Friends of St. Peregrine hold healing Masses for people with cancer
October 5, 2016
(Left) As a cancer survivor, Garry Westby was inspired to form a new chapter of the Friends of St. Peregrine in Ireland while visiting the United States. The coordinators and founders of the Buffalo chapter, sisters Lynne and Karen Scalia, said their ministry has greatly moved survivors and families. (Right) A hand-carved statue of St. Peregrine follows them throughout the Diocese of Buffalo. (Patrick McPartland/Managing Editor)
In modern times, St. Peregrine, who lived in Italy during the 13th and 14th centuries, has become known as the patron saint of people suffering from cancer. In the Diocese of Buffalo, the Friends of St. Peregrine continue to celebrate healing Masses, as they have since 1992, to administer the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick to people who are fighting cancer. More recently, its actions led to a new Friends of St. Peregrine chapter in Ireland, courtesy of an Irishman who was inspired by his visit to Western New York.
Two years ago, Garry Westby was visiting family in the U.S. and attended a Mass that the Friends of St. Peregrine held at Good Shepherd Parish in Pendleton. As a cancer survivor, he was so inspired that he and his wife, Maura, decided to form a new chapter of the Friends of St. Peregrine in Ireland. The coordinators and founders of the Buffalo chapter, sisters Lynne and Karen Scalia, said their ministry has greatly moved survivors and families.
“We were visiting our son here, in Lockport, and we were supposed to be going home, but due to the circumstances, we had to stay another 10 days. On Sunday, we went to the local church, and I picked up a bulletin,” Westby said, referring to St. Mary’s in Swormville. The St. Mary’s bulletin had an ad for the healing Mass at Good Shepherd. “I was lying in bed reading that night, and I said to my wife, ‘Hey, gosh, look at this.’ I had heard of St. Peregrine before, but had never been involved with anything.”
The ministry travels throughout the diocese, and upcoming Masses will take place at Good Shepherd in Pendleton on Oct. 5, St. Francis of Assisi in Hamburg on Oct. 6 and St. Stephen on Grand Island on Nov. 3. All Masses will take place at 7 p.m. Westby had initially attended a service at Good Shepherd.
According to Lynne Scalia, she and her sister were moved to action when Father Robert Dmitri, a close friend, was diagnosed with cancer. As it became clearer that his life was near its end, a group of eight of his friends, including the two Scalias, asked what he would like them to do in his memory. He responded by saying that his dying wish was to increase local devotion to St. Peregrine in the diocese.
“After Father passed away (in 1991), the group still got together, and a very good friend of his, Father Jim Judge, that he went to school with, said, ‘We’ve got to make Father’s wish come true,” Lynne Scalia continued. “Father Judge said, ‘I’ll have a healing Mass in honor of St. Peregrine.'” At that time, the ministry did not have a statue, and buying one from Italy would have cost them thousands of dollars.
In response to the need, Father Judge, who was the chaplain of Collins Correctional Facility, set them up with Peter Rentz, an inmate who wished to try his hand at carving a piece of ash wood from the Southern Tier into a statue of St. Peregrine to suit their needs. Although this was his first attempt at carving, the statue turned out beautifully and continues to serve the Friends of St. Peregrine at its Masses today.
In the 24 years the Friends of St. Peregrine have been doing healing Masses, the statue has accompanied them on a dolly since it weighs over 100 pounds and is too difficult to lift by itself. The ministry has a mini statue, standing at a mere 18 inches tall, that they loan out to people undergoing cancer treatment. They keep the statue in their home for a brief time before it moves on to another person in need of healing.
Each year, the Friends of St. Peregrine hold about 14 Masses, which begin in April and continue until November. After 16 years, Father Judge stepped down as the group’s spiritual advisor; now, Father David Bellittiere, pastor of Fourteen Holy Helpers Parish in West Seneca, does all of the St. Peregrine healing Masses. As the ministry continues in Western New York, the Irish chapter is continuing to get off the ground, although it has been a difficult task since the ministry is new there and there has been much demand.
“The reason why they need so many additional priests, because the average attendance we get here in Western New York is between 130 and 200 people to come at our service. When Garry did the first Mass in Dublin, he had 800, and the Mass, the service and healing lasted over four hours,” Karen Scalia said, noting the Friends of St. Peregrine in Ireland have had about seven Masses so far in two years. “Because it’s so new over there and people are just wanting this particular blessing, this particular sacrament, he’s finding it difficult to get priests to understand what his new ministry is to try to get it into more parishes.”
For more about the Friends of St. Peregrine in the Diocese of Buffalo, visit www.stperry.org.
Friends of St. Peregrine reach out to cancer patients
WNY Catholic News
The 18 inch Traveling St. Peregrine statue. Courtesy of Lynne Scalia
It began with the wish of a dying pastor. As seven of his close friends approached him toward the end of his life, they asked what could be done in his memory. Denying a scholarship or donations, Father Robert Dmitri simply answered that he wanted them to spread the message of St. Peregrine, patron saint of cancer patients. One month after Father Dmitri passed away from cancer in 1991, his seven friends took his request to heart and formed the Friends of St. Peregrine.
Initially, the group decided just to hold a Mass dedicated to St. Peregrine to uphold Father Dmitri’s wish.
“We assumed that we were only going to have one Mass,” said Lynne Scalia, president and coordinator for the group. “We had such an overwhelming response at the Mass at St. Mary’s back in 1992, and people were calling us saying ‘When’s your next Mass?’”
Now in its 20th year, the Friends of St. Peregrine holds 13 Masses a year at different parishes in the Buffalo Diocese, and always in tow at these Masses is their special St. Peregrine statue.
When the group began, member Father James Judge said they needed a statue for their Mass. Scalia said looking in to St. Peregrine statues from Italy proved too costly, so Father Judge suggested asking an artistically-inclined inmate at Collins Correctional Facility to carve the statue. With the OK from the warden, inmate Peter Rentz began cultivating a log of white ash.
“A professor who I knew at Buffalo State (College) went down to the jail, gave him some hints on how to do it,” Scalia said. “In less than two months, Peter carved the statue and we had our first Mass at St. Mary of the Cataract in Niagara Falls in 1992.”
However, that was not going to be the last of Rentz’s work for the group.
“After Peter carved the 41-inch statute, our family asked him to carve a statue for us because my sister was diagnosed with cancer at 31 years old,” Scalia said.
Rentz obliged, carving a smaller statue for the family.
“After she passed away, we had the statue in our house, and my mother kept saying, ‘I need to do something with this statue,’ and she decided to share the traveling St. Perry statue with other members in the Western New York area who have cancer that want the statue in their home,” Scalia said.
“She would travel to these individuals’ homes,” Scalia said. “She’d bring the statue along with a journal, where they could write down their feelings and their thoughts. My mother was diagnosed with cancer shortly after my sister died, and she never viewed her cancer as an obstacle or hindrance, but a way that she could let other people know God would help them through their most difficult times.”
Before recently passing away, Scalia’s mother visited 160 homes with the statue and journal. Now Scalia finds it is her duty to carry on her mother’s work.
“A month before she passed away, I was diagnosed with cancer, so I kind of took over in my mother’s shoes,” Scalia said. “Six months after I was diagnosed, my older sister Karen, was diagnosed with cancer, so everyone in our family has been hit with this terrible disease. We’ve just carried on my mother’s tradition of sharing St. Peregrine with other families.”
Scalia said having such personal ties with cancer allows them to relate with both patients and families on an empathetic, intimate level.
“When we go to a home, we know exactly how the cancer patient feels,” Scalia said. “We know the role of caretaker, taking care of someone that’s sick. We know what the role of being a cancer patient, as far as treatment and going through testing, and (we) also know the feeling of losing a family member, you know, a sister and a parent, so we feel this was our mission.”
The traveling statue and journal are available by request during the Friends of St. Peregrine Masses. The patient will be allowed to house the statue and journal for one week before it moves on to another patient.
The special aspects of Friends of St. Peregrine come from the group’s attention to reaching out and embracing those who are suffering.
“When people get together as a community, everyone with the same type illness, it’s sort of like we become a family and we feel for others,” Scalia said. “We try to give hope to others and we try to help them through a very difficult time in their lives. I think the main thing is to know that they’re not alone, that someone does care.”
Father David Bellittiere, also a member of Friends of St. Peregrine, agreed, adding the emphasis on reconnection the group has.
“Our goal is to connect people because one of the things that any sickness does, especially serious sickness, (is) it makes you feel isolated and cut off from community, so one of our major goals is to recreate community for them, reconnect them, let them know that they’re not alone, but also reconnect them to God and help give them strength in their faith,” Father Bellittiere said. “All of us are called to follow in the example of Jesus Christ, and Jesus sent out His disciples to actually bring the Good News, and part of bringing the Good News was healing. The group is really trying to help those who feel isolated with the Church.”
Additionally, the Friends of St. Peregrine tend to the needs of the sick by offering anointing of the sick at their Masses.
“It’s one of the seven sacraments, the sacrament of anointing of the sick, and therefore, the sacrament always brings healing whether physical, spiritual, emotional or psychological,” Father Bellittiere said. “People have told us some stories of dramatic healings that have happened through the sacrament. Others have just told us about a sense of peace that they receive, and sometimes the greatest healing is to receive the gift of peace to be able to deal with illness even though the illness is not cured.”
Prison artist tries to craft a new life
FOR NEARLY three months, Peter Rentz has been bringing piece of white ash to life as St. Peregrine, the patron saint of cancer sufferers.
"The statue has given me a lot of hope," said Rentz, 35, a prisoner at Collins Correctional Facility. On June 10, Bishop Edward D. Head will come to the prison to bless the statue. Then it will be placed in the chapel at Lewiston's Mount St. Mary's Hospital as a memorial to the Rev. Robert Dmitri, 45, who died of bone cancer last year.
When he found that he had cancer, Father Dmitri "accepted it right from the beginning," said Lynne Scalia, an assistant professor of business at Buffalo State College.
"Right until the end, he had God on his side to help pull him through. He touched so many lives. He adopted families rather than families adopting him."
After Father Dmitri's death in August, several friends wanted to honor this person they describe as a "good, solid priest" and a friend to many. They decided that a statue to St. Peregrine, a 13th century priest who is said to have been miraculously cured of leg cancer, would be fitting. But ordering a statue from Italy where much of this work is done, would have cost between $9,000 and $15,000, which was beyond their budget.
That's when the Rev. James G. Judge, a chaplain at Collins and a friend of Father Dmitri's, thought of asking Rentz if he could tackle the project. He knew that Rentz was a talented artist. His oil paintings won Best of Show last year at the Keuka Lake Art Festival and twice at an Albany exhibit of convicts' art. He has also had a one-man show at Keuka College, where he got a degree in business administration while in prison.
But Rentz had never carved a piece of this magnitude. "It's not like a painting that you can cover over if you make a mistake," said Rentz. Collins Superintendent Victor Herbert said it was "a little unusual" to give approval to the project, "but Peter is a talented artist so we said okay."
Corrections officers Charles Magee and Donald Williams went to woods in
the Southern Tier to find a suitable piece of ash, a material often used for
making baseball bats. Carving tools were purchased.
Payne calls the statue "quite an undertaking," especially for someone who hasn't done a work of this size before. "If I compare him to other students at the university, he's done a much better job than most beginning carvers," he said.
The project fell into Rentz's hands when he most needed it. Last month his appeal for parole was denied. He has been imprisoned for almost 17 years for killing his mother.
"There was a 50-50 chance they'd let me go, but they decided to keep me here," said Rentz, who transferred from the maximum-security facility at Elmira to Collins about two years ago.
Working on the statue has given him renewed purpose. And he hopes it will inspire people who are suffering from cancer, he said. His father died of cancer in 1975, said Rentz.
"He seemed to lose hope," he said. "It hurt me when I visited him, because he went from a robust person to a frail person."
"St. Peregrine went through a lot of suffering. The idea I'm trying to convey is that people can retain hope," Rentz speaks from experience about trying to hold onto hope.
As a teenager in Ithaca, he was addicted to alcohol and drugs. "From 15 to 18 the only thing I wanted to do was to party. The object was to be intoxicated and liberated," said Rentz, whose parents were both artists.
"I'm an alcoholic, and the crime was committed while I was under the influence. You could say alcohol did it, but alcohol doesn't create the behavior. I valued drugs more than I valued my mother. I didn't know how to deal with problems."
Since he has been imprisoned, Rentz said he has tried to use the time constructively. "I believe that when a person comes into the system, he has a chance to recognize what he did," said Rentz, who belongs to Alcoholics Anonymous and to Christian fellowship groups. "The tendency is for most people not to admit their guilt, not to be introspective. A lot of guys blame society.
"When I was arrested, I was forced to look at myself I don't want this prison experience to be a waste. I want it to help me overcome what brought me here. I want to get out and I want to stay out."
"My conscience has gotten a little muscle. I'm trying to practice for when I'm free. I'm doing the best I can. If I can't practice today, I won't be able to when I walk the streets."
If he gets out, Rentz would like to have an art studio, but he knows it's more realistic to think that he'll start by working for someone else, painting signs or framing pictures.
He could go before a parole board again in two years, Rentz said. "But it's not a guarantee. They could keep me here and never let me go," he said. "Society doesn't want to let people like me go, and I don't blame society."
With a chance to develop his artistic talent and to make friends both inside and outside of prison, Rentz finds that his life has meaning.
I like my life much better now, but it's much harder," he said. With my crime, I have to live with it moment by moment. I try to live each day as if I'm outside. I don't want to be a cold person. It's a cold heart that can take a life. What drives me now is that I'd like to be the kind of son my parents wanted."
A statue and one man's dream
The popular Catholic priest had only one last wish. He asked his friends to encourage more devotions to St. Peregrine, the "Cancer Saint."
Virtually an unknown among saints, Peregrine was a 13th century priest who suffered from a grotesque cancer that almost cost him his leg. But, after a night of prayer before the image of the crucifixion, he dreamed the hand of Christ reached out from the cross to touch him. When he awoke, he was completely healed.
When "Father Bob," as many called him, found out he had bone cancer, "he accepted the disease and immediately put it in God's hands," says Lynne Scalia, one of the priest's several close friends.
Because St. Peregrine was such an inspiration to the dying priest, Ms. Scalia and a "committee" of friends decided to create a lasting epitaph for the former chaplain at Mount St. Mary's Hospital. They set out to have a statue of St. Peregrine sculpted for the hospital chapel.
But the "Friends of St. Peregrine" ran into a problem immediately. They discovered a carved wood statue would probably cost between $9,000 and $15,000, if commissioned from Italy where this type of work is often done.
That's when the Rev. James Judge, senior chaplain at Collins Correctional Facility and Dmitri's friend since his seminary days had an idea. An inmate, Peter Rentz, happened to be an accomplished artist who had won awards for his oil paintings, even when confined to prison.
Rentz, however, had never sculpted anything this size. But, with the technical help of Kenneth Payne of Buffalo State College's fine arts department, the artist eagerly began his task several months ago. The 41-inch statue of mahogany-stained white ash is now on display in the hospital lobby. After its dedication and healing Mass Aug. 22 at St. Mary's of the Cataract Church on Fourth Street, it will be permanently located in the chapel.
She and the late priest's other friends were determined to make Father Dmitri's wish come true.
"Father Bob was adopted by a lot of families and he adopted them. I'd
known him since I was 13, for 20 years. It was a real nice friendship, "
Ms. Scalia says.
Dr. Robert Bull, his physician and friend for five years, diagnosed his illness. "It was a privilege to not only be his doctor, but his friend as well, " says Dr. Bull, a pall bearer for his funeral.
Another friend was Janet Ligamarri, a nurse at Mount St. Mary's. "He was a dedicated and loyal priest and friend to all. He taught us all a lot from the way he reacted to his illness. He is still with me every day," she says.
Ms. Scalia, who chaired the statue committee, says "Father Bob was very important to me, mentally and spiritually."
Because he meant so much, Dmitri's friends made his last wish a reality.
During times of personal struggle or suffering, we often turn to those we admire for encouragement and hope. The late Father Robert Dmitri, the former chaplain at Mount St. Mary's Hospital, Lewiston, found solace in a saint, St. Peregrine, the patron saint of all those who suffer from cancer.
St. Peregrine Laziosi was born in Forli, Italy, in 1260 to affluent parents. As a young man, he led a rebellious and dissolute life. On one occasion, he punched St. Philip Benizi in the face. This good and gentle saint simply turned the other cheek. St. Peregrine was so deeply moved that he changed his terrible ways. After much prayer, study, and reflection, he was ordained a priest and became an eloquent speaker, persuasive in reconciling sinners.
St. Peregrine suffered from leg cancer and was miraculously healed on night as he slept. He became, as a result, the patron of all who suffer from cancer. St. Peregrine died at 85 in 1345. He was canonized in 1726.
Father Dmitri's last wish
St. Peregrine was a beloved inspiration to Father Dmitri, who died in August 1991 after a struggle with cancer. One of Father Dmitri's last wishes before dying was that the hopeful message of St. Peregrine be carried to those in need. Father Dmitri was quoted as saying, "Please spread the devotion of St. Peregrine to give others hope."
Through these words and the love of his many friends, Father Dmitri's wishes were transformed into a lasting epitaph - a wood carving of the saint who offered hope.
"When he was first diagnosed with cancer, Father Dmitri accepted the disease and immediately put it in God's hands," said Lynne Scalia, chairperson of the Friends of St. Peregrine.
"He was a solid priest who was a great friend to a diverse group of people. Father Dmitri was a wonderful example, not to just those afflicted with the same disease, but to all of his friends," commented Ms. Scalia.
In an effort to acknowledge and remember the love of Father Dimmer, a network of associates and close friends took on the task of obtaining a statue of St. Peregrine. However, a statue from Italy would have cost between $9,000 and $15,000.
Although they could not afford a statue from Italy, the St. Peregrine Mission was not abandoned. The search continued at a local level. Eventually, the call for an artist to perform such a dutiful task reached the confines of the Collins Correctional Facility and the office of senior chaplain, Father James G. Judge.
Father Judge and Father Dimmer had been close friends dating back to their days spent together at the Diocesan Preparatory Seminary, Buffalo.
Although admittedly an unusual request, Father Judge approached Collins' inmate Peter Rentz, an accomplished artist, and requested his services. Mr. Rentz, although never having undertaken a sculpture of this magnitude, agreed to give it a try. Collins' superintendent, Victor Herbert, citing Mr. Rentz's artistic talent, gave him the approval to proceed with the project.
Statue of St. Peregrine
Over the next three months, Mr. Rentz labored fervently under the technical direction of Kenneth Payne (professor of the Fine Arts Department at Buffalo State College) who volunteered to assist. Day after day, Father Dmitri's hopes were transformed into a life-like resemblance of St. Peregrine. Finally on June 10 in Gowanda, at the Collins Correctional Facility, Mr. Rentz's labor of love was completed and, unveiled to a group of astonished onlookers at a blessing ceremony. Bishop Edward D. Head blessed the statue. Present in the audience were many from Mount St. Mary's Hospital who were responsible for carrying out the dream of their beloved chaplain.
"This is the realization of Father Dmitri's last wishes; he wanted no memorial for himself but the saint he cherished. One year later we see his wishes come to fruition," said Robert Bull, MD, one of the many people who made the statue a reality.
Janet Ligammari, a registered nurse at Mount St. Mary's, thinking about Father Dmitri said, "He brought us all together, old friends and new friends, and the togetherness continues on today."
The St. Peregrine mission is now close to completion. After the statue was blessed it was moved to the lobby of Mount St. Mary's Hospital to be viewed by the community. After the Healing Mass, it will find its final place in the hospital's chapel.
The Friends of St. Peregrine recently made a donation to the Benedict House and the Providence Community of Buffalo. The Benedict House assists homeless people who are living with AIDS and HIV. The Providence Community of Buffalo provides homes for adults with developmental disabilities. Both organizations exist primarily through private contributions.
Sisters of Mercy receive donation for mission work
The Friends of St. Peregrine have made a financial donation to the Sister of Mercy and the Providence Community. The sister will use their gift to purchase surgical instruments for their medical efforts in the Guyana Mission in the Philippines. The Providence Community of Buffalo will use their funds to support their group homes for developmentally disabled adults. The Friends of St. Peregrine, under the leadership of Father James Judge, offer healing masses throughout the Western New York are seeking spiritual healing for those afflicted with cancer and other life-threating illnesses.
Artist pays tribute to man many consider a
Faith is something that is sometimes difficult to see or hear, something hidden and hard to communicate. But for the Rev. Robert T. Dimmer, it was a gift he gave every day to everyone he met. "You almost can't put into words what happened here," Ann Volkman said of the relationship she and others had with the former in residence chaplain at Mount St. Mary's Hospital in the Town of Lewiston.
Father Dmitri died in August 1991 of bone cancer at the age of 45. His legacy of faith and kindness lives on, however, in artworks created in his memory.
An 11 by 14-inch oil portrait of Father Dmitri which was painted by Ann Volkman was dedicated and hung in the entryway to Mount St. Mary's seventh floor chapel earlier this month. The nursing staff at the hospital commissioned the 'retired nurse to paint the portrait a year ago as a tribute to the man who cared for so many, said Marcia Traverse, the hospital's director of strategic planning and development.
"So many nurses were with caring for Father when he became," Volkman explained. A nurse at Mount St. Mary's for 40 years, she was there to witness Father Dmitri's bout with cancer. For a time, he was a resident on the second floor, where Volkman worked in the maternity ward. "That's why we wanted (the portrait) - because he was such a part of our family.
"This is just a little thank you for all he's done for us," said Janet Ligammari, a Mount St. Mary's nurse and friend of Father Dmitri's.
Volkman has painted hundreds of portraits for friends and acquaintances during the last 45 years. But, placing her dear friend on canvas was different. "When you paint someone, you paint his soul," Volkman explained. "I just hoped that I could get his expression. "
Working initially from a wallet size photograph, Mrs. Volkman studied other images before sketching and painting the portrait from an enlargement of the original picture. Throughout the project, she used her remembrances to capture her friend's humility and humor. "It was a privilege, " she said of putting Father Dmitri on canvas.
Lynne Scalia, another close friend of Father Dmitri, said, "It's definitely a fitting tribute. I think the artist captured the caring personality. The artist said she was "absolutely delighted" with the finished portrait. "It talked to me, smiled at me and watched me everywhere I went," she said. "I hated to take it out of the house."
"It's a gift that his friends have given to him and I think he would have been honored," Scalia added. Scalia, Bull and Ligammari are all part of a group of Father Dmitri's close friends who formed the Friends of St. Peregrine. The group was created to carry out their friend's wish: Spread the message of the little known saint of cancer patients. Through the group's work, a wood statue of St. Peregrine now stands in Mount St. Mary's chapel.
And now, through the nursing staff's devotion and one artist's talent,
their friend is with them. "He's in all of our hearts and in all of our
minds and that warranted a physical presence," Ligammari
said. "I always feel like he's with me, giving me strength."