by Alysia Sawchyn
I pulled into the row of parking spaces at 6:25pm on a Saturday night, already five minutes late to the monthly prayer meeting at Our Lady of Clearwater. Looking up at the glass-paned building, the stone grottos encasing plaster statues of Jesus and Mary on either side of its main entrance, like guardian lions, I took one deep breath in and let it go slowly.
Pausing at the door, I examined my reflection. The fine-knit cardigan I wore to cover the tattoos on my arms had ridden up, and a two-inch band of skin showed above the waist of my jeans. I pulled my sweater down over my hips, ran my fingers through my bangs, and breathed in and out one more time. I smiled and pulled on the door handle. My shoulder jarred, my body ungracefully curved into a C-shape, everything like a cartoon in seeming slow-motion. Locked. I tried the door again, though more gingerly the second time.
The most outrageous scenarios played out in my mind. Had I been found out? Had Regina reported that she’d invited me, and they’d locked the doors in anticipation of my arrival? Or perhaps they always locked the doors immediately once the meeting began, like particularly diligent college professors? It was my first interaction with a Catholic ministry for reasons unrelated to death in years, and my expectations were sideways.
My relationship with Catholicism is complicated. I was born and baptized into a branch—Ukrainian Catholic—that confirms an infant at that first head-wetting ceremony, but I attended weekly Sunday school and mass at Roman Catholic churches that set aside confirmation as its own sacrament when an adolescent turns thirteen. The situation is further confused by the fact that my mother is Buddhist and my father is not a particularly devout Catholic. The story goes that my baptism—complete with a Jewish godmother, my mother’s friend, who wasn’t listed on the certificate for obvious reasons but held me as I wailed under the oil on my forehead—and subsequent religious education was a condition my paternal grandmother set for helping my parents with their finances. As I entered my pre-teen years, I predictably chafed against the routine, the authority, and tried to get out of attending, but couldn’t until my Sunday school instructor said my mother would be eternally damned for her beliefs. After this, my parents no longer forced me to attend, and so I stopped.
And then there I was, outside Our Lady of Clearwater, so many years later. I wasn’t looking for faith, but understanding. I’ve spent most of my adult life between two socially conservative, religious states—Florida and Indiana—and sometimes feel out of place during casual interactions with strangers, jarred when offered a “Blessed Day” or a “God bless” for my troubles, uncomfortable the way glances lingered into stares during the year my hair was shaved close to my head. I didn’t want to talk to a priest or any of my devout friends to ask for explanations. I wanted to see devotion in action, feel awe at the magnitude of conviction, bask in the presence of worship—it’s not necessary to believe in a God to feel awe underneath Sacré Coeur’s wrapping glass windows; to feel skin prickle into points while a boys’ choir sings Handel’s Messiah; to feel admiration for the pilgrims in Santiago, Spain, whose calves are ropy from months of walking—and this seemed like a place to do it. I stood outside Our Lady of Clearwater, curious, a little nosy and greedy, and disappointed I’d been locked out.
A car door closed behind me, and I turned to see a short white woman in late middle age with frizzy hair, an oversized sweater, and cropped pants slowly walk up the sidewalk toward me. She smiled, and I smiled back.
“It’s locked.” I motioned to the door.
“Oh, it’s locked?” She tried it anyway. “I’ll call Regina,” she said.
She seemed unfazed when her call went unanswered.
“Do you come here every month?” I asked.
“When I can. Sometimes my work schedule won’t let me get away.”
Our conversation faded awkwardly, and after a few more phone calls, she was able to get hold of Regina, who let us into the building, leaving it unlocked. It’d only been a simple mistake. Regina, dressed in all white with a blue-edged veil bobby-pinned in place over her also-white hair, smiled and nodded at me in recognition.
The meeting hadn’t started. Regina ushered us into a large room with three long rows of chairs facing a large standing screen, a piano, and two microphones. Half the room, the half behind the screen, was littered with fake Christmas trees, large stuffed lambs, nativity scenes, more grottos. A few women were already seated in the back row, which was made up of plush computer chairs. Regina announced that Rita Ring, the woman who led the monthly meeting, was tired from the private group she’d held earlier in the day and would be running late. I was disappointed. Rita was whom I’d hoped most to see. Most of us thumbed quietly through the literature, a Holy Spirit Novena and a prayer pamphlet entitled only Shepherds of Christ Associates, that had been placed in the chairs’ seats, but the woman to my left spoke loudly to her younger, blonde companion, whom I’d assumed to be her daughter.
“Nobody talks about purgatory anymore,” she remarked.
In December 1996, the Ugly Duckling car company, owned by the Seminole Finance Corporation in Clearwater, Florida, was propelled into the spotlight. The week before Christmas, a customer noticed a rainbowed discoloration like an oil slick in the building’s south-facing windows—one they believed resembled an outline of the Virgin Mary. An apparition. A miracle. Our Lady of Clearwater. This customer told the building’s employees, who called the local media, who ran the story immediately, in the afternoon news.
Over the next three weeks, nearly half a million visitors would travel to the site. The city of Clearwater spent tens of thousands of dollars in police hours and amenities to organize and control the crowds. It was an impressive sight, and photographs of the image sprawled across so many story-high panes of glass show that it was—to this writer’s eyes anyway—a convincing silhouette. But interest quickly waned. A convention of local glass workers in January concluded that the image was likely the result of an interaction between the window and mineral deposits from rainwater, and the Saint Petersburg Catholic Diocese did not recognize the apparition as a miracle. A CNN World View news clip from the same month gives Clearwater officials announcing it was, “time to scale back,” time to remove the “portable toilets and police and fire command posts” that had been installed to deal with the heavy traffic.
But some faithful remain faithful. A year-and-a-half later, in July 1998, The Shepherds of Christ Ministries, a self-described Catholic apostate founded by Father Edward J. Carter whose mission is to distribute its own newsletter to priests, “to begin prayer chapters . . . for the priests throughout the world,” and “to provide a spiritual way of life for people,” bought the building. The organization, started in October 1994, in accordance with messages received by visionary and now-ministry-leader Rita Ring, believed purchasing the building would “help with the completion of the Fatima mission.” A rosary factory was started in the building’s upper levels. A large wooden cross was erected outside by the oil-slick windows.
The site’s primary pull had always been the apparition rather than the organization—and not only to the faithful: Our Lady of Clearwater was listed as an attraction on the website “Roadside America”—and then that, too, was lost. In 2004, Kyle Maskell “beheaded” the Virgin Mary with a slingshot, shattering the two windows that made up the upper portion of her silhouette. The State’s Attorney’s Office charged him with criminal mischief, to which he pled guilty, and Maskell served 10 days of jail time and paid a $1,200 fine to The Shepherds of Christ Ministries. Prayers were said, bulletproof glass encasing the remaining rainbowed panes was errected, and the sluggish stream of visitors slowed to a trickle. Over the next decade, the glass votives lining the brick retention wall dwindled. The rosary factory closed. And still, The Shepherds of Christ remained.
Twenty years after Our Lady of Clearwater’s first appearance, I decided to stop by. I’d known about the rough strokes of the building’s history for nearly a decade, and always had a casual fascination in religious sites, but was finally propelled to action when the 2016 Republican Vice Presidential candidate—Mike Pence is now Vice President elect, as I write this—was a conservative Evangelical née Catholic whose governance in Indiana while I lived there resulted in several attempts to defund Planned Parenthood and a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” that allowed businesses to refuse service on the basis of customers’ sexuality. There was some loose connection in my synapses between Pence’s running and my going through with this visit I’d been too busy or too preoccupied to make for so many years. I didn’t understand these so-called reforms or the desires behind them, and thought by meeting people who perhaps held them—I was making assumptions because it was a Catholic ministry—I’d make some simple human connection. Who were the people, I wanted to know, who maintained the building, still devout, twenty years after the outline’s appearance? I envisioned penitent, faithful keepers. And so I sought, thinking I’d write a profile-type article highlighting their daily routine, their devotion, and in the meantime, find some type of peace or understanding or empathy.
The Shepherds of Christ Ministries’ website lists phone numbers for locations in Clearwater, Florida; China, Indiana; and a toll-free number. “Call Dorris for information at” the text prompts.
I called Dorris. Dorris did not want to talk to me. During the five-minute phone call, Dorris asked me to repeat my name three separate times. Dorris asked me if it would be possible for her to read what I’d written if I interviewed her, before I did anything with it.
“Uhm, yes. I guess. Why not? Sure.” I fumbled, not expecting the question. I’d wanted to know about the day-to-day operations of the building as the twentieth anniversary of the Virgin’s appearance rolled around. I’d expected them to be happy for the attention.
She put me on hold.
“We’ll, uh—What was your name again?”
“We’ll call you back if we’re interested.” Click.
I drove to Our Lady of Clearwater on a Sunday morning. Two weeks had passed without any word from Dorris, and I figured they’d have a harder time turning me away in person.
I introduced myself to Regina, a woman who reminded me very much of my paternal grandmother. I mentioned my phone call from the previous weeks, said I’d like to know more about the order, assuming Dorris had given her fair warning. Regina had cloudy blue eyes; white hair in distinct, plastic-curler waves; and an attitude dogged determination that comes from a life of hardship. She is a handmaiden for the Shepherds of Christ Ministries, was quick to correct me when I addressed her as “Sister.” As she tells it, the organization is “not yet really an order” recognized by the Catholic Church, and so she cannot call herself a nun. Regina provided only the rough strokes of her life before joining the ministry. Originally from Ohio, she was always religious, but only called to the order “late in life,” in her 50s. Nowadays, she makes the plaster statues of Jesus and Mary that are sold in the gift shop where she works, and she was, at the time I met her, praying every half hour for the outcome of the election.
“We’re all doing it,” she said. “It’s our duty.”
I decided not to ask which candidate she supported, fearing and knowing her answer. But someone else did it for me: During my visit, a Latina woman entered the store, and Regina excused herself from our conversation to help her. Regina pressed the same small paper with the election prayer into the woman’s hand she’d given me.
“Who are you praying to win?” the woman asked.
After a pause, Regina replied, “Certainly not the person who supports the killing of unborn children. If you vote for someone who’s for abortion you’re voting for killing babies.”
“That makes sense,” the woman conceded. “But why is he so mean? Why does he say what he says about women? About disabled people?”
“Choosing the lesser of the evils is the job of being a Catholic.”
My desire for understanding wavered even further. As I write this, one month after the election, Texas has passed a law that requires the burial or cremation of aborted fetuses. An article in The New York Times writes that the Republican state governor, Greg Abbott, is in high favor of this, and believes it demonstrates his “commitment to protect the ‘rights of the unborn’ and ‘turn the tides against abortion.” A similar law, proposed by Vice President-elect Mike Pence, was struck down in Indiana legislature earlier in the year.
To become a handmaiden, Regina has devoted her life to service for the Shepherds of Christ Ministries and to prayer. Her daily routine is full: the morning offering; daily mass and communion, followed by contemplation and prayer; one hour of “private adoration, preferably before the tabernacle”; consecration prayers; and the rosary. But she spoke mostly about Rita Ring, the visionary who was now head of the ministry after Father Carter’s death in 2000. Rita, she said, had been receiving visions from the Virgin Mary and Jesus nearly every day since October 1991. Formerly a university mathematics professor—I’ve heard both Loyola and the University of Cincinnati—Rita has for the past twenty-five years worked to spread the messages, written in a Blue Book series published by the Shepherds of Christ Ministries, she receives in her visions.
Just a few weeks earlier, during Hurricane Matthew’s trudge through Florida, Regina said, she and Rita had driven across the state. They had, as their main luggage, Virgin Mary water and Jesus water—water collected from the pools underneath the respective grottos by the miraculous windows, sold in the gift shop with a placard “NOT FOR DRINKING” prominently beside the plastic bottles. Their mission: Spraying the blessed water out the car windows on the highways to protect the state from the hurricane’s devastation.
“There was a veil,” Regina said. “You could see where we’d sprayed the hurricane wouldn’t come.”
“Could I speak to Rita?” I asked.
I could not. Rita spent most of her days in Indiana, and only traveled down to Clearwater once a month for a regular prayer meeting, which was open the public.
Regina insisted I choose one of the sixteen Blue Books available in the gift shop—“Which one calls to you?”—to go alongside the Apostles Manual I’d purchased to learn more about the organization. I paused, looking over the display of books, and selected the seventh volume. I realized only later, at home, that I’d picked the one with the least-religious—though still very religious—looking-cover and also the thickest. When Regina did not charge me for the copy I selected, I realized, ashamed, that she’d believed I was interesting in joining the organization. My phone call from two weeks earlier had not been passed down to her. I wasn’t a writer, I was only a seeker. Her open, talkative spirit had been an attempt toward enlistment.
I felt badly, in part because she’d been kind and pleasant to me, particularly because she’d given me the Blue Book while the place was clearly hurting for money, and I made a few phone calls afterward joking that I’d “accidentally conned a nun.” But I was also now fully curious. I wanted to meet Rita Ring, the woman who’d inspired such devotion, the woman who’d bought and kept this building for nearly twenty years, despite financial hardship and dwindling attendance. The woman who wrote book after book after book of messages, believing the divine used her as a conduit. I envisioned a slinky, charismatic character, like Sarah Newlin—an Evangelical’s wife turned powerful—in True Blood, devotion writ large and grandiose. And so I wrote down the date of the next monthly meeting, some three weeks in the future, and told Regina I would be there.
Once inside the building, we sat in the meeting room for nearly twenty minutes. The woman who’d mentioned purgatory cut a check to Regina, asking first, “Are you a legitimate charity?” before pressing the paper into her hand. Suddenly, it started. Sanja, a fast-talking woman with a thick accent of seemingly Eastern-European origin, began the meeting without Rita, though seemingly with her blessing. It was a call-and-response, and we were to follow along in the literature:
Lord, have mercy on us. Christ have mercy on us. Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, hear us, Christ graciously hear us. God, the Father of heaven, have mercy on us.
And so on.
I hadn’t planned on this. I’d thought there would be more people, that this would be like the Catholic masses I grew up with, Rita Ring as the priest. But Sanja stood in the back, behind us, leaning on the chair immediately to my right. Her voice was rushed, “RememberOmost graciousVirginMarythatneverwasitknownthatanyonewhofledtoyourprotectionimploredyourhelp.” I remained silent at first, hoping to maintain the position of respectful observer, but my silence was heavy and obvious in such a small group. So I murmured along, quiet as possible, sometimes only mouthing the words. The women to my left spoke more quickly than those to my right, and it went on like this for half an hour, an echo chamber.
Rita Ring appeared at 7:15, nearly an hour after the meeting was supposed to start, along with three people she’d announced as “visitors from Miami.” She was a small woman with pale skin and bushy brown hair, dressed much like the woman who’d been locked out of the building with me: another loose-fitting top, hers in cobalt blue; khaki pants; and sensible shoes. It’s unfair to call someone disappointing, but my expectations and reality were so far apart that disappointment was absolutely my primary emotion upon seeing her.
The call and response mercifully ended at her arrival. She sat at the piano bench and gave an overview of the building’s history, impressing upon us that she’d received a vision from the Virgin Mary the summer before the silhouette appeared telling her it would happen, that she was to prepare for this event. She praised the anonymous donor who wrote a check for $5,000 at the last minute, so many years ago, just in time for the ministry to keep the building. While speaking, she slowly shook her head and brought her hand to her thigh. What would have been the homily was oddly-phrased and stilted, much like the writing in some of the organization’s literature—“You must realize if you do not follow the directions I give to you, you will tend to your own will and not the Father’s will and the devil will taunt you . . . You must stick to the directions I am giving you”—and repetitive, mostly that Jesus and Mary appeared to her and told her to pray, to pray, to pray. She, too, mentioned the water-spraying during Hurricane Matthew, praising Regina’s bottle of choice—one designed for weed-spraying, purchased from Home Depot, that allowed for a pumping motion and didn’t make the fingers cramp from constant pulling on a trigger—and Regina beamed, lowering her head under the praise.
My discomfort had been mounting continuously, like the slope of a line, before spiking dramatically upward when Rita talked about the election prayer, the importance of doing so every half hour. We said it together, as a group, and something twisted inside me as I mouthed the words.
When the family from Miami and the purgatory-contentious woman and her companion stood to leave before the prayer group was over, I did too. It was nearly 8:00.
I smiled and nodded to Regina as I walked quickly past where she stood. I felt heavy in spirit, like I’d done something wrong. I hadn’t understood; I had witnessed devotion but couldn’t make any sense of it. Though I didn’t believe in the power of prayer, I doubted—the years of Sunday school and scripture creeping back. What have I done? What if, in some grand karmic way, my presence here is contributing to the election’s outcome, even though I want the opposite of what they want? Even though I didn’t say the words aloud? I felt uneasy, a double-sided betrayal, on one sharp edge were these women whose ceremony I’d falsely participated in, on the other, myself. I’d acted so far out of character from my own beliefs, walked away with a lingering Catholic hangover about the power of prayer, even a false and insincere mouthed prayer, that had been absent for twenty years.
In the building’s entryway, the woman—the purgatory woman with the checkbook—spoke to her companion about being excommunicated. Then why are you here? I wanted to ask. What did you do? Why do you still come back? Why did you give them money? How could you want this for the nation? For yourself? Instead, I ran to my car. Once safely back inside it, I rolled up my cardigan’s sleeves, lit a cigarette, and took a deep breath. In a few hours, I’d find myself with an excess of time in between dinner and meeting friends, and driving north toward the house where my Wiccan friend, now-dead, used to live. I’d think about her spells and crystals and dreamcatchers and her wife and how she’d let me sleep in her room for a month when I’d moved back to Florida and had no place to go. How I didn’t understand her, but loved her anyway. I’d circle the block, wondering about the house’s new inhabitants.
The next week, when the election results were called, I wept. Not with guilt, but in confusion and bewilderment. I knew I’d wake up feeling the world askew, sliding toward a sticky morass, like a suffocating oil spill across the Gulf, while Regina would wake up praising God, calling the decision, perhaps, a miracle.
Alysia Sawchyn currently lives in Tampa, Florida, where she is a nonfiction editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, The Southeast Review, and elsewhere. She recently won Cutbank‘s Big Sky Small Prose Flash Contest and placed third in LUMINA‘s 2016 Nonfiction Contest.