Marnelli Torrefiel of Oakland prays at St. Mary Church. She had heard about the old icon displayed there and made a pilgrimage to the parish from Broward County where she lives. LINDA REEVES|FC

Small parish is a miracle of Mary

PAHOKEE | Catholics annually make religious journeys to various holy places where apparitions and other miracles have taken place or where a saint lived or died. But pilgrims are also visiting a special place here in the diocese to pray and go to Mass, with lovely, peaceful grounds where faithful say miracles continue to take place and where a large celebration is planned next week for the woman behind it all.

“We will celebrate Mother Mary’s birthday,” said Father Raul Cardenas, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Pahokee. A Sept. 8 evening Mass is planned to celebrate the feast day of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the parish patroness, who many believe is responsible for the parish’s continued blessings and existence. The feast marks the day the Blessed Virgin Mary was born to St. Anne and St. Joachim, and it was on the feast day in 2012 that the new St. Mary Church was opened and dedicated.

Father Cardenas said there will be a special guest: Father John Mericantante, former pastor of the parish from 1993 to November 2013, who spearheaded the new 9,000-square-foot California mission-style sanctuary, a gem of the Diocese of Palm Beach located in one of the poorest parishes in an agricultural community on the edge of Lake Okeechobee with struggling households and migrant workers.

The church is truly a magnificent house of worship and a beacon of Catholicism in western Palm Beach County, an area that is developing over the years and with an ethnic mix of families. The original St. Mary Church was designed to seat 140 people and was opened and dedicated in 1934. Today the tiny sanctuary is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. It remains open on the grounds for pilgrims to visit.

John Lamb, a Parkland architect, worked with Deacon Marty Serraes a Lake Worth contractor who serves St. Juliana Parish in West Palm Beach and as diocesan episcopal delegate of the permanent diaconate, to design and construct the new church filled with statues, paintings and interesting religious symbols and features. The church holds images paying honor to Mary in every nook and cranny, but the most famous one is displayed in a special corner of the church, where pilgrims flock to pray, reflect and spend time.

The Florida Catholic visited St. Mary Aug. 12 to attend Mass and see the beautiful Our Lady of Bethlehem icon which has attracted so many over the years. The icon was painted by a monk in the 1500s and represents Mary with Baby Jesus. When we arrived, people were gathered near the icon. Some were kneeling in prayer. Others were standing in reflection.

“I have goose bumps,” said Marnelli Torrefiel as she gazed upon the image. A recent transplant from the Philippines who lived in the Archdiocese of Miami, she explained that she came with a friend. “This is my first time to Pahokee. I am praying for my family’s health and safety.”

Edward and Adele Kahn, of House of Kahn estate jewelers in Palm Beach, donated the 16th-century silver-gilded icon of Mary and Baby Jesus to the poor parish in 2000. It is encrusted with diamonds, pearls, emeralds and rubies. Back then, it was valued at more than $250,000, but parishioners of St. Mary say that a price tag cannot be put on this lovely devotional that was specifically designed for Russian kings and is now in the safekeeping of the faithful.

In 2000, we spoke to Adele Kahn. The Kahns purchased the icon in 1963 and said that even though they are Jewish, they have cherished the Christian icon since the day they bought it. They donated the rare icon to St. Mary’s Parish and Father Mericantante as a Christmas present. “The people in Pahokee have had a hard time lately with the layoffs at U.S. Sugar Corporation. I thought the icon could lift their spirits during this holiday season,” Adele Kahn told the Florida Catholic.

In 2000, Father Mericantante said that he believed that the icon had found its perfect home, and the parish has kept it safe for the past 18 years. “Hopefully what the icon will do is to bring pilgrims,” he said.

The icon has indeed brought pilgrims, but also produced beautiful stories of hope and faith. John Burnette is a longtime parishioner, since 1971. He has witnessed the many visitors to the parish over the years. He believes that Mary’s presence is strong in Pahokee and on the grounds of St. Mary Parish. “It is a very special place,” he said. “I trust that Mary has done miracles. When I have a heavy heart, I visit her and I feel better.”

Lena Ghaffari of Wellington came to St. Mary years ago, felt something special, and now she calls the parish home. She is the past president of the parish’s Council of Catholic Women, which she founded, and she currently serves on the diocesan Council of Catholic Women leadership development team. Ghaffari is a parish volunteer, staffing the gift shop on weekends, and she leads tours at the church.
“We have a lot of visitors,” she said. “They come from as far as New York and Miami. Many people come here because they are ill. I have heard so many miracle stories.”

Father Cardenas is now the guardian of the icon and shepherd of the Pahokee flock. The parish has grown over the years. In the beginning, the congregation had 30 faithful; today 350 registered parishioners call St. Mary their spiritual home, but many nonregistered residents and visitors attend Masses.
When asked if he had experienced any miracles of his own while at the parish, Father Cardenas did not hesitate to answer. “My miracle is that we have good donors,” he said about generous people from various areas and parishioners who support the parish and make ministry possible to continue to grow the city of God in one of the poorest areas of the state.

All are invited to attend the Sept. 8 celebration of the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 7 p.m., at St. Mary Church, 1200 E. Main St., Pahokee. A reception follows the Mass. For information and directions, call 561-924-7305.