and Luigi Tomasi. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Tisch, Chris. 2004. “For Mary's Faithful, A Shattering Loss.” St. Petersburg Times, 2 March. Accessed from http://www.sptimes.com/2004/03/02/Tampabay/For_Mary_s_faithful__.shtml on 3 March 2013.
Trull, D. 1997. “The Virgin May Does Windows?” Accessed from http://dagmar.lunarpages.com/~parasc2/articles/0797/mary.htm on 3 March 2013.
David G. Bromley
11 March 2013