St. Mary parish denied shrine designation

PAHOKEE — “To those of you who had requested me to seek St. Mary in Pahokee designated as an official ‘Shrine’ to Our Lady of Bethlehem, unfortunately it has been rejected by the Diocese of Palm Beach.”

So stated a post on the Facebook page of former St. Mary Catholic Church Pastor John Mericantante last Wednesday, Oct. 24, after he received a letter from the Rev. Brian G. King, episcopal secretary and director of liturgy for the Diocese of Palm Beach. The nearly century-old Pahokee parish is lovingly called “the Bethlehem of the Diocese of Palm Beach,” says its website (stmarysofpahokee.com), because, for one thing, it is home to a 16th-century bejeweled Russian icon statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem that resides in a 6-year-old sanctuary largely financed through the gifts of well-to-do Catholics from outside the Glades region.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
The Virgin of Bethlehem icon in the Pahokee church was one of three painted by a 16th-century monk and is believed by many to be a relic that has brought miracles to various people through the centuries.

A bigger reason for devotions to this revered statue and the parish itself, though, is the faith of the flock who worship here and of those who gave to the fundraising campaign that the former pastor conducted for many years to get the modern sanctuary built. Many believe that numerous miracles have been associated with the Russian icon through the centuries and, especially, since it has been in Pahokee.

Dated Oct. 17, Rev. King’s letter announced the decision on behalf of Bishop Gerald M. Barbarito, saying, “After carefully reviewing the various canons (1230-1234), the bishop has decided not to establish St. Mary Catholic Church as a diocesan shrine.” Because shrines are a “place of pilgrimage,” it explained, the church would have to “offer multiple opportunities for daily Mass, confession, adoration/exposition and the practice of popular devotions that go far beyond what a parish church normally offers.”

The bishop cited the facts that only one priest is assigned to St. Mary presently, the current pastor, the Rev. Juan Raúl Cárdenas, and that he had not made the request. “It is not reasonable to place this burden on him,” declared the letter.

Several of the Rev. Mericantante’s former parishioners responded to his Facebook post, saying he had done his best and at least tried. “Yes, I did, but God and His Mother will always have the last word someday,” Father John, who was pastor for two decades, replied.

During an interview back in the summer of 2017, Pastor Juan Cárdenas told about some of the long, rich history of the icon and how it came to be in the possession of a Chicago pawnshop owned by a Jewish family and, finally, a gift to St. Mary Catholic Church.

“It’s a relic,” he said. “Since it was donated here, this community has been blessed. And really — really — I think that is a miracle from Our Lady of Bethlehem.

“You see, the icon, there are a lot of precious stones around it. And those precious stones, I heard, are thanksgiving, given in gratitude by someone who received a miracle from God through the Virgin Mary. So they wanted to give precious stones; they were rich people. And it ended up here, and since Father John was here, many people started coming and miracles started happening.”

The largest one is this, Padre Juan explained, “The congregation believes that by the prayers offered through the Virgin of Bethlehem icon, another miracle happened when enough was raised to fulfill Father John’s dream.”

But, Pastor Cárdenas said, their blessings have not stopped in the five years since the former pastor retired after the new sanctuary was built.

“Since that, we sometimes are struggling with finances here to pay out some kind of bills, and I always say, ‘God is going to provide.’ And then someone sends a gift, saying, ‘Father, this is for your parish.’ And I say, ‘Oh, this is what I was waiting for.’ We’ve never been abandoned; she takes care of us,” he said.

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