Many people travel to shrines around the world to pray and find peace, but there is a beautiful place of pilgrimage right here in the Diocese of Palm Beach. St. Mary Church in Pahokee is often called the “Bethlehem of the Diocese of Palm Beach” because of its location amidst the southern edge of Lake Okeechobee, surrounded by sugar cane fields, tall palm trees and mango trees.
This parish is also home to the precious icon, Our Lady of Bethlehem, which depicts an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Christ child painted by a 15th century monk who, it is believed, was commissioned to paint the image for a wealthy Russian family, who later gilded the icon with precious jewels.
On Sept. 8, 2020, Father Juan Raúl Cárdenas, pastor of St. Mary Church, celebrated Mass in honor of the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the patroness of the parish. At the request of many parishioners, the annual Mass included the anointing of the sick which Father Cárdenas fulfilled following the diocese’s current liturgical precautions and the Center for Dieseas Control and Prevention’s guidelines.
“Because of much sickness due to the pandemic, parishioners requested for me to anoint them with the Oil of the Sick,” said Father Cárdenas.
St. Mary Church, although a humble parish, is rich in faith, which is apparent in the faithful’s reverence and love of God and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Before Mass began, faithful devoutly prayed the rosary before the beautiful jewel-encrusted icon of the Blessed Mother and Child. Many of the sick knelt or stood humbly, despite wheelchairs or crutches.
Maria Isabel Moreno visits the icon often. “I struggled to conceive for 12 years. I went to Mass and prayed before the Virgin Mary asking for a miracle to have a baby. My prayers were answered—here is my miracle baby, Vinicio Emmanuel,” she said, referring to her son.
Another parishioner claims her son was healed of an incurable skin disease in 2000.
“I had been to many doctors and they could do nothing. I prayed before the icon of Our Blessed Mother many years ago to cure him of this disease. My son was healed and, today, I am grateful for what God has provided,” she said.
Upon his installation as pastor in 2013, Father Cárdenas took up the mantle as the guardian of the icon, building on former pastor Father John Mericantante’s work to see the image made into an official shrine. Father Cárdenas shared that in order for St. Mary Parish to become a shrine, support in the way of pastoral leadership, monetary donations, approval from the bishop and stronger spiritual dedication is necessary.
“It is a process,” he said. “There is much involved. But if it is God’s will, then it is also my desire to carry out this process.”
Father John Mericantante agreed. “Our Lady of Bethlehem came to Pahokee to the poorest and now wishes to be known throughout the world.”
Earlier in 2020, Edward Kahn, owner of the House of Kahn Estate Jewelers and the generous donor of the icon to the parish, passed away. His daughter, Tobina Kahn, continues to speak out on behalf of the icon’s healing power.
This year I was in intensive care after being diagnosed with COVID-19. I saw a vision of my father and he said to me, ‘It is not your time.’ It was my father’s last wish for St. Mary Parish to become an official Marian shrine for people around the world to visit,” she said.
To learn more about the icon of Our Lady of Bethlehem at St. Mary Parish in Pahokee, visit stmarysofpahokee.com. To support the icon’s preservation and general parish needs, donate online at osvhub.com/stmarysofpahokee/funds or by mail at St. Mary Catholic Church, 1200 East Main Street, Pahokee, FL 33476. Due to COVID-19 liturgical precautions, the parish requests that all those interested in viewing the icon call 561-924-7305 to schedule an advance visit.
Aleen Stanton, Florida Catholic correspondent