PAHOKEE | In Pahokee, along the edge of Lake Okeechobee, surrounded by sugarcane fields and swaying palm and mango trees, is St. Mary Church, home of the 16th-century Russian jeweled icon of Our Lady of Bethlehem.
“The icon is really important to us. On Sundays, sometimes people from all areas come to the Spanish Mass and stay and pray to Our Lady of Bethlehem with their intentions,” said Father Juan Raúl Cárdenas, pastor of St. Mary Parish.
“People come and pray for a job, for healing — spiritual, physical and emotional. Sometimes they say, ‘a miracle happened in my life,’ a cure from cancer, a baby, and some offer thanksgiving, and some give a donation.”
For the past eight and a half years, Father Cárdenas has served the poor in the community. Among his most recent accomplishments is the “restoration” of the original church built in 1933, restoring it to its “ethereal beauty.”
Upon entering the church, the beauty of the restoration becomes apparent. The colorful stained-glass windows add bright natural light to the church interior. The floors and pews are a deep, rich mahogany brown. The front of the altar has a painting depicting a resting lamb.
“The lamb represents the sacrifice, the sacrifice of the Mass,” he said. “We tried to keep it the way it looked in the beginning. The windows and the bell were donations from St. Ann Catholic Church in West Palm Beach.”
Father Cárdenas grew up in Peru, where he first felt a calling to the priesthood after witnessing the missionary priests helping people.
“My home parish was a missionary parish where we had missionary priests, and I saw those priests doing many things for the people, spiritually, but also making social changes in their lives,” he said.
“The priests were always there helping them, working with them, organizing them to go to the government to request schools, clinics, hospitals, sometimes building schools, clinics and hospitals,” Father Cárdenas said.
Reflecting on his calling, he said, “That really impacted me to see the priests helping the people. I was really proud of my pastor, and when I was a kid, I wanted to be like him.”
Being a mission parish means that St. Mary is not entirely self-supporting, but relies on support from the Diocese of Palm Beach and other sources.
The parish has a few ministries that need funds to help parishioners grow in their Catholic faith, such as religious education, youth ministry and prayer groups. On the other hand, the parish has outreach programs offering clothing and food.
“We give the people what they need, especially the farmworkers: long-sleeved shirts, jeans, hats, sneakers to work in the fields,” Father Cárdenas said.
The parish food pantry provides emergency food assistance to anyone in need, not just to Catholics, but to all those in the community and surrounding areas.
A man who benefits from the food pantry, Benjamin Patterson, expressed his gratitude with tears in his eyes. “This means a whole lot to me. This keeps me off the streets begging. This church and priest are a big help to me,” he said.
A volunteer, Aracely Delgado, said, “I like to help others and to serve in the parish.”
Maricela Witrago, another volunteer, said, “This makes me happy to help and to teach my daughter to help others.”
The parish has a youth hall, but needs support to organize programs and activities. “We need money because we have to buy items that will be necessary to have this done. For example, the kids’ uniforms, everything for the activity. To rent a bus to go to any other activities to other parishes or places costs more than $1,000,” Father Cárdenas said.
To learn more about the Pahokee parish, visit https://stmarysofpahokee.com/ or the parish Facebook page @StMaryCatholicChurch. Anyone wishing to visit the church at 1200 E. Main St. and venerate the icon is asked to call 561-924-7305 in advance. To learn more about the parishes and missions in the Diocese of Palm Beach, go to www.DiocesePB.org.