By Emilie Ng
SLIPPING out of a driveway in Sydney, Paul Swan and his mother Joan make a reverent plea to the Virgin Mary.
The pair is headed to visit John Swan, Joan’s husband and Paul’s father, who has been battling Parkinson’s disease for almost 13 years.
With the help of the Blessed Virgin Mary and a special saintly relative known affectionately to the family as Mère Marie, Joan and Paul are praying for a miraculous cure for John.
“Mum’s been praying to her a lot, praying in great faith to Mère Marie that something will happen for Dad,” Mr Swan said.
“You could ring Mum right now and you could still hear her saying, ‘Yeah, I’m still praying to Mère Marie for a miracle for John’.”
Mère Marie is the familial but lesser-known name for Palestinian Blessed Marie-Alphonsine Danil Ghattas, a nun who helped start the first women religious order in the Holy Land.
“At home when we were kids, we always called her Mère Marie, and we still say, Mère Marie,” Paul said.
Paul and his father John are direct descendants of Blessed Marie-Alphonsine’s brother Issa Danil Ghattas, John’s grandfather.
Next Sunday (May 17), 120 family members related to Mère Marie, including Paul’s wife Genevieve Swan and two of their daughters, Felicity and Caitlyn, will meet in Rome where she will be declared a saint.
Paul is helping relatives in New South Wales make the trip, but will remain in Brisbane when his great-great-aunt is canonised.
“I already feel pretty religiously connected anyway,” he said.
Being brought up with stories about a saintly woman who used her Rosaries and faith in God to witness to peace and love in Palestine was “normal” for Paul and his siblings.
“I think when she was venerable in the ’70s or ’80s, even then it just seemed like someone in the family, someone familiar who was holy,” he said. “It doesn’t seem strange, extraneous or abnormal to be associated with people who dedicated their lives to God.”
The family has never missed their daily Rosary, all thanks to Mère Marie.
“I always had the fourth decade,” Mr Swan chuckled.
“Even when we go back to Sydney, before we get out of the driveway, we’re saying Hail Marys.
“It is very much part of the family upbringing, part of the bread and butter of our prayers.”
Blessed Marie-Alphonsine had a “real gift for teaching and catechising” and would often teach young girls and mothers. One of those groups, the Immaculate Conception group, became the first sisters in the saint’s founding order.
The Palestinian nun received visions from the Virgin Mary while in the Congregation of St Joseph of the Apparition, an order in the Holy Land which she joined at just 14.
One written account of the apparitions includes an instruction to begin a new religious order in Jerusalem dedicated to the Rosary, entitled the Congregation of the Sisters of the Most Holy Rosary of Jerusalem.
The new order was approved in 1880 and the girls from the Immaculate Conception teaching group offered their lives to God and received the habit for the new Palestinian-based order.
Blessed Marie-Alphonsine’s devotion to the Rosary didn’t just start and end in her prayer life, but the Palestine nun is said to have thrown down her beads to save a girl who had fallen down a well.
The girl’s life was saved, with one account saying she escaped using the beads as a ladder.
Blessed Marie-Alphonsine was the 10th sister to join the Rosary Sisters, and humbly refused to be prioress, instead giving the primary responsibilities to her biological sister, Hanneh.
Soon after her death, Benedictine Father Benedict Stolz was asked to investigate Blessed Marie-Alphonsine’s diaries, which were the only evidence of her Marian apparitions and prayer life as she had never disclosed her visions to anyone except her confessor and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.
While working through the 10th chapter of Blessed Marie Alphonsine’s biography, A Handmaid of the Rosary, Fr Stolz realised each chapter had corresponded with each decade of the Rosary in ascending order.
By the 10th chapter, her life sufferings had reflected “that of Christ’s suffering on Mt Calvary”, which was also the place where she was first received as a nun at 14.
The process for sainthood requires two miracles approved by the Church.
Miracles attributed to Blessed Marie-Alphonsine’s intercession happened within six years of each other, and less than 100 years after her death in 1927.
Her first miracle was in 2003 when Helen Zananiri, worried her daughter was in danger, prayed to the Palestinian nun to protect her daughter.
Hours later, Mrs Zananiri’s daughter was among a group of girls who fell into a collapsed outdoor septic tank at a party.
All the girls, though trapped for at least five minutes, escaped unharmed.
The second miracle occurred on the same day as Blessed Marie-Alphonsine’s beatification.
A man escaped “totally well” after falling off a cherry-picker that touched overhead electrical wires.
Although he was in a coma and not expected to live, his family’s prayers for the intercession of Blessed Marie-Alphonsine saved his life and he woke up with no sign of harm.
Holbrook nurse and descendant of Blessed Marie-Alphonsine, Carmel Murphy, is also hoping for a miracle so she can have a front-row seat at the canonisation.
Ms Murphy suffers from chronic health issues that makes it difficult to travel or maintain strenuous activity.
She is praying that her great-great-great-aunt will make it possible for her to witness her canonisation, but said she already felt “looked after” by her holy relative when praying the Rosary.
Despite her health struggles, Ms Murphy’s patients have already expressed an interest in their nurse’s saintly connection.
“It’s a massive opportunity to witness the faith to my patients,” she said.
While descendants like Carmel, Paul and John and others around the world are rejoicing in the good news that a close family member will be a saint, it’s also a glimmer of hope amidst a barrage of “bad news” coverage of Palestine.
Banners of the saint-to-be, plus another Palestinian blessed who will also be canonised on May 17, were held high at the region’s Palm Sunday processions attracting hundreds of local Catholics this year.