TORONTO — The statistical probabilities behind praying your way out of stage 4 cancer are not good. When you’re too skinny, too weak and hallucinating half the time, when friends and family come to your house and just cry, you don’t make any long-term plans.
Unless you’ve got a rock from the crypt of Bishop Michael Power.
Bits of broken brick and limestone from the basement of St. Michael’s Cathedral, all taken from near the final resting place of Toronto’s founding Catholic bishop, have made their way into the hands of at least 18 seriously ill people across Canada. Some of them are now claiming miraculous cures.
Power was buried beneath his cathedral in 1847, two years before it was consecrated. He was just shy of his 43rd birthday when he died after weeks of ministering to sick Irish refugees in sheds at Toronto’s lakefront.
The idea that stones unearthed from below Toronto’s Catholic cathedral might hold the power to cure started with Carol Bragagnolo, project manager for Angelus and Associates and an inveterate rockhound. As she kept the cathedral’s restoration project on schedule and on budget, Bragagnolo found herself thinking about how the very stones of the cathedral have absorbed generations of prayer.
“There are years’ worth of prayers in each stone of the cathedral,” said Bragagnolo. “The closer I collected them to Bishop Power’s crypt, the more powerful they would be.”
“Power ministered to the sick and dying without concern for his own health and safety, so it makes sense for those who are sick to seek his intercession,” said Father Michael Busch, St. Michael’s rector.
What’s central to the experience of those who have endured and conquered illness with the help of stones from Power’s crypt isn’t some magic ingredient in the rocks, but the faith of those who pray with them, said Busch.
“It’s not the actual object that saves,” he wrote in an email. “It serves only as a focal point of prayer.”
Deborah Zago was dying of uterine cancer when she received a bit of broken brick from Power’s crypt.
“They gave me two weeks to live,” said Zago of Burlington, Ontario. “There was really nothing they could do for me. I was too far gone. I was 70 pounds. … I had my priest come around and give me Communion and my last rites.”
Before Easter 2014, a home care nurse recommended palliative care. There was faint hope that if she could get her weight up, Zago might get strong enough to recover from surgery and endure chemotherapy. Then she was given a broken bit of brick from Power’s crypt.
“When I was dying, I needed a morphine drip of course, right? I had the worst pain. God knows, I would never have wished this pain on anybody. I used to go down with this pain that had me screaming on the front room floor,” she said.
But after receiving the brick, her weight increased and she began chemotherapy at Hamilton’s Juravinski Cancer Centre. Through the months in hospital, followed by months in the big red armchair in her living room, Zago hung onto her rock. She has no doubt that prayer and the stone brought her back.
“As they kept on giving me chemo, I kept on praying with this stone. I kept on saying, ‘Dear stone, that you may be filled with the people’s prayers and the people asking you to work their miracles for them in their life — whatever their life had, in the facts that they were struggling with.'”
“I held my stone since the time I was sick. I have great faith in the stone, and I have great faith in God,” she said.
Dr. Jacalyn Duffin, Queen’s University medical historian and hematologist, has examined 400 years’ worth of miracles in the Vatican libraries for two books she has written about miracles. She is not a Catholic and is skeptical of religious faith generally.
Her study of medical miracles is a scientific inquiry into what Catholics mean when they say they’ve experienced a miracle.
“Even though I am not part of that world view, I think we (doctors) have to respect the fact this is how they experience their illnesses,” she said. “I have enough humility to admit that if I have no explanation, that doesn’t mean that I can refute hers.”
Though medical science prefers to ignore miracles or unexplained cures, Duffin believes they are happening all the time. She said sainthood causes are “the tip of the iceberg.”
No official cause has been initiated to have Power recognized as a saint, but if reports of miracles continue, a cause for sainthood is likely to follow, Duffin said.
“Prayer is helpful even if you don’t get the miracle,” Duffin said. “It’s consoling. It gives you strength. It gives you courage. It grounds you somehow.”
Busch said he would love to see pilgrims coming to St. Michael’s Cathedral and the tomb of Power, but he hopes the pilgrims look beyond miracles.
“I am not sure if people came expecting a miracle that they would find what they came for,” he said. “If they came to ask for assistance with the burdens they carry through Michael Power’s intercession, they may receive some benefit.”
“I gave my own sister, who was dying of lung cancer, a rock to hold. It did not cure her,” he said. “But it did focus her prayer and helped her carry the burden of the disease. She seemed less afraid, and she lived much longer than anyone thought she would.”