Pointing toward the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto at the Saint Benedict Monastery cemetery in St. Joseph, Minnesota, 61-year-old Patrick Norton recounts the day 13 years ago when he was painting light posts in front of a statue of the Blessed Mother and encountered who he believes was Sister Annella Zervas, OSB.
Zervas, a Benedictine sister, died in 1926 at the age of 26 of a debilitating skin disease.
Norton, who was plucked from the streets of Bombay as a child by Mother Teresa and later adopted by an American family, had been hired by the College of Saint Benedict on Oct. 27, 2010, to do some painting. He told CNA that while finishing up the last light post in front of the grotto he thought to himself, “I wonder if the Blessed Mother thinks I am doing a good job?” When he looked down, there was a nun in full Benedictine habit.
“‘You are doing a good job,’ she told me. We talked a little, but I don’t remember what it was about. Then I watched as she disappeared,” he told CNA.
The encounter was so astonishing that Norton kept it to himself for a year. But in a chance conversation, he was told “there is a holy nun buried in that cemetery” and he came to learn it was Zervas. Eventually, he saw a picture of her and was certain that she was the one who had appeared to him.
An elderly religious sister at Saint Benedict Monastery — who also happened to be named Sister Annella — shared with Norton pictures of Zervas and a booklet about the young sister’s life called “Apostles of Suffering in Our Day” by Benedictine priest Joseph Kreuter, published in 1929.
“Why isn’t she a saint yet?’ Norton asked.
“Oh, I’m in my 80s and I’m the only one promoting her cause,” she replied.
“Sister, why can’t I help you out?” he replied.
Norton said she just looked at him. “I didn’t have any experience but felt compassion for her, and also, I did see Sister Annella, so I felt I had to promote her cause.”
He read in the booklet that Zervas entered the convent at age 15 and died from a painful, unsightly, and odiferous skin disease at age 26. She was also subjected to attacks from the devil and from a heartburn that made it hard to keep food down. At the time of her death, she weighed only 40 pounds. Yet, she asked God to allow her even more suffering and for the strength to bear it so she could offer it up for the Church.
Every week, Norton made 10 copies of the booklet to pass out. “I went to Sister Annella’s grave and told her, ‘If I am going to make more books, I need money.’”
A short time later he had a conversation with someone he had just met and told about Zervas. “How can I help?” the person asked him.
“Can you help me make 20 books a week instead of just 10?”
“How about 20,000?” the donor, who wanted to remain anonymous, replied.
The number of books Norton has now distributed is about 100,000. It was also previously published in French and Sri Lanken.
A friend of Norton’s located Joanne Zervas, a niece of Sister Annella’s, and Norton met with her. She gave him many of her aunt’s personal effects for safekeeping, including family letters, a silver spoon used to give holy Communion when Zervas was incapacitated, her rosary, a book stained with what is believed to be her blood, and candles that burned in her room when she died.
Word spread about the sister and there were reports of answered prayers through her intercession. Yet, it seemed unlikely that a cause for her canonization would open.
Norton recounted that Bishop Donald Joseph Kettler of the Diocese of St. Cloud encouraged him to keep telling his story but declined to take further steps in order to respect the wishes of the Benedictine sisters who were not interested in opening a cause for Zervas.
In a SC Times article in 2017, a spokesperson for the Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota, said it was not the Benedictine way to promote one sister above another as it would “be contrary to humility.” A spokesperson from the diocese said that without their support, there would be no cause.
But Norton and a small group that had formed to pray that her cause be opened met monthly at the cemetery and kept praying.
After years of disappointment, Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis informed Norton that he was appealing to the wrong diocese. Zervas had died in her parents’ home in Moorhead, Minnesota, which is in the Crookston Diocese. But again, there was no interest in opening a cause there.
(Story continues below)
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“I went through darkness,” Norton admitted. “I would say, ‘Really Lord, are you hearing me?’ One day I said, ‘I’m not getting any younger you know.’”
Norton questioned if he was even the right person to promote Zervas. “I’m not a doctor or a lawyer; I’m just a painter,” he said. But he had told the Lord: “Let me live each day for you, and I will tell people about her through my nothingness.”
Then in 2021, Bishop Andrew Cozzens was appointed to the Diocese of Crookston. Norton heard that Cozzens had known about Zervas since he was a boy. Then on Oct. 15 Norton heard — through a letter from the bishop that was read at the cemetery to the prayer group — that initial steps are being put in place by the diocese to begin an investigation into Zervas’ life, which will make it possible for a cause to be opened.
Norton has now been promoting Zervas’ story for more than a decade.
“I couldn’t fall asleep that night,” Norton told CNA. “I was overwhelmed. The first thing I did was to thank Our Lord and Our Lady. Before going to bed, every night, I always kiss the cheek of Our Lady of Fátima statue [in his home] and say, ‘Good night, Mother.’ And I kiss the feet of Our Lord on a big crucifix from a monastery in Spain and say, ‘You are my Lord and my God. There is no other God, and I love you.’”
“Even before Sister Annella appeared to me, every Mother’s Day, I brought roses to the grotto and would tell [Mary], ‘You are the best Ma in the whole world. Happy Mother’s Day, Ma.’ I’d sit there and look at the big crucifix and pray the rosary.”
Norton said he is at peace with his efforts over the years to make Zervas’ life and holiness known. “Since the diocese is taking over, I’m going to just be silent and do my best to live in humility and pray,” he said. “I will pray a lot and thank the Lord for the work he is doing.”
Patti Maguire Armstrong Patti (Maguire) Armstrong is an award-winning journalist and was managing editor and co-author of the bestselling Amazing Grace Series. Her latest books are the humorous and inspirational second-edition Dear God, I Don't Get It, Dear God, You Can't Be Serious!, What Would Monica Do? and Holy Hacks. Patti worked in social work and public administration before staying home as a freelance writer while she and Mark raised their 10 children in North Dakota.
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