I first met the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth as a postulant in 1977 when our community was inviting to share a meal with the Sisters at St Andrew’s in Marayong. I was able, at that first meeting to experience what I later understood to be one of the characteristics of their community – and that was hospitality. At the completion of my novitiate in Brisbane the Sisters in Stafford attended my First Profession. Over the years invitations passed back and forth between our two communities and although we tried to outdo the Sisters in the quality of our celebrations with them, as men I don’t think we ever came close to matching it! But the Sisters were always gracious and we were none the wiser!
It was at one of these occasions that I first heard the story of Frances Siedliska and on hearing that the Capuchins were involved my interest was aroused. Sr Josita gave me a copy of the book “His Will Alone” and from that moment I was hooked. The book presented me with a portrait of a woman, who rather than allow difficulties, illness, her own personal doubts and struggles disable her, she used them to push herself forward to co-operate with God’s plan. I came to see that “restlessness” is not a bad thing or something that can distracts us. In the life of Frances it is what continually motivated her, gave her energy and strengthened her. She was a woman not afraid to end relationships with people who unlike her did not fully understand the Nazareth mission or those whose part in that mission had ended – the two Capuchin Friars would, I think fall into this category!
In 1992 I spent a year studying in Rome and lived at the Capuchin Friary not far from Rome’s Central Station. To my delight our Friary was only three streets away from the Sister’s Convent on Via Machiavelli – it was here that Blessed Frances lived and died. During that year I made many visits to the Convent, prayed in the chapel and spent time in Mother Foundress’s room. The Sisters also arranged for me to visit the General House and I was able to pray at the tomb of Frances. Before I left Rome the Sisters gave me a First Class Relic and it was this relic that was to accompany me through illness which was to become the next “big” thing in my life so far.
Upon my return to Australia I asked my friend Sr Rosanne for anything in English either about Blessed Frances or written by her. Rosanne loaned me copies of the “Letters” and “Conferences” of Mother Foundress. Reading these gave me an even more clearer understanding of the woman herself – as up till now all I had read was what others had written about her. I now had access to her own words and began to gain an insight into the deep spirituality and understanding that she possessed.
Life was good for me at this time and I was happy in my ministry, living at our Friary in Leichhardt. God, though has a way of intervening and at these times we are reminded that our life is according to His plan and not our own. This happened to me when in 2000/2001 I was diagnosed with an advanced and very aggressive cancer. The tumour had been growing for at least four years and had attacked the bowel, prostate and the bladder. I had experienced no symptoms and was enjoying what I thought was good health. I had gone to the Doctor complaining of stomach cramps and when the cramps did not go away after taking some medication I went and had a scan as a matter of routine. Within days of getting the results of that scan I began a course of Chem.-therapy. The treatments were so strong that my body was unable to cope and I developed a form of blood poisoning. I became very unwell and the treatment was stopped. I was told that without Chemo it was unlikely that surgery alone would remove all the cancer as it was so advanced. At best I would have five years of good health although there were no guarantees. After the shock wore off one of the first people I rang after my family was Sr Rosanne and asked for her prayers and those of the Sisters. I later found out that not only were the Sisters in Australia praying for me but also the Sisters in Rome, as Rosanne had contacted them.
Before going to the hospital I distributed prayer cards of Blessed Frances to friends and asked them to pray to her on my behalf. I was Anointed and got one of our priests to bless me with the Relic of Blessed Frances. I took her image with me to hospital and it was beside my bed the whole time. The surgery took nine hours and in the days that followed I was to learn and feel just how major the surgery had been but also just how successful it had been also. The surgeon told me that despite the advanced state and extensive nature of the cancer he was confident that he managed remove it all, although tests in the weeks ahead would either prove or disprove his diagnosis. In the weeks ahead at different stages of my recovery the results of all the test and scans showed that all of the cancer was removed and there were now no active cancer cells present. I spent two months in hospital recovering before coming home.
In speaking with my surgeon, Professor Michael Solomon I mentioned the fact that I believed that not only was his skill responsible for my good outcome but also, as a believing Christian that prayer for me was also a major factor. To my surprise he not only agreed but pointed out an article in a medical magazine of a study that concluded that a person’s personal faith/prayers and the confidence in that faith and prayer can affect the outcome of the surgery in a positive way.
I firmly believe that it was through the intercession Blessed Frances Siedliska that I survived cancer and that she is still watching over me all these years later. All subsequent test still shows no active cancer cells. I still pray to her and still have her image with me – and I always will! I see her as I also do the Sisters, a friend, a sister and I draw strength from the fact that like me she struggled with ill health, that like me she got tired and needed to rest but that she always got up again and renewed everyday her willingness to co-operate with what God had planned for her.
I could look back at my illness and be depressed as I see the negative effects it has had on my life, the physical limitations, personal plans that will never be fulfilled and the fear of cancer returning. In fact one of the graces I believe I received through the intercession of Blessed Frances was the ability to see the positive effects, such as illness being God’s invitation to me to draw closer to Him, to value each day as a gift and to be sensitive to others who are ill or suffer.
So really all through my life as a Capuchin at every significant stage there have been Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth – a gentle faithful presence offering friendship, love and encouragement. I could also say the same of Blessed Frances for she too is still, like them a gentle, faithful and loving friend. Someone who I talk to every day and someone who I love dearly.
Brother Michael O’Dwyer OFM Cap
October 29th, 2011