by Vicki Ikeogu
Sister Annella Zervas may have physically left this earth almost a century ago, but people like St. Cloud’s Brendan King and Avon’s Patrick Norton believe she is still working miracles.
Zervas died in 1926 in a painful and drawn-out suffering caused by Pityriasis Rubra Pilaris, which is a rare skin disorder that causes inflammation of the skin, thickening of the nails and hair loss. Since her death, Zervas had been the topic of devotion in circles around the world.
According to a 1989 article in the Saint Cloud Visitor, a few people had made reports of being cured of illnesses by praying to her in the year following her death. By 1932, a woman had claimed “she had taken a vine from her grave, put it in water, used the water in a bath and was relieved of a painful backache.”
During the 1940s, Zervas’ grave site, in the grotto at St. Benedict’s Monestery in St. Joseph, was rumored to remain green year-round.
Devotion and pilgrimages spread as pamphlets were printed proclaiming her holiness in French, German and even several Southeast Asian languages.
Even though she was not officially canonized a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, she was unofficially venerated as one up until the 1960s.
But then, silence.
That was until King stumbled upon her information while volunteering at the Stearns History Museum nearly a decade ago.
“For a lot of years I would spend time volunteering in the archives at the Stearns History Museum,” King said, “translating and transcribing oral history from German to English.”
It was in 2008 when King began exploring the history of Sister Annella Zervas. Combing through archives within the monastery, King would uncover what he described as a compelling story on suffering and devotion to God.
It was a story he published in December 2008 in the Catholic Family News.
Who was she?
Anna Cordelia Zervas was born in 1900 in Moorhead. Zervas’ father, Hubert, wrote that at the early age of 15, Zervas had expressed a desire to enter into a spiritual life.
According to the Rev. Joseph Kreuter’s 1931 account, Zervas entered the convent of the Benedictine Sisters in St. Joseph in August 1915. By 1918, she became a novice of the Benedictine Order where she received the name Sister Mary Annella. She was more commonly known as Sister Annella.
Sister Annella spent several years working as a music teacher at St. Mary’s Convent in Bismarck, N.D. In the 1957 book Ticket for Eternity: A Life of Sister Annella Zervas, OSB author James Kritzeck noted Sister Annella described her early days as a sister as those filled with pure joy.
“Words cannot come near expressing the happiness of belonging to Jesus,” Zervas wrote. “But still a greater feast awaits me, if God wills, when I can say, ‘I am thine, my Jesus, forever.’”
In 1922, Sister Annella Zervas made her final vows at St. Benedict’s and returned to her work in Bismarck.
However, within about a year of those vows, Zervas began experiencing a persistent itch on her skin. That itch soon escalated. Zervas would spend several years meeting with doctors at St. Alexius Hospital in Bismarck, specialty clinics in Minneapolis and even the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Aside from a diagnosis of PRP, doctors and nurses were able to do very little to stop the itchy rash from spreading.
By 1924, Sister Annella had become unrecognizable to her parents. It is written in an account by her father, Hubert, that: “The figure was bent; there was swelling around the eyes, one of which was practically closed; the sick person walked with great difficulty. There were no eyelashes, no eyebrows on that disfigured face.”
Sister Annella’s sickness grew worse. In 1925, a stomach ailment made eating and drinking almost impossible. She was unable to participate in her daily duties and was confined to an upstairs room in her parents’ home.
Sister Annella’s father chronicled with great detail the suffering of his third child. Details of her suffering included the graying of her skin, her flesh coming off in sheets and uncontrollable bouts of pain. It is noted through all of the suffering and pain, Sister Annella never lost her faith in God.
Sister Annella is quoted as saying, “O Jesus, send me more pain, but give me strength to bear it.”
On Aug. 5, 1926, a public novena for Sister Annella began at the Shrine of Our Lady of Victory in Lackawanna, N.Y. At the end of the novena, in the early hours of Aug. 14, Sister Annella died. She was estimated to have weighed 40 pounds at the time of her death.
King believes the 50-year silence on the matter was in part due to the changes surrounding Vatican II.
“I think especially the fact Sister Annella’s viewpoint on spirituality, the fact that suffering was not a curse, I think may have made a lot of people see her as strange,” he said. “But I think God raises up saints for a reason and he also makes them known to us for a reason.”
That reason may not be clearly defined for Norton. But it has not deterred his mission to spread the story of Sister Annella throughout Minnesota.
Norton said his first encounter with Sister Annella was in 2010 while he was doing some painting around the statute of the Virgin Mary.
“And suddenly this nun appeared to me right there,” Norton said. “After she appeared to me, the first thing she said to me was, ‘You’re doing a wonderful job.’ It was like the Blessed Mother sent her to tell me that.”
Norton said he had come to know the nuns at the monastery since he moved to Minnesota in the early 1990s. He said he didn’t recognize the nun who had suddenly appeared. He said her garments appeared out of date, making this random appearance stick out even more. And after a brief conversation, the nun disappeared.
At the time Norton did not know the name of the nun he encountered. He decided to keep that to himself. But odd things kept happening to Norton.
“About a year later I got a call again to help at the college,” Norton said.
At the college in 2011, Norton and a friend of his went down to the cemetery to talk.
“I said (to my friend), ‘They’re all dead, what are you talking about?’ ” Norton recalled. “He said, ‘But phenomenal things have been happening.’ This man had been working there for 28 years. He knew about stuff that was happening there.”
During that visit, Norton said both he and his friend experienced what Norton described as an “electric tap on the shoulder.” An odd happening. One that both Norton and his friend kept to themselves.
It wasn’t until 2012 that Norton learned of Sister Annella Zervas and her gravesite at the monastery.
Attending adoration and confession at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in St. Cloud, Norton happened to run into a young man sitting in a pew. That man was Brendan King.
“He started talking to me about everything,” Norton said. “And then he said, ‘Pat, where do you work?’ And I said I help out at St. Ben’s College. And as soon as I said that he said, ‘Hey, there’s a holy nun buried in that cemetery.’ And I said, ‘What’s her name?’ And he said, ‘Sister Annella Zervas.’”
Soon afterward, Norton began searching for the spot where Sister Annella’s remains were buried. It just happened to be near the site where he had seen that nun in older garments appear in 2010. It was about the same area where he and his friend felt an electric tap on the shoulder in 2011.
Norton knew it had to be her.
Months of research in the archives led Norton to discover her story and the miracles surrounding Sister Annella. His quest for knowledge led him to meet some of the last living relatives of Sister Annella’s who have entrusted Norton with relics, including the two rosaries and a cross the 26-year-old nun was holding when she passed away nearly 100 years ago.
Norton said he believes Sister Annella’s journey to sainthood should be reopened. It’s a mission he has been pursuing since 2013 with both the Diocese of St. Cloud and the Order of St. Benedict’s.
“(Bishop Donald Kettler) said he wanted me to continue to share my experience,” Norton said. “Then I knew the Lord is working through this bishop saying now I have to be obedient. To go out and share my experience.”
Norton has worked tirelessly to leave free stories and documentation of Sister Annella around churches throughout Central Minnesota. He has had requests for copies of Sister Annella’s story from people throughout the state.
It is a mission Norton hopes will inspire those, especially the sisters at the monastery, to reconsider Sister Annella for the canonization process.
According to the 1989 Saint Cloud Visitor story, it’s policy of the St. Benedict’s Convent not to promote canonization procedures for one of their own members.
Attempts to reach the monastery for comment were unsuccessful.
“If I want this to happen I have to do my part,” Norton said. “And at the same time, I’m asking for help from the people of Minnesota. I can’t do this alone.”
Norton hopes this renewed interest will one day lead to the canonization of Minnesota’s first saint.
“I know Minnesota needs a saint,” Norton said. “And Sister Annella is one of the closest we have.”
Vicki Ikeogu is a local freelance reporter from St. Cloud. Ikeogu is a 2015 mass communications graduate from St. Cloud State University. Ikeogu was previously the business reporter at the St. Cloud Times. She currently works as a transportation planner for the Saint Cloud Area Planning Organization.