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CLEARWATER -- A handmaiden of the shepherd is threatening to have me arrested if I show one more person the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich.

The handmaidens are the female members of the Shepherds of Christ Ministries, a relatively small order from Ohio that now tends to an abandoned bank building that many believe bears the likeness of the Virgin Mary on its tinted windows.

When I show up, there are nine people present for the ministry's nightly prayers. I am carrying the grilled cheese sandwich in a metal briefcase. As soon as I mention it to a visitor in the parking lot, I am descended upon by the head handmaiden, a woman named Rosie.

''You can't bring that in here,'' Rosie tells me. ''This is holy ground.''

In other words, in the world of holy apparitions, competition is not welcome. ''But don't you at least want to look at it?'' I ask. ''Maybe it will move you.''

I fiddle for a moment with the lock on the briefcase, before opening it and show her the VMGCS. Rosie crinkles her nose in apparent dissatisfaction. She will not be a convert. ''I don't see anything,'' she says.


Also in the parking lot, sitting in a rented SUV, were Roger and Lisa Hardy, along with their three children. On vacation from Michigan (where Roger works as a tool designer), they have visited the Clearwater apparition nearly every day.

''It has a serene feeling about it,'' he said. ''It does feel like a very tranquil place.''

Since the image first appeared eight years ago, thousands of people have flocked to this busy intersection in Clearwater to pray. A few have tried to destroy it. In March a teenager damaged one of the panes of glass with a slingshot. A sinkhole now threatens the building as well.

When Rosie leaves to attend to flock business, I show Roger and Lisa the VMGCS. ''You can definitely see a face,'' says Roger. ''I heard about this. Didn't some woman sell it?''

''That's right,'' I explain. ''She sold it on eBay for $28,000 to an online casino, I'm driving it to Vegas.''

Roger's skepticism about the sandwich diminished slightly when told the woman claims it is 10 years old and yet there is no mold.

''Well,'' Roger said, ''we can't put God in a box and expect Him just to work in that box. If he wants to come out of that box and appear on a grilled cheese sandwich, that's His will. He can defy the law of physics and time. All things are possible with God.''


When Roger and Lisa leave, I walk over to the Shepherds' gift table to talk to Rosie. Since the teen shattered one of the panes of glass, she explains, the number of visitors has sharply declined.

''People think the Virgin Mary is now gone. But she's not,'' she quickly assures me. 'Her presence is still very much here. And now Jesus' face is appearing.''

Rosie and others believe that an image of Christ is beginning to emerge. She hopes as word spreads it will generate new visitors.

Of course, many still believe the images are a reaction from chemicals in the sprinkler system. ''Faith is a gift from God,'' she says. ''It takes faith to see.''

''Does it really matter if it actually is the Virgin Mary on the side of this building or for that matter on the grilled cheese sandwich I'm carrying?'' I ask. ''If it prompts people to pray or do good deeds, shouldn't that be enough? Who is to say your Virgin Mary is any less real than mine?''

She looks at me strangely.

''What I am saying is, if it moves you in a certain way, does it really matter whether it was the work of God or caused by the building's sprinkler system or because the griddle left a certain mark?''

''The only explanation is that this,'' she says, pointing to the building, ''is God's work.''

And so what do I have in this case?

Rosie smiles and shrugs. ''No comment.''

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