Our Lord told him, "I am taking away your hands and giving you mine ... touch them."
A number of saints and holy people have been known to share in the suffering of Christ in a special way: by literally having his wounds in their own flesh. Among this group are such beloved saints as Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena and, closer to our own times, Padre Pio.
Then there is Irving “Francis” Houle, just a regular guy from Michigan.
Irving was born in northern Michigan, in the town of Wilson, in 1925. He was one of six boys and one girl born to Peter and Lillian Houle. The family prayed the Rosary every day during Lent and their dad had them say the Stations of the Cross every Sunday after Mass. The Houles were surely a devout Catholic family.
Irving’s life was stereotypical middle-class midwestern, and he lived as we might imagine. He graduated from high school in 1944 as World War II was raging. The very next day he joined the U.S. Army. He served in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East and received the American Theater Service Medal and Good Conduct Medal. He was discharged in 1946.
Irving, following the example of his dad, began living the traditional life of a young, Catholic man. He married Gail LaChapelle in 1948 and they had five children: Stephen, Peter, John and twins Matthew and Margo. Raising his family in northern Michigan, Irving worked for Montgomery Ward, for a chemical supply company, and as a plant manager. He was an active parishioner at St. Joseph’s and an active member of the Knights of Columbus, where he was a District deputy and a member of the Fourth Degree with the honor of being addressed as “Sir Knight.” The Houle family could have been the subject of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Francis was 67 years old when, on Good Friday, April 9, 1993, the stigmata first began to show itself. Francis told his brother and a priest, Father Robert Fox (who would go on to write a book about him), how Jesus appeared to him when Lent began on Ash Wednesday. He told them Jesus said to him, “I am taking away your hands and giving you mine … touch them.”
On Good Friday, the swelling that had been obvious on the top and bottom of his hands broke open and began to bleed. Walter Casey, a retired policeman who had been appointed by the bishop to stay with Francis at all times, explained how every morning between the hours of midnight and 3 a. m., 365 days a year, Francis endured sufferings of the Passion of Christ. Francis told him that the Blessed Mother had come to him 19 times and during those visits told him that she would bring many people to him and him to many people.
It is estimated that Francis prayed individually over 100,000 people while he was still alive. Folks would wait for hours on end to see the elderly grandpa who bore the stigmata and would lay his hands on them. People would be crying and would touch him and kiss his hands.
Houle never sought any personal attention, financial donations or financial support. He was adamant in the fact that any healings were from God and that no one should look to him but rather to Our Lord Jesus Christ as the true cause of any spiritual or physical healing.
He passed away on First Saturday, January 3, 2009. He was 83 years old and had borne the stigmata of Christ for more than 15 years. He is one of the few laymen in the history of the Church who has borne the stigmata.
Two bishops in the Diocese of Marquette, Michigan, Bishop James H. Garland and Bishop Alexander K. Sample, found “no fault” with the activity of Houle and gave him their blessing. These findings have not yet been forwarded to Rome.
Houle wrote the following prayer:
Oh! my Jesus. My heart is so heavy. Your burden is too much for me to bear.
Please, my Jesus, let me take your Cross for a while. Just to let you know I care.
Look upon me, dear Lord with eyes of your mercy. May your healing hands rest upon me.
If it be your will, please give me health, strength, and peace.