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Minnesota man works to make nun a saint

By ALYSSA ZACZEK
Dec. 1, 2017 at 11:11 p.m.

Patrick Norton holds a suitcase Oct. 24 owned by Sister M. Annella Zervas at his home in St. Joseph, Minn. Norton says Zervas appeared to him seven years ago while he was working on campus at the College of St. Benedict. He is working to have her recognized as a saint.

ST. JOSEPH, Minn. — Seven years ago, Patrick Norton changed.

The 55-year-old St. Joseph man was painting light posts near the grotto at the College of St. Benedict when a nun in a dated habit appeared and began talking with him.

When the conversation ended, he said, the nun turned and disappeared before his eyes.

"I said, 'Wow,'" he told the St. Cloud Times . "'They really come and go around here!'"

Norton told no one about his strange experience. One year later, a chance encounter at the Church of St. Anthony's of Padua in St. Cloud brought him face to face with a photo of Sister M. Annella Zervas of the Order of St. Benedict.

Norton recognized her at once.

"Those big eyes!" Norton said. "I knew that was the nun I had seen."

It was a happy tale, a missed connection solved by fate or divine intervention. The only problem was that Zervas had died in 1926.

"I knew nothing about her life at that time," Norton said. But after learning more about who Zervas was — and how she suffered in her short life — he became dedicated to telling her story, and advocating for her to become Minnesota's first saint on the basis of her perpetual devotion to God despite ailing from a painful disease.

"Even the kids say, 'You know, dad's really changed since (seeing her),'" said Sandy Norton, Patrick's wife of more than 25 years. "All he talks about is Sister Annella."

But the road to sainthood is long and arduous, and Patrick Norton's advocacy for Zervas's sainthood has received little traction within the Diocese of St. Cloud. Still, his passion for the long-dead religious sister has inspired a small group who believe that Zervas's spirit can perform miracles.

Ninety years after her death, Zervas's story has compelled a man to devote his life to her promotion. But who was she?

She was born Anna Cordelia Zervas in Moorhead, coming into the world on April 7, 1900, Palm Sunday.

She left home for the Order of St. Benedict in St. Joseph at just 15, but the transition away from her family proved to be a difficult one.

"Ever since entering the convent, mental and physical suffering in one way or another was her portion," wrote James Kritzeck in his 1957 book "Ticket for Eternity," which chronicles Zervas's life.

At first, her suffering appeared as homesickness, which Kritzeck characterized poetically as "an unsatisfying longing of a loving heart." Indeed, Kritzeck depicts an extremely anxious but tender young woman, whose "mental anguish" was so strong she developed something akin to severe heartburn that would last all her life.

By all accounts, Zervas's mental condition was, much of the time, turbulent. But her physical condition took a turn for the worse after she made her perpetual vows in 1922.

What began as a bit of itching evolved into something horrific: Her body began to swell from head to toe, her skin turning a deep red and burning with an insatiable itch. Her swollen limbs oozed and developed sores; her skin sloughed off in chunks and strips; "thornlike stickers" developed within her pores and had to be painfully removed.

In 1924, a skin specialist at the University of Minnesota diagnosed her with pityriasis rubra pilaris, a chronic skin disease that had no significant treatment options or a cure at the time.

According to Dr. Elizabeth Blixt, dermatologist at CentraCare Health Plaza, it is possible that Zervas's disease also caused her to develop erythroderma, a complication which could have contributed to her death.

"Erythroderma causes the entire body to become red and inflamed, and the skin often becomes flaky. What can happen is that (the erythroderma) messes with the body's heat regulators. It can cause the body to lose a lot of heat, which makes you more susceptible to infections. It can also cause electrolyte imbalances that can lead to other things, like heart arrhythmia," she said.

If the condition isn't treated properly, people can get quite sick, she said.

"It's certainly possible that it could lead to death," Blixt said.

When it became clear that she would ultimately succumb to her condition, Zervas was taken home to Moorhead. Despite her state, Sister Annella remained cheerful and devout throughout much of her illness, according to Kritzeck. Multiple accounts from "Ticket for Eternity" suggest that Zervas often told others that "(she had) a secret with God," one that she would not divulge but that "(made her) very happy."

When Zervas died in the wee hours of Aug. 14, 1926, she was barely recognizable. Her body was carried down from her bedroom by her mother, and she was buried in the monastic cemetery at the College of St. Benedict.

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