Miraculous Mettle

Dec. 8-14, 2005
VOL 124 NO. 42
Miraculous Mettle
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
The traditions of the Catholic Church include the wondrous and yet very real miraculous deeds of saints. These people — lay, clerical and religious — by their virtue and faith have historically shown others how to live in the light of God by imitating Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Syracuse Diocese is blessed to be in an exclusive group of dioceses where such a person lived, worked, loved and taught. Mother Marianne Cope, a Sister of St. Francis, lived from 1838-1918 and spent the last 35 years of her life ministering to abandoned lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. She was declared Blessed on May 14, 2005 by the church in a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, prefect for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

In order for Mother Marianne to be declared Blessed, a miracle reporting a cure or recovery that was inexplicable had to take place. And, prayers for the person in that case must be attributed to Mother Marianne’s intercession. Canonical norms must be followed and investigations by the diocese and the Vatican must take place. In the case of Mother Marianne, the miracle affected the life of a family, which only recently told its story.

Today, living, working, loving and teaching among those in the diocese is Katherine Dehlia Mahoney, better known as “Kate.” She is a lovely, raven-haired woman of 27. A smile comes easily across her face and belies a past that her parents, John and Mary, remember well.

John and Mary Mahoney awaited Kate’s birth in 1978 with a mixture of joy and anxiety. They had been trying for five years to have a baby. Mary spent seven months in bed before Kate’s birth two months ahead of schedule. Little Kate weighed just three and a half pounds. The couple said they were convinced Kate was going to be Sean Patrick Mahoney, so when she arrived it took a few days before they came up with her name. “There were tubes and needles everywhere,” John Mahoney remembered. “I went to see her one day and her little nose was squished but her jaw was set defiantly while she lay there. I thought, ‘She’s a Kate!’”

From the very beginning, Kate was a fighter. The Mahoneys took her home after five weeks. Mary Mahoney said she couldn’t hold her newborn in an upright position at first. “I always carried her out in front of me with two hands and was shocked when a friend who was a nurse came to give her her first bath. She held her right up in the air. I was horrified,” Mary Mahoney laughed.

As it would come to pass, the premature baby that tolerated being lifted in the air became a strong young woman who would later overcome hospital stays, cancer, operations and multiple organ failure. Kate’s life and Mother Marianne’s life will be forever intertwined because of what Kate’s miraculous recovery personifies for people everywhere — the power of prayer and faith. No matter what is written or heard today, there is no disputing the facts that Kate was by all medical accounts facing death, and then, after Mother Marianne’s intercession was invoked, each organ that was failing began to improve and today Kate is very much alive and looking forward to her future. As she stresses more than any point of her story, Kate herself is no miracle. She is the vehicle for Mother Marianne’s miracle. It is Mother Marianne’s story that she wants to share.

Mother Marianne’s life choice was extraordinary by comparison to today’s standards. Leprosy is no longer the medical challenge it once was and socially ostracizing patients is not acceptable today. Fifty other congregations were asked to send representatives to Hawaii but only Mother Marianne agreed to take on the responsibility — one that she agreed to wholeheartedly. And she did so replying to the bishop who asked her, “I am not afraid of any disease; hence, it would be my greatest delight even to minister to the abandoned ‘lepers.’”

Before her missionary work in Hawaii began, Mother Marianne had already established her legacy with the Sisters of St. Francis back home. She had founded both St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse and St. Elizabeth’s in Utica. In an era of few, if any, female executives, Mother Marianne paved the way for those who would follow her. She made sure the mission of the hospitals included equal treatment for all no matter their race, religion or financial circumstance — a mission that holds true today. Her groundbreaking methods of ensuring a proper, sanitary environment grew out of her practice in the diocese and would eventually inform her ministry among the lepers in Hawaii. Mother Marianne also served as provincial for the sisters before she left for Hawaii in 1883. In Hawaii she served with Blessed Father Damien De Veuster who was already ministering to the lepers of Molokai. Mother Marianne created a home for women and girls at Kalaupapa and she took charge of his home for boys after his death in 1899.

One cannot talk about Mother Marianne’s time in the diocese without referring to Utica where she first lived and where she received her sacraments. Sister Rose Vincent Gleason, OSF, is the retired president and CEO of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and Mother Marianne figures prominently whenever she discusses the history of the Utica hospital. It is in Sister Rose Vincent’s family tree that the story of Mother Marianne’s first miracle begins.

Sister Rose Vincent’s good friend and another Sister of St. Francis, Sister Mary Laurence Hanley, is the Cause Director for Mother Marianne Cope. Sister Mary Laurence’s cousin, James Hanley, had served as a U.S. congressman in Washington, D.C., beginning in 1964 and John Mahoney was his administrative assistant for 10 years. The two had a lasting friendship and when Mahoney’s only child, Kate (named after the character in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew), took ill in 1992, Hanley and his wife, Rita (a cousin of Sister Rose Vincent), were concerned. The Mahoneys had returned to Central New York that summer after spending two years in Limerick, Ireland where John had been asked to develop an American Studies program at the local university. They had enrolled Kate at Bishop Ludden Junior/Senior High School for the fall of 1992. When the Hanley family got together for the Christmas holiday that year, discussion of young Kate’s illness came up.

Kate, at age 14, was diagnosed with germcell ovarian cancer in the summer of 1992. She underwent a successful operation for removal of the cancer Aug. 11 of that year. Her treatment afterwards included aggressive chemotherapy. The therapy presented a new round of problems such as mouth sores, anemia, extensive bleeding and fluid retention. It was the illness that followed the surgery that brought Kate to the brink of disaster. She was admitted to Crouse Hospital on Dec. 3 and four liters of fluid were removed from her body on Dec. 10. Afterwards she went into hemorrhagic shock and massive fluid and blood replacement were required. Her blood pressure dropped into the 50s and she was resuscitated.

One of the physicians who took care of Kate in the Intensive Care Unit at Crouse Hospital in Syracuse, Dr. Russell Acevedo, was part of the investigation into the miracle. He explained that one of the complications after Kate’s chemotherapy was severe hemorrhaging that led to cardiac arrest for a period of 25 minutes on Dec. 10, 1992.

“That is a long time for cardiac arrest,” Dr. Acevedo said. “She required a lot of fluid, a lot of support. We had to breathe for her, we had to give her medicine to restart her heart. Complications of that development were dysfunction of multiorgan systems because many of her organs were injured during that cardiac arrest.” Kate required a long stay in the ICU, Dr. Acevedo explained. “She required a high level of support. She was on the ventilator for two months. Her kidneys shut down and she was on dialysis, her GI tract was unable to process food so she was fed intravenously and she basically slept for two months. The more organ support a patient requires the less chance there is for survival.”

As Dr. Acevedo looked over his notes from the case recently, he said he remembered all the staff who would leave the hospital on Friday believing that Kate would not be alive the following Monday when they returned to work. “I took a week’s vacation in January myself and I did not expect her to be alive when I got back,” he said. By Jan. 1, 1993, Kate’s lungs had begun to deteriorate and her tissue was described by the family as having the consistency of butter. There was nothing solid left to push another needle into.

As Sister Mary Laurence recalls, the Hanley’s were worried because Kate wasn’t expected to survive. They, along with Sister Rose Vincent, considered praying for Mother Marianne’s intercession on Kate’s behalf. That is how the prayers began. Sister Mary Laurence and Sister Rose Vincent went to see Kate and the Mahoney’s at Crouse Hospital to be sure the prayers were in keeping with the family’s wishes. Kate’s mother, Mary, had grown up in Syracuse as one of 14 children. She was familiar with the Sisters of St. Francis because she had gone to the convent school. Mary had heard the story of Mother Marianne as a schoolgirl. She was open to the idea of intercessory prayer to Mother Marianne as a means to help her daughter.

“What I admired about Mother Marianne is that she was wide open to accept the will of God,” Mary Mahoney said. John Mahoney was already a regular at daily Mass and, although he was not aware of Mother Marianne Cope at the time, he was also willing to ask for her intercession. Once the compliance of Kate’s family was guaranteed, Sister Mary Laurence was ready to go ahead with prayers to Mother Marianne on Kate’s behalf. When she visited Kate on Jan. 3, 1993 she touched Kate’s forehead with a relic of Mother Marianne’s — a little, red scrap of a bookmark on which Mother Marianne had written “Sweet Jesus Mercy.” Sister Mary Laurence prayed for Kate and she asked the members of her community to do the same. They asked for Mother Marianne’s intercession.

At this point in young Kate’s life she had spent her early years growing up outside of Washington, D.C. as her parents worked as activists and in politics. John Mahoney spent over 30 years in Washington except for time spent organizing Hugh Carey’s first campaign for governor of New York in 1974. Mary Mahoney was active on the Parent Advisory Council National Children’s Medical Center. She was chairperson for Public Policy at Northern Virginia Association for the Education of Young Children and a national board member for the Children’s Foundation. She was an adjunct professor at Marymount University in Arlington, Va.

As civic minded as the Mahoneys are, they were also extremely active in their parish, Blessed Sacrament in Alexandria, Va. They initiated a bag-lunch program for the poor, participated in Judeo/Catholic Dialogue and initiated a spiritual development program in their neighborhood. Kate’s early years leading up to her illness were spent in the usual pursuits such as soccer, school, church and a strong affinity for the theatre developed that continues today.

While John Mahoney was willing to participate invoking Mother Marianne’s help for his daughter, he admits he was skeptical about what are popularly known as “miracles.” Not anymore. “There was no magic moment when I believed what happened to Kate was a miracle,” John Mahoney said. “I do know I had a long chat with ‘the Boss’ and I made a commitment to Him. He saw Kate through and I kept my commitment. Then I knew it was a miracle. There is no other explanation. If there was a definitive moment for me it didn’t occur in the hospital. But, when I read the discharge papers and they said Kate’s recovery could not be explained medically — I know that’s as close as you’re going to come to having a physician say he saw a miracle.”

Among John Mahoney’s dear friends was Jim Maher, president of Crouse Hospital when Kate was admitted there in 1992. The hospital staff and the medical team that took care of Kate were extraordinary, Mary Mahoney said. They celebrated Christmas and the New Year in the hospital and were always there to help the family. Maher in fact lit up the Lights of Love at the top of Crouse Hospital in February to commemorate Kate’s road to recovery. The lights are usually only lit at the Christmas season and have long been dimmed by February.

All of the attention that went along with Kate’s illness was not something she welcomed. She was a teenager and looking forward to high school when she fell ill. Her classmates at Bishop Ludden had barely met her before they made daily prayers for Mother Marianne’s intercession on Kate’s behalf a routine part of the school day. She didn’t fully comprehend how sick she had been partly because, as Dr. Acevedo explained, her sedation included medication that left her with no memories of the months spent in ICU.

Although Kate has no memory of the harrowing events, there are plenty of others who do remember praying to Mother Marianne and watching in amazement as, one by one, her organs began to function again. Sister Roseanne LaManche worked as a nurse at Kalaupapa, arriving there in 1949 and working for eight years during two separate intervals. She feels a special regard for Mother Marianne and she also was one of the sisters who prayed for her intercession on behalf of Kate.

“I usually prayed by myself,” Sister Roseanne recently relayed. “I remember most of her vital organs weren’t functioning. I remember Sister Mary Laurence taking the relic up to the hospital to petition for her survival. Then I remember she began improving. They didn’t expect her to make it. She was so young and I really looked for a miracle. If you see her now, it is just amazing.” The students at Bishop Ludden were kept abreast of Kate’s condition as they continued to keep her in their daily prayers. Dennis Meehan, principal at Bishop Ludden, remembers the prayers too. “As she began to progress and return to health there was tremendous elation within the school,” Meehan remembered. “To be able to experience that in my life and in the life of the students was very meaningful and very powerful. We shared with the students that Kate was in very grave condition – near death – and then to have her return to school was very special for the students. It was incredible.”

There were many people who played a role in Kate’s recovery. Many people prayed, including Kevin Mahoney of Utica, who is no relation to Kate’s family, but was very interested in Mother Marianne’s cause and who distributed many prayer cards on Kate’s behalf. Family, friends, students, clergy and religious prayed. Father Fred Mannara, now pastor of Most Holy Rosary Church in Syracuse, was a classmate of John Mahoney’s and delivered mail to Mary’s family home. He has known the family for decades. When Kate was hospitalized, Father Mannara brought dinner and dessert several nights a week. He administered Last Rites to Kate on more than one occasion.

“I used to visit them almost every day. On my way back home from dinner with my family I would stop by Crouse. I was pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes back then,” Father Mannara said. “I brought a lot of chicken cutlets and homemade brownies.” Father Mannara said Kate is a humble girl and she will now let the Spirit of God carry her story wherever it will go. It is not easy for her to open her life up to everyone and she is still coming to terms with the enormity of the miracle that occurred, but Kate is ready now.

The Mahoneys made the trip to Rome for Mother Marianne’s Beatification. The trip was an awe-inspiring experience for them. For John and Mary to see their “little girl” greet Pope Benedict XVI and to realize that she is the vehicle for the beatification brings on emotions that are indescribable. Mary Mahoney said she not only believes in miracles, but also believes in the little miracles that happen every day. She did not leave her daughter’s bedside when she was sick. Mary called everyone for prayers and did not hesitate to name her daughter’s specific needs on any particular day. She read Gray’s Anatomy and felt she needed to be the historian or note keeper during the experience. She has numerous journal entries that give an account of the events.

“Every time there was something new happening to her medically, I would get the book out and read. I tried to learn as much as I could. We massaged her fingers, rotated her ankles and we sang to her and read to her,” Mary Mahoney said. Sister Mary Laurence prayed for Kate throughout the day using one of her own prayers, “Sweet Jesus Mercy, Mother Marianne intercede for Kate.” The exact wording of the prayer isn’t important, Sister Mary Laurence explained, it is the inclusion in the prayer for Mother Marianne’s intercession in particular that is relevant. And, there does not have to be absolute connection with a relic for a miracle to take place.

“The significance of a relic is to draw a closer connection with the patient and Mother Marianne. There is no magic in the relic itself but just as anyone feels closer to a person if they have something once belonging to that person, it helps bring about a feeling of presence,” Sister Mary Laurence said. “A miracle case does not need the use of a relic to succeed. It is the faith that counts, not an object.” Kate’s parents let her determine when she was ready to talk about Mother Marianne’s intercession in her life. “They were very good about not pulling me into something too fast,” Kate said. “Each day we focused on one thing. One day it was to stand up or to use my fork. There was a lot of fear and frustration for me. The whole key to the story, the miracle, is something that I can’t remember but I have never questioned it. My connection to Mother Marianne came later.”

It wasn’t until a few years ago that Kate, like most people her age, was trying to figure out which direction to go in her life. She had graduated from college and had worked in Washington, D.C. but she wanted to pursue her dream of a career in the performing arts and so she went to New York City. “I had no plan,” she laughed, “and I failed miserably.” She came back home after a few weeks and needed to look for a job while she applied to graduate schools. “My cousin worked at St. Joe’s Home Care and I asked if there was anything available there. I had marketing and advertising experience and I thought I might be able to do something with that,” she said. As luck would have it, the only openings available at the time were positions for home health aides. That was not something Kate felt she was equipped to do, but she decided to give it a try. During the three-week training course, Kate came to realize that her health history gave her a strong knowledge base for the new job and before she knew it she was at the top of her class. The orientation process for the position required viewing a slide show presentation. One can guess whose portrait appeared on the large screen — that of Mother Marianne.

“It hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought, ‘Here I am working at the place she founded.’ I looked around me all of sudden wondering if the other people in the room knew. Then I realized I needed to reconnect with her and I needed to stop running from it [the miracle]. I need to take ownership of it and I have to utilize it.” Today Kate is a caregiver for her parents as they begin to deal with their own health issues. She also continues to care for patients through home health care on a limited basis. The journey for Kate to accept what has happened to her has not been easy. She’s been wary that she would be given credit for something she doesn’t deserve or granted authority that she doesn’t possess. Her admiration and love for Mother Marianne is strong. Kate admires her courage, her activism, her success during a patriarch-driven period in history and now acknowledges Mother Marianne’s role in her life.

“Her role in my life is huge. My role in her life is minimal. I talk to her. I pray to her and I take great comfort in knowing she’s watching over me. A miracle is a pretty wonderful thing,” Kate said smiling.

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