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Junipero Serra needs just one more miracle

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  • Rob Schmidt
    http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-miracle28-2009aug28,0,7636794,full.s tory COLUMN ONE Junipero Serra needs just one more miracle To be named a saint,
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 29, 2009
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      Junipero Serra needs just one more miracle

      To be named a saint, the founder of California's missions has to be credited
      with a final marvel. One possibility: an artist who is still alive after
      losing a third of her skull in 14 brain surgeries.

      By Steve Chawkins

      August 28, 2009

      Reporting from Santa Barbara - In a basement at Old Mission Santa Barbara, a
      filing cabinet is thick with claims of miracles that didn't make the grade.

      A man falls off his horse and, thanks to Junipero Serra, he gets up
      unscathed. A woman visits Serra's tomb in Carmel and something stirs her
      deeply, changing the course of her life. An alcoholic gives up drinking and
      credits Serra for seeing him through.

      They all believed their experiences to be miraculous -- but none was deemed
      the miracle needed to lift Serra into sainthood, a goal church officials
      announced 75 years ago today, the 225th anniversary of his death.

      Serra, the revered and reviled Franciscan priest who founded California's
      missions, has one officially recognized miracle to his name. A nun in St.
      Louis was healed of lupus after praying to him, leading to Serra's
      beatification in 1987.

      But sainthood requires a second miracle, defined by the church as an event
      that cannot be explained by science but can be attributed to the candidate's
      intercession from beyond the grave.

      Two years ago, Serra advocates thought they had found one. A Denver woman
      who had prayed to Serra delivered a healthy baby, despite a dire prognosis.
      The case went to Rome, but physicians for the Vatican concluded it was not a

      Now there's another possibility. Sheila E. Lichacz, a Panamanian artist, has
      survived 14 brain surgeries for tumors called meningiomas, after being told
      time and again that she was dying. One-third of her skull was removed in
      surgery and replaced with acrylic plates. But they too were removed after
      causing life-threatening infections.

      Now a large part of her brain is covered not by bone or plates, but only by

      Yet at 66, she is exuberant and stylish. On a recent trip to Santa Barbara
      to confer with priests about her medical history, she wore a brilliant blue
      pantsuit with matching hat and turban, heavy silver chains and a black
      leather belt of her own design studded with 13 silver crucifixes. Her words
      tumble out in a cascade of religious fervor.

      "Have you ever seen anything like this?" asks Lichacz, who still has four
      benign tumors in her head. "Have you? Brain surgery for 45 years? Blessed
      Junipero -- that poor man, he needs me. He gave it all, I'm telling you, and
      -- I'm not bragging -- I'm giving it all too."

      Whether her story will reach the Vatican is an open question. The process of
      discerning miracles is grindingly meticulous and has become even more
      demanding as science explains once-mysterious phenomena.

      Serra's top advocate is Father John Vaughn, a Franciscan priest who lives at
      the mission. Ten years ago, he was appointed Vice Postulator for the Serra
      Cause -- the fourth in a succession of priests charged with ushering Serra
      to sainthood.

      "I felt honored; I felt humbled," says Vaughn, who, as former minister
      general of the Order of Friars Minor, led the world's 16,000 Franciscan
      monks for 12 years. "I guess I felt terrified too."

      In his brown robe and rope belt, Vaughn walks slowly through the gardens and
      down the cool, 189-year-old corridors of Mission Santa Barbara. Now 81 and a
      stroke survivor, he is keenly aware that his job might outlast him. It took
      755 years, after all, to canonize St. Bede.

      In Serra's case, much of the heavy lifting has been done. Roman Catholic
      scholars spent 14 years scouring letters, diaries, church documents,
      biographies and accounts of those who knew him. They conducted research in
      125 libraries. At hearings in California, they took testimony from about 50
      descendants of the Indians who toiled at Serra's missions and the Spanish
      soldiers who guarded them.

      Twice Serra's body was exhumed, as prescribed by church tradition, to ensure
      that he was still in his resting place. Hundreds of shavings from his bones
      were removed as relics to aid the faithful.

      "All the groundwork has been laid," Vaughn said, leading a visitor into the
      mission's archives. On a wall, part of an embroidered vestment worn by Serra
      was displayed in a frame. In the vault, a death register written in Serra's
      bold hand told somber stories of early Santa Barbara; its first entry was
      for a child named Maria Antonia -- possibly the daughter of a Spanish
      soldier and an Indian mother -- who died Dec. 22, 1782.

      On the shelves, volume after volume -- some 10,000 pages in all --
      constitute the transumptum, the complete record of the case for Serra's

      Santa Barbara was one of nine missions he founded before his death in 1784.
      Serra, a native of Majorca, the largest island of Spain, evangelized for
      years in remote regions of Mexico. Seeking to convert as many Native
      Americans as possible, he hobbled through uncharted California on a
      painfully ulcerated leg, walking thousands of miles to establish religious
      communities. At one point, he walked back to Mexico to lobby for a decree
      barring soldiers from sexually abusing native women.

      Yet in his missions, flogging and shackling were common punishments. Indians
      who left were pursued and brought back -- sometimes to die from European
      diseases that ran rampant.

      The missions "almost failed to recognize inhabitants of this continent as
      being fully human," said Sister Kateri Mitchell, director of the Tekakwitha
      Conference, a Native American Catholic group.

      Vaughn, who says that saints "are not perfect, but holy," has heard it all
      before. "You can't judge a 17th or 18th century figure by 21st century
      rules. How many of our Founding Fathers owned slaves?"

      That argument has sparked dissent.

      "Sainthood requires that Serra's experiences -- especially those with the
      California Indians -- transcend time and place," writes James A. Sandos,
      scholar of the Mission era at the University of Redlands. "Sainthood means
      that his is a universal example for all Catholics to follow."

      In 1985, Pope John Paul II found that Serra had lived a life of "heroic
      virtue" and declared him "venerable." That triggered the hunt for two
      miracles -- one for beatification and one for sainthood.

      The first was the healing of the St. Louis nun. Gravely ill in 1960, Sister
      Mary Boniface Dyrda knew nothing of Serra when a chaplain from California
      urged her to pray to him. Decades later, her recovery was evaluated by
      panels of physicians in St. Louis and Rome, and weighed by the 32 cardinals
      and bishops of the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints. In 1987,
      Pope John Paul II proclaimed the healing miraculous. Serra was beatified and
      made "Blessed Junipero Serra."

      The final miracle has been elusive.

      At one point, Serra advocates pinned their hopes on a Riverside County man
      with terminal pancreatic cancer. Inspired by the priest's image in a
      stained-glass window, he sought Serra's aid. He lived six years but died of
      a heart ailment before he could testify.

      Then in 2007, the Denver woman's case looked promising. Suffering
      complications in pregnancy, she was told her baby would be severely
      disabled. The child was born healthy, but a Vatican medical review concluded
      the healing could have been natural.

      Lichacz, the Panamanian artist, said she had no knowledge of Serra when she
      first felt his healing presence nearly 30 years ago.

      She has always been deeply religious. Many of her paintings play on images
      such as the clay vessels at Cana, where Jesus is said to have turned water
      into wine. One work is on permanent display at Jerusalem's Basilica of the
      Holy Sepulchre; others have been exhibited at Harvard and the Smithsonian.
      Before beginning a canvas, Lichacz inscribes it in chalk with the letters
      AMDG, for Ad majorem Dei gloriam, or "to the greater glory of God."

      Studying at a Catholic college in Texas, she was diagnosed at 21 with the
      first of her meningiomas.

      Since then, her life has been punctuated by surgical procedures, severe
      headaches and the possibility of blindness and sudden death.

      In 1979, she was in San Diego for a neurological exam. The evening before,
      she and her husband, John, a U.S. Air Force major now retired, prayed at
      Serra's Mission San Diego de Alcala.

      "We both went through an ethereal experience," says Lichacz. "Something was
      calming us down so we could face what we had to face."

      Sixteen years later, the couple flew from their part-time home in Miami to
      San Diego for another consultation.

      On that trip, they visited Serra's mission at San Juan Capistrano.

      "I saw his statue and for some reason I put my hands on his feet," recalls
      Lichacz. "I looked at him and said, 'Please take care of me.' And may God be
      my witness, I started walking back to the car and it was as if I was
      levitating. I didn't feel the ground. That's when I realized it was

      In the twilight hush of a chapel at Mission Santa Barbara, she slowly draws
      a cherished possession from her purse.

      It's a quarter-sized gold locket bearing the red wax seal of the
      Franciscans. Inside is a grayish-brown fleck, a Serra bone chip given to her
      by a monk in Santa Barbara.

      "He suffered so much," she whispers. "He's a saint. I know he's a saint."

      A pamphlet promoting Serra's cause quotes an unidentified neurosurgeon
      expressing amazement that after so many surgeries, Lichacz "never suffered
      any neurological deficits nor psychological trauma . . . If this is not a
      miracle, then it must be proof that faith heals everything and makes one

      If physicians consulted by Vaughn agree that science cannot explain
      Lichacz's relatively good health, he may have a tribunal take her testimony
      and scrutinize her medical records.

      Then, the case would be sent to the Vatican, where the pope will have the
      last word.

      Church officials won't speculate on the outcome for Lichacz.

      "It's up to God," said Vaughn, "and other people."

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