Deborah Zago of Burlington, Ont., was on her deathbed but she believes that through faith and the healing powers of a stone from the crypt of Toronto’s first bishop, Michael Power, she was given a new lease on life. She is one of 18 people claiming miraculous cures due to stones from Bishop Power’s crypt. Photo by Michael Swan

Cancer patients attribute cures to rocks from St. Michael's founding bishop's crypt

  • September 25, 2016

TORONTO – The statistical probabilities behind praying your way out of stage-four cancer aren’t good. When you’re too skinny, too weak and hallucinating half the time, when friends and family come round to your house and just cry, when unsmiling doctors want to talk to you in the quiet, pastel-coloured room at the end of the hall — 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.

The Catholic Register spoke to two cancer survivors who both attribute their recovery from stage-four cancer to rocks from Power’s crypt.

The idea that stones unearthed from below Toronto’s 168-year-old Catholic cathedral might hold the power to cure started with Angelus and Associates project manager Carol Bragagnolo, an inveterate rock-hound. 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 (168) 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 was buried beneath his cathedral in 1847, two years before it was consecrated by Bishop Armand-François-Marie de Charbonnel. The Canadian-born Power was just shy of his 43rd birthday when fever took him after weeks of ministering to sick Irish refugees in sheds at Toronto’s lakefront.

“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 St. Michael’s rector Fr. Michael Busch.

Deborah Zago was dying when she received a bit of broken brick from Power’s crypt.

“They gave me two weeks to live,” said Zago of Burlington, Ont. “There was really nothing they could do for me. I was too far gone. I was 70 pounds (32 kg.)... I had my priest come around and give me communion and my last rites.”

Zago was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She was too skinny and too weak to survive surgery. Her husband Loris was told to start planning the funeral. 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. A cousin from British Columbia, just retired from a career in nursing, came to Burlington to help Deborah and Loris. Then Deborah 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. “The Joseph Brant ambulance attendants got to know me so well.”

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.

“I had my stone,” she said. “I had it with me when I was so sick in my chair at home, when everybody came to see me... When I went to the hospital, the first thing I said was, ‘I must have my stone with me.’ I had it with me in my nightgown pocket. I had it with me (while I took) my intravenous. I had it with me when I went for my scans, when I went for MRIs.”

What’s central to the experience of those who have endured and conquered illness with the help of stones from Michael Power’s cyrpt 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,” Busch wrote in an e-mail. “It serves only as a focal point of prayer.”

Zago’s story has the familiar feel of many near-death experiences.

“I almost felt like I was falling down into a deep hole. I kept on reaching up and reaching up, yet I felt myself falling down into this hole,” she said. “I don’t know what happened after that.”

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.”

Zago’s experience is echoed in Pat Zaino’s 18 weeks of chemotherapy for cancer which had spread from his prostate to his bones. After five sessions of radiation and drugs that left him weak, bald and at times disconnected even from himself he was on his way back. It’s been eight months since chemotherapy. His hair’s back. He’s maintaining a healthy weight. He looks younger than his 51 years.

“I find myself a stronger person all through this. Obviously, what I’m going through just makes you a different person,” he said. “But you know the power of prayer — the rock — it just makes me a stronger person, a more positive person.”

Zaino takes no credit for his recovery, though he’s reading a book on life after cancer, taking special care with his diet and following every direction he receives from nurses and doctors. He’s full of gratitude to the people who have cared for him. He also knows the relative five-year survival rate for the kind of cancer he had is about 28 per cent. He started with a PSA (prostate specific antigen) score of 644. A normal PSA score for a man under 50 is zero to 2.5.

“I believe in miracles, right? I know miracles do happen,” he said.

Zaino’s friend Mike di Domizio was on one of the construction crews restoring St. Michael’s Cathedral. He gave Zaino the small, white rock and also donated one of the stars painted onto the cathedral ceiling in Zaino’s name.

“I feel the power in the stone, in the rock,” Zaino said. “When Mike di Domizio gave it to me, it was just goosebumps.”

Zago and Zaino’s stories are typical of the records of miracles collected in the Vatican, said Queen’s University medical historian and hematologist Dr. Jacalyn Duffin.

“The whole thing is in keeping with all the miracles I examined in the Vatican,” she said.

Duffin 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 enquiry 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’re happening all the time. The miracles she researched were all documented in causes for saints. However, the majority of miracles in Catholic experience are attributed directly to God, to Mary or to saints whose sainthood causes have long been settled (St. Anthony of Padua, for instance). Therefore there’s no need to document them and preserve the records at the Vatican. Sainthood causes are “the tip of the iceberg,” Duffin said.

No official cause has been initiated to have Michael Power recognized as a saint. But if reports of miracles continue a cause for sainthood is likely to follow, Duffin believes.

Even an atheist scientist understands that miracles are not the point of prayer.

“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 would love to see pilgrims coming to St. Michael’s Cathedral and the tomb of Bishop 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. 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.

“I have also spent time in front of Michael Power’s tomb asking for his strength and guidance through this whole process of restoration... I believe he kept me focused on the real purpose of this work — providing a place of comfort and beauty and peace for those who do not have such things in their life.”

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