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Man Who Regained Eyesight Will See His Patron Beatified

Sr Miriam Teresa and Michael Mencer montage

Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth/Michael Mencer

John Burger - published on 10/02/14

His miracle came through intercession of New Jersey nun

The man born blind didn’t enter into any deep analysis of the miracle that occurred to him at the hands of the Lord, according to the Gospel account.

“The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes," he told his neighbors in John Chapter 9. "He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

That’s it. Pretty straightforward. 

Michael Mencer was not born blind, but when a serious condition that threatened to leave the boy in darkness for the rest of his life disappeared one day, he didn’t sit down to think about it too much either. He had one thought on his mind, basically. 

"I looked straight at my mother, and…I asked if I could go out and play," said the 58-year-old Mencer, recalling the day 50 years ago when his sight came back. "I think I ran down the steps. It’s something I hadn’t been able to do in a long time."

Mencer had Stargardt’s Disease, a juvenile form of macular degeneration in which the central vision goes away and the pigment deteriorates. He and his family were living in Teaneck, N.J., when his eyesight started going bad.

This Saturday, Mencer will be back in New Jersey, visiting from Nebraska, where he’s been sojourning these past few years, to take part in a Mass at Newark’s Cathedral-Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, will be there to beatify Sister Miriam Teresa Demjanovich, the Sister of Charity that the Vatican has determined to have been responsible for Mencer’s cure.

For those who follow such things, that itself is pretty astounding. Americans have been beatified and canonized in the past, but no one has ever been beatified on U.S. soil before. 

Since the pontificate of Benedict XVI, beatifications no longer need to take place at the Vatican. Last weekend, the second prelate of Opus Dei, Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, was beatified in Madrid, Spain. 

Teresa Demjanovich was born in 1901 in New Jersey—in the city of Bayonne, to be exact—to an immigrant couple from Slovakia, Johanna and Alexander Demjanovich. Because they were Ruthenian Catholics, the girl was baptized and confirmed within a week in Bayonne’s Byzantine-Ruthenian Church of St. John the Baptist. 

On Sunday, the day after the beatification, Bishop Kurt Burnette of the Ruthenian Catholic Eparchy of Passaic, New Jersey, will celebrate a Divine Liturgy of Thanksgiving at St. John the Baptist.

When she was 18, shortly after the death of her mother, Teresa entered the College of Saint Elizabeth in Convent Station, New Jersey. In 1925, after her father’s death, she entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth in Convent Station. 

During her two years as a nun, Sister Miriam Teresa wrote two short plays, letters, meditations, several poems and part of her autobiography, according to the Sisters of Charity. Benedictine Father Benedict Bradley, Sister Miriam Teresa’s spiritual director and confessor, requested that she write the conferences that he would give to the novices.

“I believed that she enjoyed extraordinary lights, and I knew that she was living an exemplary life," Father Bradley said later. "I thought that one day she would be ranked among the saints of God, and I felt it was incumbent upon me to utilize whatever might contribute to an appreciation of her merits after her death.”

During the winter of 1926-27, Sister Miriam Teresa’s health failed, and she was hospitalized several times. She died May 8, 1927, at the age of 26. Shortly thereafter, Father Bradley, posted a note on the Sisters’ bulletin board in the Motherhouse, in which he confessed, “The conferences which I have been giving to the Sisters were written by Sister Miriam Teresa.” Father Charles Demjanovich, Teresa’s brother, collected the conferences and had them published as Greater Perfection: Being the Spiritual Conferences of Sister Miriam Teresa Demjanovich.

Her cause for canonization was opened in 1953, but the Sisters of Charity had already recognized the holiness of their young sister, and one of their number, Sister Mary Zita Geis, wrote Sister Miriam Teresa, a biography, in 1936. The Sister Miriam Teresa League of Prayer was established at Convent Station by Mother M. Benita in order to “honor Our Lord Jesus Christ by spreading the knowledge of Sister Miriam Teresa’s life and mission, and by working for the cause of her beatification.”

That’s why one of the sisters at Michael Mencer’s Catholic grade school was put in charge of promoting the cause. 

"It was the latter half of first grade when I was running into trees and…beginning to have eye problems," Mencer recalled in an interview last week. "Somewhere in middle of second grade…the doctor said the area [in the middle of the eye] would be totaly black within six months. We started filling out forms for the Commission for the Blind in New Jersey."

Knowing of his condition, Sister Marie Augustine gave him a prayer card and a lock of Sister Miriam’s hair, which she referred to as a "memento." 

"I walked home with it in my hand. I got two blocks from home and I remember something told me to look up," Mencer said. "I thought it was the sun, but I could look at it without it hurting. I remember looking straight at the lock of hair. Before, I couldn’t do that because you’d need your central vision."

He had learned to walk home using the curb as a guide—something he could see with his peripheral vision. Now, he didn’t have to use that trick.

The sudden restoration of eyesight was just the ticket for an eight-year-old boy in New Jersey—or anywhere for that matter. "I started riding my bike again," something he had to give up after "running it into trees and stuff" because of the increasing vision problems. "I still have scars on my forehead. I chipped a tooth."

Neither he nor his family were thinking "miracle," so Michael did not go running back to Sister Marie Augustine to proclaim the good news. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to South Jersey, near Philadelphia. He started learning Braille and wore special glasses, which he often left off because they hurt. He continued getting exams for his condition.

"I had a dozen x-rays, blood work, every test you could imagine, almost constantly for a year," Mencer said. "Even though there was scar tissue there and I wasn’t supposed to be able to see color or have depth perception, I could."

It eventually dawned on Michael and his family that something had happened, and when Mrs. Mencer read an article in the diocesan newspaper encouraging anyone who may have received a "favor" from Sister Miriam Teresa to write to the Sisters of Charity, she did. The letter ended up getting misplaced and wasn’t rediscovered until 1998.

When Mencer was in high school, his mother spoke about the experience with the family’s pastor. "He said, ‘You’re supposed to touch the relic to the afflicted part,’" Mencer recalled. "She never knew that. So before we went to the eye exam—and that anomoly always showed up, from the scar tissue in the pupil—she did that. I didn’t know what she was doing at the time. I just stood there, putting my tie on, and she said a prayer and touched my eyes with the memento."

When the doctor saw him that day, he said, "everything was cleared. That scar tissue went away, and everything was 100% at that point."

Mencer’s doctor said he was so impressed that he would write to Rome about it. Mencer doesn’t know if the doctor ever did, but his mother’s letter finally turned up, and a process of investigation began.Last July, after exhaustive study, the cure was accepted as medically inexplicable by panels of ophthalmologists in Rome and in the U.S. In December, the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints determined that the miraculous restoration of sight to Michael Mercer occurred by prayer through Sister Miriam Teresa’s intercession and recommended to Pope Francis that Sister Miriam Teresa be beatified.

Michael Mencer’s eyesight problems were not the last health issues he had to deal with. Subsequent bouts with cancer also presented a challenge. But after going through over 100 rounds of chemotherapy, he is in relatively good health, something he doesn’t doubt has something to do with his friendship with a woman who spent only 26 years in this life.

As he prepares a very special homecoming this weekend, Mencer muses,"There’s some sort of physical and spirital protection there." 

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

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