MYAKKA CITY -- The $25,000 donation was a surprise.
The glowing statue of the Virgin Mary was an even bigger surprise.
It all started when Sister Gilchrist Cottrill was looking for donations for a fundraiser at her Myakka City school, Ave Maria Preparatory. She walked into Bella Mia Pizza on Manatee Avenue in Bradenton thinking the owner might want to give a gift certificate -- $25, $50, something like that.
"Paul Amato said, 'I really like the name of your school.' He gave us $1,000," Cottrill said.
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"Believe it or not, I was praying, trying to find somebody to help locally," said Amato. The native Sicilian and self-described "believer" said the name of the school and the sight of Cottrill and her fellow nuns in his restaurant immediately struck a chord.
A friendship blossomed between Cottrill, Amato and his wife, Frankie, the former owners of Bella Mia Pizza who now own Paul's Pizza by the Foot in Bradenton, plus another location opening soon in Palmetto.
Ave Maria Prep, which caters to children with learning and emotional disabilities in grades kindergarten through 12th, started transporting students over to Bradenton on field trips so Paul Amato could teach them how to make pizza. They loved it.
The Amatos began holding other school fundraisers, too. As a token of her appreciation, Cottrill gave the couple a 1 1/2-foot-tall statue of Mother Mary to display in their restaurant.
Little did they know the small statue would soon take on a much bigger meaning.
'A personal miracle'
For Frankie Amato's birthday Aug. 15, she decided to do something special. She asked Paul to drive her out to Ave Maria's Myakka campus for the first time, to see Cottrill and her staff in action on the first day of school. And she brought a gift -- a $25,000 donation.
The private school had been struggling to make ends meet, Frankie had learned, and she was moved to do something about it. Something big.
"We've met all the sisters, and they're such wonderful people," Frankie said. "The teachers, the students ... It's just a great atmosphere. It's amazing."
The Amatos say part of the reason they got into the restaurant business was so they could give back in a big way.
The donation came as a complete shock to Cottrill, who founded the school in 2004.
"I was stunned, because we don't get those kinds of donations," Cottrill said, "Because we're out in Myakka and people don't know us."
But what came next was more of a mystery.
Two days after making the donation, the Amatos got a call from two employees at the pizza place. The statue of Mary Cottrill had given them was glowing.
"They were scared," said Paul.
The employees sent Paul a cell phone image showing the statue emanating a strange, flickering light.
Could it have been an optical illusion?
"There's no way," Paul said.
He and Frankie believe it was divine intervention, some sort of blessing, a message that they did the right thing. Later they learned the day they had made the donation, Aug. 15, is when Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.
"I don't care what people say," Paul said. "I took it like a personal miracle."
"There's no doubt in my mind," Frankie said. "It has to be."
A 'last stop' for students
The Amatos' donation came at just the right time, according to Cottrill.
"It helped us get where we needed to be to start the year," she said. "Our summer's really lean because there's no money coming in and we still have bills. But God will provide. We really feel (the donation) was kind of a boost."
Ave Maria Prep and its 12-member staff serves 50 students at its pastoral campus, once home to a ranch. Its students, bused in from all over Manatee, Sarasota, DeSoto and Hardee counties, are dealing with autism, attention deficit disorder, Asperger's ayndrome, Tourette syndrome, anxiety and bipolar disorders. The school is open to students regardless of religious background.
"For a lot of kids, it's their last stop," Cottrill said.
Ave Maria accepts community donations, and many of its students attend on state-funded McKay scholarships.
Last month, the school also launched Shepherd's Field, an agricultural program offering a two-year degree through South Florida State College. Twelve students, ages 18-22, are enrolled this year and will hone their employability skills in the agricultural field, Cottrill said.
As for the Amatos' gift, and the seemingly miraculous statue, Cottrill can't help but see the significance. After all, the school's motto is "Moved by Miracles."
"From both Paul and Frankie's angle, and our angle at the school, we're encouraged," Cottrill said. "Even though we're in business, we're just hanging on the edge, trying to survive. We're encouraged. I just want to express my appreciation."
Jason Bartolone, East Manatee Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBartolone.