The Power Of Prayer A Novena To Mother Aviat For Bernadette Mckenzie's Healing Ends In A Last Baptism Of Pain, Then Release.

Posted: December 27, 2000

Second in a two-part series about Bernadette McKenzie, the Drexel Hill woman whose medical healing was deemed a miracle by the Vatican this month.

* The McKenzie family of Drexel Hill was devastated by the news that 14-year-old Bernadette had been deemed a "surgical failure."

This was in 1992, after three unsuccessful spinal-cord operations at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. Bernadette suffered from a rare and potentially crippling back disorder known as tethered cord syndrome. Surgically, she'd been deemed a failure by Jefferson neurosurgeon Bruce Northrup.

Northrup's prognosis for Bernadette was grim. He expected that she would soon be in a wheelchair, and eventually be bedridden for life.

The Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales, living and teaching at the McKenzies' parish school, St. Bernadette of Lourdes in Drexel Hill, had stepped in to help the stressed family with cooking, cleaning, baby-sitting and tutoring for Bernadette.

The sisters did not take the grim news about Bernadette lightly. The school's principal, Sister Anne Elizabeth, kept a special eye on Bernadette throughout the two-year ordeal.

According to Bernadette's mother, Denise, "Sister had a feeling that Bernadette was going to do great things for their order." On hearing the doctor's prognosis, Sister Anne approached Denise McKenzie.

"She wanted to start a novena [a nine-day prayer campaign] to their foundress, Mother Aviat. She'd approached me before, but this time I said yes."

Sister Anne's reply rings in Denise McKenzie's memory: "It's time to storm heaven!"

In 1991, Pope John Paul II had signed the first decree in Mother Frances de Sales Aviat's cause for sainthood. The decree - involving the spontaneous 1976 healing of a South African boy during a similar novena - had beatified the deceased French nun, the first step toward Catholic canonization. Two decrees of miracles must be signed for canonization to occur.

On March 22, 1992, in the Oblate Sisters' tiny convent chapel on Turner Avenue in Drexel Hill, Sister Anne Elizabeth began the novena with three other sisters, as well as with Bernadette's parents, Denise and Mike McKenzie, and a few dozen relatives and friends. Denise McKenzie recalls "sobbing the entire time."

Bernadette was not present. She opted to pray with two of her friends at one of the other girls' homes.

The next day, the novena widened. Two thousand novena cards (seeking prayers "for the complete and permanent cure of Bernadette McKenzie through the divine intervention of Mother Frances de Sales Aviat") were circulated to members of St. Bernadette, St. Laurence and St. Andrew the Apostle parishes. They also went to students at Archbishop Prendergast Girls High School and Monsignor Bonner Boys High School in Drexel Hill and to Mount Aviat Academy in Maryland.

Daily, hundreds of children ages 5 through 18 prayed for Mother Aviat to intervene with God on Bernadette's behalf. Nightly, families prayed the single-sided novena prayer card around dinner tables.

The second night of the novena, March 23, was the worst - in terms of pain - that Bernadette can remember.

"It was excruciating," she recalls. "Black. I barely slept at all."

Denise McKenzie says Sister Anne considered it "Bernadette's final agony before the cure."

On March 25, after little sleep, Bernadette began her day as usual. Her parents left for work and the four other children headed off to school.

Bernadette recalls sitting, shifting in pain, and uttering the novena prayer that she can still recite without pause: "Most Holy Trinity, who inspired the foundation of a new religious family, choosing for the accomplishment of Your designs of love, the very humble and charitable Mother Frances de Sales Aviat, deign if such be Your divine Will, to grant us by her intercession the favors which will glorify Your merciful Goodness, placing Your faithful Servant among the ranks of the Saints." And she added, "Dearest Mother Aviat, if it be your will and the will of Almighty God, please intercede for me."

In the afternoon, she says, she immersed herself in homework for several hours. As she emerged from her concentration, "I realized I wasn't in any pain. And then I knew. I knew that I was being healed.

"It was a quiet, peace-filled moment. No lights went off. No trumpets. I was sitting in a chair, looking out of the window. And I knew that I wasn't going to be sick any longer."

To test things, she walked, then ran up and down the stairs: "I hadn't done that in three years."

Denise and Mike McKenzie, returning from work about 4 that afternoon, were unprepared.

"I don't have any pain," the 14-year-old announced. "I can run up and down the stairs."

"What did you take?" her mother asked skeptically, knowing pain medication had never helped before.

"Nothing," she replied.

Mike McKenzie duct-taped the relic of Mother Aviat that she'd been wearing around her neck to his daughter's spine.

"And then we went on as normal as you can expect," Denise McKenzie says with a wry laugh. "I mean, what do you say? Who do you call when something like this is happening?"

Denise McKenzie says she shared Bernadette's news with Sister Anne Elizabeth that evening. "She absolutely, calmly replied, 'Keep praying.' And nothing more."

Bernadette tried to compose herself, too. In the kitchen, she recalls, she washed her hands and began to water a plant.

As the radio played in the background, she prayed to God, saying: "I know you're not supposed to ask for signs but I feel better, and could you send me a sign so I will know that this is really happening? Please put 'Forever Young' [her eighth-grade graduation song] on the radio.

The strains of "Beauty and the Beast" faded over the airwaves - and her eighth-grade anthem, the less popular Alphaville version of "Forever Young," came on.

Ecstatic, she "ran into the living room and told my brothers and sisters what had happened. They realized I was jumping up and down now. We were all really excited."

Denise McKenzie, returning home a bit later, was speechless. Bernadette touched her toes, pirouetted, danced for her mother and her grandmother.

The evening of March 26, Day 5 of the novena, Denise McKenzie was greeted by Oblate Mother Superior Sister John Marie and Oblate Sisters Mary Vincent and Laurence Terez. Bernadette danced for the sisters. She spun pirouettes, ran stairs, sat Indian style, touched her toes. This from a child who was "feeble-looking" only days before, according to her mother.

" 'What's the one thing that she could absolutely not do?' " Denise McKenzie says the mother superior asked.

"She can't raise her legs," Denise replied.

Bernadette lay on the floor and lifted her legs effortlessly.

" 'It's time to move,' " Denise McKenzie recalls the mother superior saying.

Bernadette was back in her neurosurgeon's office for an emergency checkup within days. MRI results showed a spinal cord that was still tightly tethered. After examining Bernadette and ordering another series of MRIs, neurosurgeon Northrup had no medical explanation for her vanished pain.

"He wrote as much on a prescription pad that is part of the archives in Rome pending Mother Aviat's canonization," Denise says.

MRI tests still depict a spine strangled by tethers, tumors and scar tissue. Despite this, and medical experts' testimony that Bernadette McKenzie should be crippled, Bernadette, at 23, is the picture of health.

She is working toward a master's degree in instructional systems and design at Penn State's Great Valley campus. She hikes and works out in a gym several times a week. The spunk of her youth has returned, along with a maturity born of suffering.

Bernadette says simply that "God has a plan. We're all part of that plan."

On Feb. 17, 2000, the five-member board of the Consulta Medica in Rome ruled that it found her healing medically inexplicable and deemed it miraculous.

On Dec. 5, a panel of cardinals added its imprimatur and forwarded the case to Pope John Paul II. On Dec. 18, the pontiff issued the final decree for Mother Aviat's canonization.

The canonization Mass is expected to take place sometime next year in Vatican City. Bernadette and her mother attended the 1991 beatification. This time, the McKenzie clan expects to be there in force, along with Bernadette's boyfriend.

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