CLEARWATER — Some called it a Christmas miracle. It was definitely a Christmas spectacle.
On Dec. 17, 1996, rainbow swirls formed a familiar shape on the glass outside of Seminole Finance Corp. There she was, stretching two stories high across the building at the corner of U.S. 19 and Drew Street:
The Virgin Mary — or at least what many believed to be a holy image of Jesus Christ’s mom.
A customer called WTSP-Ch. 10, and the mysterious appearance was featured on the noon report. Within hours, dozens had flocked to the parking lot from across Tampa Bay. By midnight, police counted at least 500 in the crowd.
Waves of visitors showed up, clogging nearby roads and parking lots. In the following weeks, more than 600,000 people would travel from near and far to see her.
They brought flowers and lit candles. They prayed. They cried. One couple even got married there.
“Within days, people showing up started calling her Our Lady of Clearwater,” said Times photographer Scott Keeler, who covered the appearance and aftermath 23 years ago.
The city had to install portable restrooms and sidewalks, while police cracked down on illegal vendors trying to peddle merchandise to the visitors. Later, a nearby car wash would sell T-shirts bearing a photograph of the window for $9.99 (that would be $16.38 in 2019 dollars).
“It became this sort of sideshow … almost like any other Florida roadside tourist attraction,” said Wilma Norton, who covered the story for the then-St. Petersburg Times. “But those people who were there, especially really early on that first morning, many of them were there because they really did consider this some sort of Christmas miracle.”
Over the years, shapes reminding people of the Virgin Mary have appeared on everything from a grilled cheese sandwich to a potato chip. In 1996, a Nashville coffee shop customer said a cinnamon roll resembled Mother Teresa.
“The owner shellacked the bun. Thousands of people came to the coffee shop to see it. They called it the Nun Bun," Keeler said. “I remember people standing around in Clearwater going, ‘Haha, this is just like Mother Teresa in the bun.’"
While those items also made national headlines, there was something different about the Clearwater window, Norton said.
“People brought up some of those kinds of things, but because it was this permanent, physical presence, I think it was easier for it to become the sort of shrine and this place for people to make a pilgrimage," she said.
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Dozens of television reporters broadcast from the parking lot while news helicopters whirred above. Michael Krizmanich, owner of Seminole Finance Corp., told the Times then that reporters from all over the world tried to contact him.
Visitors recalled feeling something special.
“I stepped out of my car and the presence of God just almost drew me to my knees,” Mary Stewart, pastor of the Campaigning for Jesus Christian Center in Tampa, told the Times in 1996. “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.”
“I can’t stop crying,” St. Petersburg’s Mary Sullivan told the newspaper.
Not everyone believed. The Florida Department of Transportation released a photograph of the building from a 1994 real estate appraisal that appeared to show the rainbow image was already visible. Some religious organizations were more cautious than others.
“People should exercise a great deal of heavy skepticism,” Joe Mannion, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Petersburg, told the Times.
Traffic on U.S. 19 was so bad that the city reassigned 30 workers to help police manage the crowds through the new year. The congestion scared away customers of nearby businesses.
Less spiritual theories about what created the image of the Madonna ranged from sprinkler-water induced stain to glass distortion.
“I’ve never had it happen before or since.” said Frank Mudano, an architect with the company who designed the building, told the Times then. “It’s weird. I’ve been designing buildings for 40 years.”
"I do believe that there's some divine intervention," glass installer Warren Weishaar said.
The Times even brought in a scientist to inspect the glass. Chemist Charles Roberts assessed clues including broken sprinkler heads. He offered his best guess: “a combination of water deposits and weathering, a chemical reaction between glass and the elements.”
Ugly Duckling Corp., then one of the largest used car companies in the country, bought the space from Seminole Finance Corp. It was later sold to Shepherds of Christ Ministries in 2000. Turns out, the massive spectacle was bad for business.
In May 1997, vandals hurled liquid onto the Madonna’s face, distorting the image. The image bounced back to its former glory after a few days of thunderstorms.
In 2004, a troubled 18-year-old used a slingshot and ball bearings to shatter the top window.
According to Atlas Obscura, you can still see the remaining bottom panes outside the building, which is now home to the Shepherds of Christ Ministries.