First of all, I am not Catholic. I am a religious nut Pentecostal. My father was Catholic until he married my mother. She was a war bride from England, and a Methodist. In those days the Catholic Church required a written pledge from the parties that the children born of such a mixed marriage be raised Catholic. My mother refused to sign so Dad became a Methodist, and so did his parents.
Fast forward about fifty years to Anchorage, Alaska. The Millennium. I had just had a book about King Island published for the second time. The first book was an illustrated history of Paul Tiulana–leader of the King Island people, respected elder, hunter, artist, dancer, and teacher of Eskimo material culture, traditions and values. The story and photographs in that first book, published by the CIRI Foundation, depicted events from the 1920’s through the sixties. The community had a resident Catholic priest through those years. Both books featured beautiful photographs of the King Island people, taken in 1938 by a traveling geologist known as the Glacier Priest.
The second book, published ten years later by a major New York educational house, Grolier, told the same story, but was reformatted for sale to school libraries as part of a series of autobiographies. I added some new material, including a picture of John Paul II as he was greeted in Anchorage by King Island women who gave him a Pope parka made of white camouflage cotton lined with white rabbit fur and trimmed in wolverine. Paul’s wife, Clara, was one of the skin sewers in the picture.
For some reason I wanted the book in the papal library. I really liked John Paul II. He seemed to travel everywhere, to care for the whole world. And I felt for the man because he had Parkinson’s Disease. My mother had Parkinson’s Disease for 35 years, half her life.
So I dropped by the Catholic Diocese and gave the book to a priest. Promptly I received a call. Archbishop Hurley wanted me to come in and talk with him. Okay.
His first words were, “So you are the woman who wants to speak to the Pope.” I did not know that about myself at the time, but it was true that I had something that I wanted to communicate. I told Archbishop Hurley about my mother. He said that I should write a letter and he would send it to Rome with the book. He knew someone who would know what to do with it.
How do you address the Pope in a letter? Your Holiness. What do you say? I wanted to say something to encourage him. I watched his Millenium address on TV, and I could see him struggling to maintain, just as my mother had struggled. I have seen the real benefit of mere words offered by one person to another suffering from the same frightening condition.
I wrote a one-page letter about the book, referring to King Island as a part of Church history, in touch with Rome on several occasions. As an addendum, I wrote:
- Please excuse me for presuming to mention your health. However, perhaps a few words in the following paragraph may be useful to you.
- My mother had Parkinson’s disease for thirty-five years, until her death at the age of seventy. She was an inspiration to everyone who knew her because she never complained and she just kept going. Although she fell down once or twice a day, over about twenty years, she did not allow anyone to mention her illness. She would never use a wheelchair. She carried out her duties as a wonderful wife, mother, grandmother and friend right to the last. I cannot attribute her winning attitude to faith in God. It had more to do with her upbringing as an English country girl, I think. But she was certainly blessed by God. I often heard her singing quite happily even though her hands shook and her feet didn’t work right. She found that she needed anti-depressants though, sometimes to counteract effects of the Parkinson’s drugs.
I delivered the letter and another copy of the book to the Archbishop. Then I forgot about the whole thing because I was busy, packing for a move, closing cases, and getting to know my almost new husband.
I will maintain my family’s privacy here. Suffice it to say that one sad day a member of my family (not me) was diagnosed with cancer, advanced. I went to the mattresses with prayer, nutrition, study of possible treatments. I read all the books I could find, and I found that books written by patients themselves provided better information than books written by doctors.
Finally the appointment was scheduled wherein the surgeon would announce whether he could do major surgery, or it was too late. Hours before this critical appointment, a strange little envelope came in the mail. It looked like junk mail.
Inside this most undistinguished packaging, a letter folded into quarters began, From the Vatican, November 23, 2000. Issued on stationery of the Secretariat of State, First Section, General Affairs, and signed by Monsignor Pedro Lopez Quintana, Assessor, it read:
The Holy Father was pleased to receive the letter which you and Lillian Tiulana sent to him, together with a copy of your book, The Wise Words of Paul Tiulana. He very much appreciates this thoughtful gesture.
His Holiness assures you both of a remembrance In his prayers. Invoking upon you joy and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ, he cordially imparts his Apostolic Blessing.
It is probably unnecessary to say that the surgery was possible and successful. The cancer has not returned. The whole family was blessed.
Even though I am not Catholic, I keep the letter nearby.