by Patricia Montemurri
Miracles, by definition, are unexplainable. But Paula Medina Zarate, a retired teacher from Panama, is unwavering in explaining the events of Sept. 12, 2012. On that day, Zarate kneeled at the tomb of Father Solanus Casey at St. Bonaventure Monastery on Detroit’s east side, and her life was changed.
“Detroit is the place of my dreamings now,” said Zarate, through tears during a phone call last week. “I never expected to find life in a tomb.”
On Saturday, at Detroit’s Ford Field, Zarate will take part in the Catholic ceremony that beatifies Father Solanus Casey, which will bring the legendary co-founder of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen one step closer to sainthood.
The ceremony celebrates Pope Francis’ decree that Zarate’s genetic skin condition was healed through a Godgranted miracle, propelled along by prayers to the humble Capuchin friar.
“Father Solanus changed my life,” Zarate said. “So much of my suffering went silent in Detroit.”
Zarate described her first visit to Detroit in a phone call with the Rev. Larry Webber, a Capuchin priest who ministered in Panama and has worked on the sainthood cause for Casey. He translated her comments from Spanish.
In September 2012, Zarate traveled from Central America to Detroit at the urging of Detroit- based Capuchin friars, who had ministered in her hometown parishes near Panama City, Panama.
At the 130-year-old St. Bonaventure Monastery, she did not recognize what is the above-ground, wood-encased tomb of the late Father Solanus Casey. She knew little about the revered Capuchin priest, who died in 1957 and was said to be a humble faith healer.
“What’s that? A table?” Zarate recounted saying to Capuchin Rev. Jozef Timmers, a Michigan Capuchin who befriended her in Panama. “I saw so many people around it.”
“It’s not a table. It’s a tomb,” she said Timmers told her.
The Capuchin explained how pilgrims came to Casey’s tomb to pray for healings. On little paper slips, they scribbled their requests and left them atop the tomb. And on that day, Zarate did, too, asking God to hear her prayers for the sick and troubled people she visited in her parish volunteer work back in Panama.
Zarate said she had filled out about 14 pieces of paper. As she stood up from kneeling at the tomb, Zarate said she felt a force and heard a voice as if it came from her right.
“And the voice said: ‘What do you need for you?’ “I got back down on my knees and I placed myself on the tomb,” said Zarate. “I asked for mercy for myself, for the condition for my legs and my arms.”
Since birth, Zarate had suffered from a genetic skin condition called ichthyosis. The name of the skin disorder is derived from the Greek word for fish. The condition causes thickened, scaly skin. It appeared on her legs, her arms, sometimes her scalp. Her skin would crack and bleed. Panama’s heat would intensify the irritation and discomfort.
Zarate said that as she knelt there, she felt an intense heat, as if “I wasn’t inside my body.”
She was interrupted by Timmers, who urged her to join him in the monastery dining room for lunch. But Zarate said she didn’t have an appetite, and said she felt a heat in her legs. She excused herself from the table, went to her guest room at the monastery and examined her legs.
“What I saw made me afraid. I touched my legs and the scales were falling on the floor,” Zarate said. Since her condition often caused cracking and bleeding, Zarate worried that could be happening. But it didn’t seem to be the case.
She went back to the dining room, and told Timmers and Webber what had happened.
Overnight, Zarate said she couldn’t sleep and her body continued to shed sheets of scaly patches. Newly revealed was skin as smooth as a baby’s, she told the priests. Other Capuchin staffers even saw the sheets of diseased skin that fell to the floor.
It is not that unusual for the Capuchin priests to hear that prayers to Casey bring relief and healing to people suffering from illness, trauma or pain. In Zarate’s case, it was unusual for Capuchins to be present when a report of adramatic healing took place.
They recorded Zarate’s story, and prepared to investigate it with medical and church experts.
Later, the Capuchins paid for Zarate, as well as her Panamanian dermatologist, to visit Detroit for testimony before an Archdiocese tribunal – in effect, a church court – tasked with investigating the healing. Detroit Msgr. Ronald Browne presided over the tribunal for the Archdiocese of Detroit.
“Paula was one of the humblest people I ever met,” said Browne. “It’s definitely a heartfelt and moving story.”
But the tribunal also needed medical facts.
Zarate was examined by three metro Detroit dermatologists, including an expert on ichthyosis, and biopsies were taken of her skin.
Zarate’s Panamanian dermatologist recounted how surprised she was to see her patient’s clear skin after the visit to Detroit.
When the tribunal finished its report of Zarate’s case, a thick document was sealed in red wax by Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron, and a Capuchin priest hand-delivered it to the Vatican.
Dr. Richard Ferrara, a dermatologist in Grosse Pointe Woods, participated in the tribunal. Part of his role, he said, was to look for holes in the account. He took an oath which prevents him from disclosing details, but Ferrara said he considered the process “very in-depth and involved.”
“It was a very interesting, touching process,” said Ferrara, who searched existing literature. “They want us to be very impartial, to hold it up to scrutiny.”
The answer, Ferrara said, “is pretty self-evident” by Saturday’s beatification.
Capuchin Webber said tests showed Zarate still has the genetic skin condition, but the miraculous healing is that it doesn’t “manifest itself.”
Said Archbishop Vigneron: “Yes. I am quite confident it’s a miracle.”
Zarate arrives in Detroit later this week with her mother, her dermatologist and about 20 other relatives, friends and coworkers for the ceremony.
“I feel the desire to be here because I had the healing of my body here, my heart here and my soul here,” said Zarate.
“So much suffering went silent here,” said Zarate, a reference to the pain she endured with the skin condition.
Zarate had retired from teaching and expected to take it easy. In her volunteer work, she tended to unwed mothers and youngsters in Catholic parishes in the towns of Chepo and Pacora.
The miracle, she said crying, “has changed everything.”
At the beatification ceremony, Zarate will carry a wooden box in the shape of a cross. Inside will be a glass container holding a piece of bone taken from Casey’s remains.
Paula Medina Zarate is a retired school teacher from Panama.