By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published July 17, 2008
They came practically out of nowhere, entering the lives of three individuals during their time of need. The caped women and men—Dames and Knights of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta—took up the call to be their “brother’s keeper.”
“To be honest, I didn’t know a thing about the order,” admitted Stacey Persichetti, a young mother undergoing treatment for a malignant brain tumor.
“It was all kind of a miracle,” said Gary Leiner, recovering from neuroendocrine cancer.
“All of it was totally new,” said Suzanne Dooley, whose 14-year-old son, Matthew, has cerebral palsy.
Matthew Dooley, Persichetti and Leiner, along with their travel companions, were escorted and cared for by the Order of Malta during its annual pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, the site where the Blessed Mother appeared to St. Bernadette and now where the famed healing waters of the nearby spring flow. This year marked the 150th anniversary of the Marian apparitions.
Black Capes Signify Ancient Order
At official Catholic events, curious bystanders often wonder about the regal presence of the Knights and Dames of the Order of Malta wearing black capes adorned with a large white cross. But the mission behind the dress is humanitarian aid to the sick and poor, a mission that dates back to the time of the Crusades.
The oldest military order and one of the oldest religious orders of the Catholic Church starting about 1099, the Order of Malta’s first members safeguarded pilgrims visiting Jerusalem and provided protection for them and the holy sites during the Crusades. While the military aspect of the order has diminished, what has remained is the commitment by the Knights, Dames and now its auxiliary of younger adults “to defend the faith and serve the poor and the sick.”
Within the United States, the Order of Malta is divided into three associations based on geography: the American, Western and Federal associations, the last being that to which the Atlanta Archdiocese belongs.
Msgr. Edward Dillon, pastor of Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta, became familiar with the order when growing up in Ireland.
“Its ambulance corps delivered ambulance service to rural Ireland so I was very familiar with it,” he said.
In the early 1990s Archbishop John F. Donoghue was “quite interested” in bringing the order to the Atlanta Archdiocese and he sought permission from Cardinal James Hickey, then archbishop of Washington, D.C., and principal chaplain of the Federal Association. It was granted and Archbishop Donoghue appointed Msgr. Dillon as the area’s chaplain. A few Knights and Dames of the order already lived in the archdiocese, but Archbishop Donoghue and Msgr. Dillon recruited a few others to form a small group of about six members. Now the local contingency numbers close to 35. Worldwide there are about 12,000 members.
The order is an organization one “doesn’t necessarily join,” Msgr. Dillon said, but members rely on finding individuals who have a “fairly lengthy history of service to the church, preferably at the diocesan level.”
“It’s more than simply writing checks. You have to be involved in hands-on work,” he said.
Traditionally membership in the order was passed down through families, many of chivalric and noble heritage. This still occurs in Europe with its history of knights and royalty, but that practice doesn’t translate in the United States. Instead, the order in America seeks individuals accomplished in their fields and who show a willingness to serve others.
One need not be a doctor or nurse or have a medical background. Being financially stable is a consideration as annual dues help support grants and in-kind donations to various service projects and such institutions as Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem, the only modern obstetrical/gynecological facility in the area. Much of its services are offered free to anyone in need.
The Order of Malta also is involved with disaster relief in the United States and abroad, most recently in Myanmar and China. The Federal Association continues to help rebuild homes in New Orleans damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Candidates for becoming Knights or Dames typically begin preparing in April and the formation program culminates in investiture about 18 months later in October. The order also added an auxiliary component of younger individuals who have a history of service.
The local group gathers every five to six weeks for Mass and a business dinner where they plan, among other things, their service projects for the Solidarity School, chosen as the members’ primary focus of local charity work. The independent Catholic preschool teaches children of Hispanic immigrants English and helps prepare them to enter local schools. They also coordinate an annual Mass and anointing of the sick within the archdiocese. Discussion is underway to expand outreach by possibly sponsoring a quarterly healing Mass.
Members Bring Sick To Lourdes Each May
Every year the first of May marks the annual pilgrimage to Lourdes for the Knights and Dames of the order, along with auxiliary members and volunteers. They go for the sole purpose of helping the sick, called malades, who come for spiritual renewal and healing. The trip is not mandatory for members of the order, but one is expected to go at least once. It’s not uncommon for processions during the weeklong pilgrimage to number over 30,000 people with 20,000 pilgrims from around the world also attending Mass in the underground basilica. Sojourners spend time in the grotto and bathe in the healing waters.
The pilgrimage is a special event on many levels and is characterized by many as being a week of “one-third work, one-third prayer and one-third fun.”
All three malades from the Atlanta Archdiocese—Matthew Dooley, Persichetti and Leiner—and their travel companions can attest to the closeness of the group.
“I felt like a family by the end of the seven-day experience,” said Leiner.
The time proved special for Suzanne Dooley and Matthew. She shared what became quickly obvious to those who met Matthew. “He is a big talker and he earned a lot of laughs.”
Whether it was her son’s touching experience receiving the sacrament of confession aided by another young malade or the requirement of others who became Matthew’s prey while playing Uno to perform “The Chicken Dance” at a talent show for the pilgrims, Dooley recalled her son’s hope of returning again next year.
It was clear to Dooley, too, that God had touched him.
“There was such a transformation spiritually,” she said. “He came back and he knew he was going straight to heaven. … It’s so awesome. He feels so good. He’s not afraid of death.”
During the trip she recalled one moment when she suggested Matthew work on some homework. He replied saying, “I have a note from God saying I don’t have to do my homework here.”
Like others who made the pilgrimage, Dooley expressed the limitation of language to describe the experience.
“I have a hard time talking about it. Words don’t do it justice. I think of it as a Catholic Disney World—you’re in the park with Catholic people from all over the world. I’ve never been around a crowd like that. You walk down the street and see someone sitting on the ground praying the rosary or see people across the river gathered for a Mass in Latin—to think just what you hear is Latin.”
Persichetti had undergone chemotherapy and radiation for 12 months at the time she was asked to consider traveling to Lourdes as a malade.
“I had also lost a baby to chemo,” she added.
She talked it over with her husband, Joe, and prayed about the trip. She finally decided, “I would be honored to be part of the process.”
Persichetti sent her application to the Federal Association’s office in Baltimore for further review. A physician determined she would be physically able to make the trip and Dr. Mike Fleming, a Knight of Malta, visited her to verify her condition and ability to travel. After that meeting she was told she had been accepted.
“The great news correlated with what I had just found out in January—that I had finished treatment and there was no sign of cancer. The pilgrimage, then for me, was about hope and thanksgiving.”
As a malade she saw “the love of God as the Dames and Knights served you and looked after your every need or want.”
“It was a beautiful experience being over there and letting it be what God wanted it to be. It was very humbling; people always willing to serve you. … It was the perfect example of Christian love.”
She recalled the baths where individuals took quick dips in the chilly water and said prayers to Our Lady, and there was also the grotto, a busy yet tranquil place.
“There was just a sense of peace, which is an amazing thing because there are so many people around but there is still a hushed silence. The other cool thing was being in the hotel at night and hearing the singing during the Marian procession (going on in the streets). It’s an amazing experience.”
She also drew strength from meeting other malades.
“I thought a pretty heavy cross had been given to my family,” Persichetti said. “Seeing other malades I saw that theirs was so much heavier that mine seemed like a little splinter.”
She, Dooley and Leiner expressed their gratitude to the Dames, Knights, auxiliary members and volunteers of the order.
“I didn’t know many of the Dames or Knights who give a week of their lives, a week of their vacation time to do this. That’s a testimony to the people they really are. It was a beautiful experience,” she said.
Like others, she left wanting one day to return as a volunteer. “It changed me.”
Dooley added, “It’s incredible the people you meet, what we saw and how you come back feeling spiritually. It was eye-opening to see the malades, some on stretchers with IV bags. You see and absorb everything. Every person there loves God and they’re there to pray. It’s a neat feeling to be at a place where everybody is there for the same thing.”
Auxiliary Members Impacted By Lourdes
The experiences of friends sparked the decision to go to Lourdes for auxiliary members Butch and MaryGrace Elmgren.
For Butch, though, the desire was not as strong.
“I was reluctant to go,” he said. “It didn’t sound like something I would want to do.”
Upon arrival, his change of heart wasn’t instantaneous. “It was more of a process than a moment. … All of a sudden I was there a part of it. When I reflect back it was the little moments.”
For MaryGrace, seeing her husband move beyond his reluctance to “just enjoying himself” and “lovin’ it” proved to be one of the trip’s highlights.
“We’re hooked,” she said. “We want to go every year if we can, God willing.”
A pediatrician, MaryGrace appreciated the opportunity to blend her work and faith lives.
“Part of being at Lourdes was incorporating the medical aspect and sharing in the fellowship. Also, too, part of going was I saw how hard life can be for others,” she said. “It helped me be more aware especially of the caretakers. It helped me appreciate how devoted caretakers are and to see the daily crosses that the malades and their caretakers have every day.”
Auxiliary member Anne Lee made a return trip to Lourdes this year. One of the original members of the Atlanta auxiliary, Lee recalled its beginnings when the order wanted to start an auxiliary to “bring energy into the local group.”
“I had actually stepped away from the church for awhile and then came back,” she said.
Lee became involved in a group of young Catholic professionals and not long after that the opportunity with the order unfolded before her. The first auxiliary members—all women—were affectionately called “the princesses” when in uniform. They signed on for the pilgrimage to Lourdes.
“We didn’t know about the uniform when we signed up for the trip,” Lee said. “I remember the first day looking in the mirror and thinking ‘what have I gotten myself into?’ But by the end of (the pilgrimage) I felt out of uniform if I didn’t have it on.”
A statue of the Blessed Mother stands in the very spot where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous at the Sanctuaries of Our Lady of Lourdes in France 150 years ago. (Photo by the Shertenlieb family)
For Lynn Mullaney, a Dame candidate, the highlight of the trip was going into the baths. “It is such an incredibly moving and spiritual experience. You have no idea what to expect, and it is almost as though you are outside of your body looking in. The presence of Mary is so overwhelming. You just know she is there with you and listening to your heart and wanting to take away any pain that you have, be it physical or emotional.”
Lee was also “blown away” by the experience in Lourdes.
“You see all the pomp and glory of it, but mostly you see the faith that other people have and their strength because of it. It’s hard to describe. Their faith feeds yours.”
She recalled the words of one bishop spoken during a homily at one of the large Masses. “He said that in one way or another we’re all malades. We leave with a sense of grace. I call it the Lord’s bubble.”
She explained how those involved must endure elements such as the weather and personal discomfort. “My feet swell, but somehow I don’t care and I can’t stop smiling. God gives me the grace so that I can help others.”
Each trip is a different experience, she added. “The first year it was like, ‘hey, what’s this all about?’ I wanted to experience everything. This year I worked. … I was there to serve.”
Those she served and observed inspired her. One malade she came to know was a father of seven who had had back surgery and wore a morphine patch. His wife remained home with six of their children while the oldest son, Joseph, 13, came as his companion.
“He was the sweetest little boy. After we played a game of cards he shook my hand and thanked me for taking the time. The father, I could see the pain written on his face. Other times there was unadulterated joy on his and his son’s faces. To see that was unbelievable.”
Exhausted yet smiling, Lee returned to Atlanta and work “still in my happy place,” she said. “Even those who don’t understand the trip see the difference.”
Mullaney always feels rejuvenated following the trip.
“I want to help others and be a better person. You see so many people there who are suffering, but they have such joy. It makes you realize that you should be grateful for all of the blessings that you have in your life,” she said.
Mercy Sisters Valentina Sheridan and Peggy Fannon, both of whom minister to others at Saint Joseph’s Hospital, traveled to Lourdes as volunteers with the group from Atlanta.
“What remains very vividly with me is the memory of the self-sacrificing ‘faith in action’ of the Knights, Dames, auxiliary and volunteers,” Sister Valentina wrote in an e-mail. “They gave a week of their time in service to others which is an essential element of the Christian faith.”
Sister Peggy noted that many members of the order are CEOs or chair corporate boards, but never miss serving on the annual pilgrimage to Lourdes.
“(They) are so devoted and committed to this special ministry of healing that they take the time each year to make this pilgrimage,” she said.
Being invited to share in the faith journey of others was a privilege, she added. “For me it was a wonderfully prayer-filled and grace-filled time.”
Joe Krygiel, a Knight and also the director of Catholic Charities for the Atlanta Archdiocese, articulated the order’s place and purpose.
“You may be the richest man in the world, but you’re there to serve the sick. It’s an example of servant leadership. You serve them. You are your brother’s keeper.”