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Nun’s 1960 Recovery May Answer Prayers for Serra’s Sainthood

Times Staff Writer

When it came to praying for divine intercession to save her life, Sister Mary Boniface Dyrda acknowledges that Father Junipero Serra was not actually her first choice.

In 1959 and 1960, as the diminutive nun became increasingly ill with an unexplained ailment and deteriorated to the point of receiving the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church, Dyrda recalled that she prayed for help without success to five different saints, including St. Jude, St. Frances Cabrini and St. Martin de Porres.

“Apparently they were waiting to give Father Junipero Serra a chance,” Dyrda wrote later, explaining why she turned to an 18th-Century missionary she had barely heard of to save her life.

The Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints is now deciding whether Dyrda’s survival and recovery for the past 27 years from what is believed to be the disease lupus erythematosus, a chronic and debilitating inflammatory disease of the connective tissue, was miraculous.

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If so, the cure would fulfill the church’s requirement needed to elevate Serra from “venerable” to “beatified"--the second of three steps to sainthood, and Pope John Paul II could preside over a Mass of Beatification for Serra at the Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey on Sept. 17.

“The miracle is still under study,” said Msgr. Robert Sarno, an American priest assigned to the congregation, in a telephone interview from the Vatican. The process is “following its normal course,” he said, declining to elaborate.

“All I know is that I was very sick, I was dying, and I was cured through the intercession of Junipero Serra,” said Dyrda, who appeared quite healthy two weeks before her 71st birthday, adding that she hopes to be in Monterey on Sept. 17.

Dyrda came from a religious family in Chicago, leaving home at the age of 14 to attend high school at the Franciscan Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Help headquarters in St. Louis. There she was influenced by the example of an eighth-grade teacher and told her mother, “I would like to be a sister just like she is,” Dyrda recalled in a recent interview at the order’s motherhouse in suburban St. Louis. She joined the order a year later, in 1931.

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The order provided a family for her, both literally and figuratively: a sister and a cousin preceded her in the order. When Dyrda finished high school, the order sent her to college, where she trained as a teacher, ultimately presiding over a series of one-room school houses in rural Illinois.

‘Just Became Numb’

One day, while walking to church, she said, “I just fell. Not because I slipped. I just became numb,” soon developing a skin rash and fever. A local doctor treated her for the flu, and when she did not improve she was taken to DePaul Hospital in St. Louis.

In the weeks and months that followed, she was in and out of the hospital with the fevers and rashes, weakness and swelling in her hands. Once Dyrda recovered enough to go to the order’s headquarters, but the excitement of some postulants receiving their religious habits triggered a relapse, sending her back to the hospital.

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Doctors removed her enlarged spleen and her weight dropped from 143 pounds--"I was a nice chubby person,” she said--to 86 pounds. Medication ceased, Dyrda said, and doctors at DePaul “were giving up on me. . . . They said I was incurable.”

Friends and relatives in the order prayed constantly at her bedside through the nights, at one point urging her to prepare for death. Finally, she and other members of her order turned to Serra at the urging of the order’s chaplain, Father Marion Habig, a Californian and student of the state’s history.

“I didn’t know anything about him,” Dyrda said of Serra, known as “the Apostle of California,” who founded a series of missions from San Diego to San Francisco. Habig, like Dyrda and Serra, was a Franciscan and he suggested that the saints didn’t need the opportunity to demonstrate their power as much as did Serra, who had not yet been declared venerable.

Then, as inexplicably as she became ill, Dyrda began to recover.

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“There was a sudden change,” she wrote later. “I had not eaten much beyond some soup, but now I began to eat well and was able to sit up in bed. I experienced a steady improvement and after another week I was dismissed from the hospital and went back to the motherhouse.”

After her recovery and return to teaching in 1960, Dyrda was encouraged by Habig to write Father Noel Moholy, a San Francisco priest he knew who had been appointed Serra’s vice postulator, or chief supporter.

Although he received information about a number of cures attributed to Serra’s intercession over the years, Moholy said that Dyrda “struck me as a sure case.” This was an important factor for Vatican evaluation of the alleged miracle, given the short span of time between May of 1985, when Serra was declared venerable, and 1987, when the Pope was scheduled to visit California.

Dyrda was the most promising, for a number of reasons. Her illness and recovery were extremely well-documented with medical records in Illinois, Missouri and Washington, where tissue samples had been sent for analysis. Her recovery was apparently complete and long-standing. She was a member of a religious order.

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Three non-Catholic physicians examined Dyrda and her records in 1985 on behalf of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Their findings were sent to the congregation for study by two Italian specialists.

Dyrda, accompanied by Moholy and Sister Carolyn Mruz, the order’s head, traveled to Rome in December of 1986, where there was a series of extensive examinations. The two Italian specialists found no scientific explanation for the recovery, a finding confirmed by the congregation’s medical panel of six physicians.

That decision, made on July 8, was forwarded to a board of theologians who met on July 23 and, according to Moholy, voted unanimously that the cure came as the result of Serra’s intercession. Sarno declined to confirm Moholy’s further report that Cardinal Pietro Palazzini, head of the congregation, has written to the Pope, asking him to dispense with a meeting of the full congregation to consider the Serra cause.

While no longer considered fatal, lupus has no known cause or cure, according to Margaret Gibelman, executive director of the Washington-based Lupus Foundation of America.

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“It’s a very individual disease” with a wide range of intensity and no single diagnostic indicator, she said. For some of the estimated 1 million Americans who have the disease, she said, “it’s like having a horrible case of the flu, all the time.” Others experience extreme light sensitivity.

Gibelman said that Dyrda’s recovery fell into the category of spontaneous, “unexplained” remission, adding, “I don’t want to deny this guy sainthood.”

Dr. Daniel Wallace, assistant clinical professor of medicine at UCLA and author of the text, “Dubois’ Lupus Erythematosus,” said that “spontaneous remissions do occur, but they are very, very rare.” Saying he is “sort of a skeptical about these things,” Wallace pointed out that lupus patients have in the past attributed remission to “everything from witchcraft to copper bracelets.”

‘Power of the Spirit’

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But Henrietta Aladjem, the author of four books on lupus, whose own condition went into remission for 20 years, said she believes in “the power of the spirit to overcome adversity.” A non-Catholic who was treated medically, Aladjem said that “the power of hope, based on belief, sometimes can be more beneficial than the potent medicines that can perhaps arrest the disease. . . . I think that every religion that helps people live a better life deserves respect.”

Now retired from teaching, Dyrda is frequently interrupted from her new duties as a switchboard operator at the order’s motherhouse by telephone calls from journalists. Surrounded by albums and scrapbooks, she admits that she has traveled a long way in 27 years, from death’s doorstep to a meeting with the Pope in Rome, following her medical examinations. At the Pope’s private Mass one morning, she and Mruz spoke briefly with the pontiff about Serra.

“If we can get a little more faith in a cynical world as a result of sister’s miraculous cure, then God be praised,” Mruz said.

Dyrda has a simple but firm understanding of how she and Serra summoned the strength for her to recover. “I had the faith,” she said, “that he was the one to give me that strength.”

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