Delco man's recovery yields newest saint

William Glisson Jr., from the Philadelphia area in the U.S., center, whose cure from a 2002 head injury was declared the miracle needed to canonize Rev. Luigi Guanella, holds a shrine with the relics of Rev. Guanella, during a mass celebrated by pope Benedict XVI on Sunday. (AP Photo/Osservatore Romano, HO)
William Glisson Jr., from the Philadelphia area in the U.S., center, whose cure from a 2002 head injury was declared the miracle needed to canonize Rev. Luigi Guanella, holds a shrine with the relics of Rev. Guanella, during a mass celebrated by pope Benedict XVI on Sunday. (AP Photo/Osservatore Romano, HO) (AP)
Posted: October 23, 2011

The 19th-century Italian priest Luigi Guanella was a saintly man, but he might not be getting his halo from the pope on Sunday had William "Billy" Glisson Jr. practiced safe skating.

On March 15, 2002, the 21-year-old Glisson was speeding backward downhill without a helmet along Baltimore Pike in Springfield, Delaware County. One of his inline skates caught on a dip in the sidewalk. His feet flew into the air. The back of his head smashed into the concrete.

At Crozer-Chester Medical Center, doctors worked to save a brain-injured patient they feared was doomed, removing the left, front, and right sides of his skull to relieve swelling and one-third of his left frontal lobe. On a 10-point coma assessment scale, they ranked him a 4, virtually a lost cause.

Seven months later, Glisson was back to work at his family's roofing and insulation company in Folcroft - the result, the Vatican later concluded, of prayers to Guanella and the placement of a tiny bone relic in Glisson's hospital wristband.

It was the second miracle Guanella needed to ascend to sainthood, having waited 47 years since the church verified the first and declared him "blessed." On Sunday, his devotees will gather in St. Peter's Square for his canonization by Pope Benedict XVI.

Among the throng in Rome will be the Glisson family of Glen Mills. A casually observant Catholic who prefers rollerblading over Mass most Sundays, Billy Glisson, now 30, said last week he was "too nervous to even think" about the ceremony, in which he will carry the bread and wine up the steps of the basilica.

But as he stood with his father outside their shop on Chester Pike, he said: "You can't really make any sense but to call what happened to me a miracle."

"Happened to us," his 56-year-old father corrected.

A Methodist, the elder Glisson isn't sure what to make of the Catholic Church's fuss over his son. But, he said, the recovery does seem miraculous. "I can't think of any other way to describe it."

Though some non-Catholics take a dim view of the canonization practice, the Vatican says it does not "make" saints, but simply recognizes holy people and declares them to be with God.

Guanella, who lived from 1842 to 1915, devoted himself to the care of widows, orphans, and the disabled in northern Italy, and founded two religious orders, the Servants of Charity and the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence.

He "recognized the dignity of ailing persons at a time when people would shame them or mistreat them, but he called them 'good children' and 'treasures,' " said the Rev. Dennis Weber, head of Don Guanella Village, a residence and school for 150 mentally retarded teens and men in Springfield.

"He was pro-life before there was 'pro-life.' "

In 1964, the church declared Guanella "blessed," thanks in part to the seemingly miraculous cures of two elderly Italian women at a home run by the Daughters of St. Mary.

Guanella will be one of three men - all founders of religious orders - canonized Sunday, bringing Benedict's total to 37 during his 61/2-year pontificate.

Most estimates put the number of saints in the Catholic pantheon at 3,000 to 4,000. Nearly 500 of those were declared by Pope John Paul II - himself a "blessed" candidate in need of another miracle for sainthood.

Canonization dates informally to Christianity's earliest centuries. As the faithful started praying to departed souls for divine favors, bishops assembled a list, or "canon," of the most popular local saints.

Reports of miracles, some dubious, swelled those lists. Few can compare to St. Minias, an Armenian soldier said to have carried his head to Florence after he was decapitated, then dug his own grave and buried himself.

After about a thousand years of grassroots saint-making, the Vatican decided popes would henceforth decide who wears a halo. (Orthodox churches have their own process.) Rome gradually developed elaborate steps and criteria, including scrutiny of a prospective saint's life for signs of "heroic virtue."

It also demanded proof of one miracle for a person to be deemed "blessed," and two more to qualify for sainthood. In 1983, John Paul simplified the process, requiring only one more for canonization.

In 2006, the Vatican's Congregation for the Cause of Saints began reviewing Glisson's medical records in connection with Guanella's cause.

Two days after the accident, family friend Noreen Yoder, former director of Don Guanella Village, gave Glisson's mother two encased bone fragments of Guanella's. A priest had presented them to her years before as she recovered from a serious car accident.

"I attached one to his [hospital] wristband, put the other in my pocket, and just prayed," Donna Glisson said last week. A lifelong Catholic who raised her son and daughter in the faith, she is also a cardiovascular nurse at Crozer.

Weber and the other priests at Don Guanella Village prayed, too, and asked the residents to include Glisson in their prayers. Though many of the residents are profoundly retarded, Weber said recently, he was confident "their prayers go straight to heaven."

Two weeks later, as his parents sat at Glisson's bedside, they saw an eyelid twitch but dared not mention it to each other. A little later, they saw movement under both eyelids. "We looked at each other," his mother recalled, "and said, 'Did you see that?' "

Within a few hours, Glisson opened his eyes. "I just remember my mom looking back at me," he said, "and then she got this huge smile."

Within days, he was sitting up, responding to verbal commands, and hand-signing to his deaf cousin, a skill he had learned while young. He was transferred to Bryn Mawr Rehabilitation Center, and soon was moving about with a walker.

By fall, he was back at work, operating a forklift and assembling storm windows.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has been the site of several other medical cures judged by the Vatican to be miraculous intervention by prospective saints.

In 1977, the Catholic Church canonized 19th-century Bishop John Neumann after determining he had played a role in the recovery of a Villanova teen badly injured in a car accident, and in the cure of a West Philadelphia boy with advanced osteomyelitis.

In 2000, Mother Katharine Drexel, founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, became a saint after Rome concluded she had helped heal two deaf Bensalem children.

A year later, Mother Leonie Aviat of France became a saint after it was determined that prayers to her had miraculously cured a Drexel Hill teen's spinal ailment.

In the Glisson case, the Vatican's scrutiny included an interview with his lead surgeon at Crozer, Richard V. Buonacore. He told the panel that Glisson's back-of-the-head blow was "the worst kind of head injury," and that his complete recovery seemed "miraculous."

"I'm good," Buonacore said last week, "but not that good."


Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

 

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