CANTON – A standing-room-only congregation of more than 1,000 filled St. Peter Church here Oct. 7 for a Mass marking the formal opening of the Cause of Beatification and Canonization of Rhoda Wise.
People of all ages, most from Stark County, but many from out-of-state, came to Wise’s home parish church for this first step in her journey to possible official recognition as a saint as the Diocese of Youngstown formally opened her cause.
Wise was known for her life of prayer and spiritual gifts, including healing and the stigmata, wounds that resemble those of Christ on the cross.
Earlier that day, Dr. Andrea Ambrosi with the Vatican’s Congregation for the Cause of Saints met with diocesan officials and others at the diocesan conference room in Youngstown to begin this formal investigation by the Tribunal of First Instance for the diocesan Department of Canonical Services.
Those sworn in for the tribunal were: Msgr. Peter Polando, diocesan judicial vicar; Msgr. Robert Siffrin, delegate for the first session; Msgr. Michael Cariglio, episcopal delegate; Father John Manning, Historical and Archive Commission; Father David Misbrener, Historical and Archive Commission; Linda Tedde, actual notary; Christine Burger, and Brenda Kenjevari, copyists. Theological Commission members will be announced at a later date.
In addition, Msgr. John Zuraw, promoter of justice and Dr. Donna DeBlasio, Historical and Archive Commission could not be present.
After considerable study and consideration, Bishop George V. Murry, S.J., issued an edict declaring Wise a “Servant of God,” the first major step in the canonization process – by which the Church examines and considers candidates for sainthood.
“As the process investigating the life of Rhoda Wise begins today, how appropriate that we gather here in Church on the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, the first Friday of October,” said Msgr. Robert Siffrin, diocesan vicar general and moderator of the Curia, who was the main celebrant.
Prayers for the cause of Rhoda Wise will continue on the first Thursday of each month at 6:30 p.m. with Mass, rosary, and Eucharistic Adoration, said Karen Sigler, director of the Rhoda Wise Shrine.
The local tribunal will examine any writings Wise left, any historical records about her, and any testimony from people who knew her and make a recommendation to Bishop Murry. The diocese in turn will make a recommendation to the Congregation for the Cause of Saints.
Though raised a Protestant, Wise later embraced Catholicism and was devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the rosary and St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower.
Msgr. Siffrin was joined by many priests from parishes around Stark County.
“[The number of people at the Mass] shows how many people she touched while she was alive or after [her death],” said Father Edward Beneleit, pastor of St. Peter. “It shows the devotion to her. This is the crowd that is really faithful.”
Capuchin Father Joseph Tuscan, a member of the board of the Rhoda Wise Shrine, came to the Mass and the reception afterwards.
“One of the things that Pope Francis keeps saying is that for the New Evangelization we have to go out to the fringes,” Father Tuscan explained. “The house where she lived was [located in] a poor place, is still a poor place and it’s very unintimidating.”
“People come there who are not religious, people who are Catholics, fallen-away Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, people with no religion, because they are fascinated by the story. Everyone who comes there experiences a sense of peace,” Father Tuscan said. “In a certain way, everyone who comes in takes one step closer to God.”
Father Tuscan continued that Wise really suffered throughout her life, dealing with financial disaster, the death of a young daughter, an alcoholic husband, as well as her own serious health issues.
“Everyone suffers, but in a way, Rhoda Wise, aside from being a witness to the people on the fringes, is an answer to the question of human suffering. Rhoda wasn’t crushed by her suffering. She became a source of hope. And I think that perseveres.”
According to Wise’s writings, there was a continuous stream of visitors – mostly strangers – at 2337 2th Street N.E. here. Though it might be a colossal disruption to most, those who knew her, including some of her grandchildren who were present that night, said that Wise welcomed everyone – those desperate to be healed or freed or calmed – in her tiny, three-room house.
“It was a normal house. We had arguments, dinners at the table, bath time, yard work, house work. It was our home,” said Tammy Schuette of Salem, Wise’s granddaughter. “To us, it was not unusual when people came to the door at 10 o’clock.”
Don Hahs of Canton, Wise’s grandson, who was old enough to remember many of the happenings on 25th street, recalls a bright light coming from the house.
“It was so bright, you could hardly look at it,” Hahs said. “I also saw Rhoda bleed. I would run and get my mom and she would say: ‘Leave her alone. She’s OK.’”
Granddaughter Darlene Zastawny has a theory as to why people were so attracted to Wise.
“She was a normal woman, normal housewife, who had nothing,” Zastawny said. “People say: ‘Our Lord must think she’s good. Maybe he thinks we are good.’ He chose her, a simple woman. She had nothing, but because she was chosen by our Lord, she had everything.”
“My grandma is my grandma. I don’t think I could ever be like her. You have to be chosen and I was not chosen. Did I feel like I had to be extra good? Sure! But really, it was a normal house; we were normal kids.”
“When I saw all those people in church, I started to cry,” Zastawny continued, “because finally, they believe in her.”