Minnesota man works to make nun a saint
By ALYSSA ZACZEK
Saturday, December 9, 2017
ST. JOSEPH, Minn. — Seven years ago, Patrick Norton changed.
The 55-year-old St. Joseph man was painting light posts near the grotto at the College of St. Benedict when a nun in a dated habit appeared and began talking with him.
When the conversation ended, he said, the nun turned and disappeared before his eyes.
"I said, 'Wow,'" he told the St. Cloud Times . "'They really come and go around here!'"
Norton told no one about his strange experience. One year later, a chance encounter at the Church of St. Anthony's of Padua in St. Cloud brought him face to face with a photo of Sister M. Annella Zervas of the Order of St. Benedict.
Norton recognized her at once.
"Those big eyes!" Norton said. "I knew that was the nun I had seen."
It was a happy tale, a missed connection solved by fate or divine intervention. The only problem was that Zervas had died in 1926.
"I knew nothing about her life at that time," Norton said. But after learning more about who Zervas was — and how she suffered in her short life — he became dedicated to telling her story, and advocating for her to become Minnesota's first saint on the basis of her perpetual devotion to God despite ailing from a painful disease.
"Even the kids say, 'You know, dad's really changed since (seeing her),'" said Sandy Norton, Patrick's wife of more than 25 years. "All he talks about is Sister Annella."
But the road to sainthood is long and arduous, and Patrick Norton's advocacy for Zervas's sainthood has received little traction within the Diocese of St. Cloud. Still, his passion for the long-dead religious sister has inspired a small group who believe that Zervas's spirit can perform miracles.
Ninety years after her death, Zervas's story has compelled a man to devote his life to her promotion. But who was she?
She was born Anna Cordelia Zervas in Moorhead, coming into the world on April 7, 1900, Palm Sunday.
She left home for the Order of St. Benedict in St. Joseph at just 15, but the transition away from her family proved to be a difficult one.
"Ever since entering the convent, mental and physical suffering in one way or another was her portion," wrote James Kritzeck in his 1957 book "Ticket for Eternity," which chronicles Zervas's life.
At first, her suffering appeared as homesickness, which Kritzeck characterized poetically as "an unsatisfying longing of a loving heart." Indeed, Kritzeck depicts an extremely anxious but tender young woman, whose "mental anguish" was so strong she developed something akin to severe heartburn that would last all her life.
By all accounts, Zervas's mental condition was, much of the time, turbulent. But her physical condition took a turn for the worse after she made her perpetual vows in 1922.
What began as a bit of itching evolved into something horrific: Her body began to swell from head to toe, her skin turning a deep red and burning with an insatiable itch. Her swollen limbs oozed and developed sores; her skin sloughed off in chunks and strips; "thornlike stickers" developed within her pores and had to be painfully removed.
In 1924, a skin specialist at the University of Minnesota diagnosed her with pityriasis rubra pilaris, a chronic skin disease that had no significant treatment options or a cure at the time.
According to Dr. Elizabeth Blixt, dermatologist at CentraCare Health Plaza, it is possible that Zervas's disease also caused her to develop erythroderma, a complication which could have contributed to her death.
"Erythroderma causes the entire body to become red and inflamed, and the skin often becomes flaky. What can happen is that (the erythroderma) messes with the body's heat regulators. It can cause the body to lose a lot of heat, which makes you more susceptible to infections. It can also cause electrolyte imbalances that can lead to other things, like heart arrhythmia," she said.
If the condition isn't treated properly, people can get quite sick, she said.
"It's certainly possible that it could lead to death," Blixt said.
When it became clear that she would ultimately succumb to her condition, Zervas was taken home to Moorhead. Despite her state, Sister Annella remained cheerful and devout throughout much of her illness, according to Kritzeck. Multiple accounts from "Ticket for Eternity" suggest that Zervas often told others that "(she had) a secret with God," one that she would not divulge but that "(made her) very happy."
When Zervas died in the wee hours of Aug. 14, 1926, she was barely recognizable. Her body was carried down from her bedroom by her mother, and she was buried in the monastic cemetery at the College of St. Benedict.
Long before Patrick Norton first learned of Zervas, he had a life-altering experience associated with another religious figure: Mother Teresa, now known in the Catholic Church as St. Teresa of Calcutta.
Born in 1962 in India, Norton said he was rescued from the streets of Mumbai by sisters from the Missionaries of Charity, a congregation begun by Mother Teresa in 1950.
Norton grew up in the missionaries' care, transferring to Our Lady's Home in Mumbai at the age of 7. There, he received an education that was deeply religious in nature.
"Two priests and two nuns took care of 250 of us in the home," Norton said. "Mass was said 365 days a year. Rosaries were prayed every evening."
Despite the best efforts of the staff, the boys at the home often went hungry.
"My homework was sometimes appetizing," Norton said. "You'd look at the paper and think about eating it. People don't know what it's like to be truly hungry."
But everything changed for Norton after Pope Paul VI visited the home, calling international attention to the humble boys' orphanage. John and Marjorie Norton, a wealthy couple in Fairfield, Connecticut, took notice, and soon Patrick was on his way to America.
"I landed in JFK International Airport in October of 1976," he said. "I remember that day. It was my first time flying on a plane. I remember looking around at that airport, at all the different types of people I had never seen before, and thinking, 'God has to be in this great country.'"
As a young man growing up with 13 adoptive siblings, Patrick Norton remained true to his faith. On a religious pilgrimage to Bosnia and Herzegovina (formerly Yugoslavia), he met Sandy Schindler, of Holdingford, and eventually moved to Minnesota where the couple married and had three children named after the Catholic holy family: Maria, Anna and Joseph.
"Minnesota's my home now," Norton said. "I love the Minnesotan people."
Fifty-four years after followers of Mother Teresa saved him from destitution, Norton's story came full circle: Thanks to the gift of a good Samaritan, who Norton said preferred to remain anonymous, Norton and his family were able to fly to the Vatican for Mother Teresa's canonization.
He gave Pope Francis' security guard a copy of a booklet promoting Zervas for canonization, detailing her life — and his own.
For the past five years, Norton has been singularly focused on promoting Zervas for sainthood.
"I'm a nobody, I'm just a painter. All I know is paint brushes and drop cloths; I've never promoted a saint," Norton said. "But I am promoting her. I said to the Lord, 'Let me promote her through my deafness, my uselessness, my nobody. Let me live each day for you, and I will tell the people (of her) through my nothingness.' "
"Nothingness" aside, Norton has also been promoting Zervas through booklets, like the one he gave to Pope Francis, since 2013. He met Sister Annella's niece, Joan Zervas, who was in possession of many of her aunt's personal effects, through the distribution of those booklets.
Norton and Zervas struck up a friendship, and she gifted him with the suitcase Sister Annella carried throughout her life, filled to the brim with Sister Annella's belongings; among them, her rosary, a book stained with what is believed to be her blood, and the candles that were burning in her room when she died.
"I like to say that this suitcase doesn't belong to me; I'm holding it for the people of Minnesota," Norton said.
If she were to be canonized, Zervas would be the first saint hailing from Minnesota. But in order to officially open Zervas's case for sainthood, she — and Norton — must have the support of the bishop of the diocese in which she died, in this case, Bishop Donald Kettler of the Diocese of St. Cloud.
And that, unfortunately for Norton, may be the largest roadblock to Zervas's canonization.
"To the best of my knowledge, no, Bishop Kettler has not opened an investigation for Sister Annella," said Joe Towalski, director of communications for the Diocese of St. Cloud.
According to Towalski, Kettler has met with Norton "a few times" over the past five years.
The booklets given out by Norton state that Kettler "said that (Norton) should continue the work of promoting her." But, when asked in person, Norton said that Kettler told him that he is only allowed to share his personal experiences with Zervas and Mother Teresa.
Furthermore, while Norton said the bishop told him "it is a very good cause," the bishop also told Norton that his involvement hinges on the support of the Benedictines.
"Bishop Kettler's position is that he's going to respect the (Benedictine) sisters' position on this," Towalski said. "He's not going to disrespect their wishes."
Their wish, it seems, is for the active promotion of Zervas to cease.
"It is simply not the Benedictine way to promote one sister above another," said Sister Karen Rose, communications director for the Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict in St. Joseph.
Humility is a very central concept under the Rule of St. Benedict, Rose said.
"That means we don't see who is the best, or the most holy," she said. "The idea of promoting one of our own is really kind of alien to us."
While Rose clarified that the Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict are "not anti-canonization," she said that it is the Catholic Church as a whole that decides which cases are opened.
"We would not take an active part in that," she added.
Kettler has encouraged Norton to "talk to the community more about this," according to Towalski, but it seems that without Benedictine support, very little progress can be made on Zervas's case, or lack thereof.
But Norton has made a promise to God — and to Zervas herself — that he will continue her promotion. And he's not doing it alone.
On a frigid Sunday in November, nearly two dozen people gathered in the snow-speckled grotto on the College of St. Benedict campus where Norton had his first encounter with Zervas.
"We've had over a thousand people from all over the world in the last few years," Norton said. The group meets monthly to pray for Zervas's case for canonization to be opened by the bishop.
One of the gathered, Michael Latawiec, 29, came from New Brighton to pray with Norton. Latawiec said a visit to Zervas's grave may have altered the course of his life.
"I was one of the 'iron crib' babies in Romania," Latawiec said. "I wasn't held, touched, or played with for the first three years of my life."
Latawiec was eventually adopted by a Minnesota couple, but because of the conditions in which he spent his early years, he had developmental delays that affected his brain and made physical activity difficult.
Still, Latawiec began training in jiu jitsu in 2014, and longed to win at the Sport Jiu Jitsu International Federation World Special Para Championship.
Latawiec went to Zervas's grave looking for a sign.
"I took one of the rosaries off of her grave — God forgive me for that — and I said, 'I'm going to take this so I can remember that Sister Annella is going to help me,' " he said.
Latawiec recently returned from that world championship with three medals around his neck. But does he believe Zervas performed a miracle in his favor?
"I consider miracles more like curing cancer, sickness, illness," Latawiec said. "But I do believe that she was a big intercession for me at this competition."
Another among the gathered, Mary Gustafson, 63, of St. Cloud, hasn't experienced a miracle thanks to Zervas, but she has felt moved by her.
"She had this disease that was incurable, and she never complained. She just offered it all up for others," said Gustafson. "We as a society, myself included, we have one little ache or pain and we go reaching for a pill. We want to fix everything now. But she was just patient and prayerful."
After the rosary prayers were completed in the grotto, the action shifts to Zervas's grave site in the monastic cemetery, where her place is marked with an ornate cross and a single, smooth stone.
There, Norton led the group in the Divine Chaplet. The prayer repeats the refrain "For the sake of his sorrowful passion," a phrase which emphasizes the love Jesus Christ had for his followers and for God, even when spurned.
Norton might also know something about sorrowful passion. Zervas had been dead 40 years before Patrick Norton was born. The Diocese of St. Cloud has all but closed the door on the possibility of an investigation, barring a major change of heart from the Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict. So why would he devote his life to crusading for her promotion?
Norton was asked this point blank at his home one October afternoon. He sat in his living room, back to the windows and the statue of the Virgin Mary that sits in his front yard, at a table covered completely with news articles, photos, books and other items all to do with Sister Annella. An artist's rendering of Mother Teresa's kindly smile radiates down on him from her spot of honor on the wall.
His eyes pan the table, his fingers lovingly scooping up a photo of Zervas. And when he began to speak, the true religious fervor of a devout believer crosses his expressive face.
"I will tell you a secret. And it's not my secret. I have a copy of a document. She told her aunt, 'I have a secret with God.' Do you know what the secret was? The Lord told her, 'You will suffer for a whole generation,'" Norton said.
Norton said he was touched by her holiness.
"She was the most perfect icon of what God wanted us to be," he said. "Isn't it worth it for her to be a saint?"
According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, there are three stages to becoming a saint within the Catholic Church.
Before an investigation, or a "cause," may begin, the candidate must have been dead for at least five years. This, according to the USCCB, is to "allow greater balance and objectivity in evaluating the case and to let the emotions of the moment dissipate."
After five years have passed, Stage I can proceed.
This stage happens in two phases. In the first, the bishop of the diocese or eparchy in which the person died begins the investigation. A petitioner — for example, the diocese itself, a religious order, or an association of the faithful — asks the bishop to open the investigation. Then, the bishop consults with several groups, eventually forming a tribunal to investigate the candidate's life through witnesses and documents.
The second phase of Stage I begins after the diocesan investigation. In Rome, a "Positio," or summary of evidence from phase one is prepared. That summary is examined by nine theologians who then vote on whether the candidate lived a heroic life or suffered martyrdom. If the majority is in favor, the cause is passed on to examination by cardinals and bishops who are members of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. If their judgment is favorable, the prefect of the Congregation passes on the results to the Pope, who gives his approval and authorizes the Congregation to draft a decree declaring the candidate Venerable, if they have lived a virtuous life, or Blessed, if they have been martyred.
For a candidate who has been deemed Venerable, a miracle attributed to their intercession is necessary for beatification. For a candidate who has been deemed Blessed, or martyred, no miracle is required. For a Venerable, the miracle must be proven through a canonical investigation similar to the one executed in Stage I. Once a verified miracle is decreed, the Pope grants the beatification. Beatification allows for limited public veneration of the candidate, usually only in the diocese or region where the candidate lived. With beatification, the candidate receives the title of Blessed.
For canonization, another miracle is needed regardless of whether the candidate was deemed a Venerable or a Blessed in Stage I. This miracle must be attributed to the candidate's intercession, but it must also have occurred after his or her beatification. The methods for affirming this miracle are the same as those followed in Stage II. Canonization allows for public veneration by all faithful within the Roman Catholic Church. With canonization, the Blessed acquires the title of Saint.