An Annapolis woman whose cancer disappeared without explanation has become the focus of canonization efforts for a priest who was once a pastor in her diocese.
Mary Ellen Heibel, 71, was miraculously cured of terminal cancer after praying to Blessed Fr. Francis Seelos, a 19th century Redemptorist priest who had once served in the Annapolis, Maryland area.
“I was first diagnosed with esophageal cancer on January 6, 2003,” Heibel told CNA, “and it was all gone on February 8, 2005.”
As the tumors spread, Heibel had undergone radiation and chemotherapy over several months, but the doctors did not expect a full recovery. “They said the only thing they could do was keep me alive for a little while,” Heibel explained.
But then, a priest from Pittsburgh told Heibel about Fr. Seelos and recommended that she pray a novena to him with her pastor. She did so and a week later, she underwent a scan, which revealed that all the cancer had disappeared.
Heibel said the doctors couldn’t explain it. “It was a miracle,” she said.
In addition to praying the novena, Heibel carries a relic of Fr. Seelos on her person.
“It’s a small chip of bone that I wear around my neck in a little brass reliquary,” she told CNA. “I got it from a friend when I was going to have my surgery.”
Fr. Byron Miller was appointed as the Vice Postulator for Seelos’ Canonization Cause in 2000. At the same time, he was assigned as Director of the National Shrine of Bl. Francis Xavier Seelos.
“Part of my responsibilities at his national shrine in the U.S. is to seek and follow-up on possible strong medical cures through the intercession of Bl. Seelos,” Miller explained to CNA.
Fr. Miller was contacted by Heibel, first in writing and then by phone. “I am interested in hearing all those who have good things to report, but the ‘unusual’ or ‘rare’ circumstances do stand out,” he told CNA.
“Also, because Mary Ellen Heibel is a parishioner at St. Mary’s Church in Annapolis, which is staffed by the Redemptorists, and where Fr. Seelos was pastor during the Civil War – it was easy for me to stay in contact with her and with those connected to her.”
Fr. Miller explained that there is a “cherished and ardent” local devotion to Fr. Seelos in New Orleans, as well as in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and other areas where Seelos was stationed. He mentioned that there is a newsletter distributed to 24,000 households per month, helping to raise and maintain awareness of Seelos’ canonization cause, along with testimonials from various parts of the country.
Father Francis Xavier Seelos was a Redemptorist priest, a member of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, a missionary congregation that seeks to preach the Gospel to the most poor and abandoned in society. Known as the “Cheerful Ascetic,” he developed a reputation for his happy disposition and compassion.
Seelos was born in Germany in 1819, but moved to the United States and was ordained in Baltimore. He served in parishes in Baltimore, Annapolis, Pittsburg and Cumberland.
Father Seelos lived a life that was simple and attentive to the needs of his people. As a parish priest, he became known for his availability and kindness. People would come from neighboring towns to receive his spiritual direction and go to confession with him.
From 1863 to 1866, Seelos became an itinerant missionary. Later, he was assigned to a Redemptorist community in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he also worked as a pastor, showing special concern for the poorest and most abandoned in society. He cared for those with yellow fever, and in 1867 he died of the disease.
Miller explained to CNA that Heibel’s case is currently in the Diocesan Inquiry Phase, which began on May 19th, when the panel to be conducting the Inquiry was sworn in at a Mass with Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
The panel, which consists of canon lawyers, notaries and a physician, will gather testimony and evidence of the miraculous cure, to be shipped to Rome, where Seelos’ case for sainthood is being examined.