Irving "Francis" Houle's death early this year didn't make national news. He wasn't what the world would consider either a mover or a shaker.
But his death touched many in the Michigan Upper Peninsula Diocese of Marquette and around the country who knew Houle through his prayer ministry and as a healer of bodies and souls.
By all accounts, he led a relatively normal life. He was survived by his wife of 61 years, Gail Houle, and five children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He was raised on a rural farm in upper Michigan, graduated from a Catholic high school and served in the Army during World War II with an honorable discharge in 1946. He was a factory worker and a Knight of Columbus.
And he also apparently had the stigmata.
While no formal investigation has been carried out by Houle's home diocese, it appears that Houle shared something with the great stigmatist saints of history -- including Catherine of Siena, Francis of Assisi, Rita of Cascia and Padre Pio of Pietrelcina.
Praying to suffer
Irving Houle had prayed for, and apparently received through the last 16 years of his life, the privilege to share in Christ's sufferings.
Director and founder of the Alabama-based Fatima Family Apostolate International Father Robert J. Fox probably knows as much about Houle's life as anyone. He'd written a book about his life -- "A Man Called Francis" -- and had come to know Houle well since they first met in 1992.
"Irving would go into ecstasies between midnight and 3 a.m.," he said. "After Good Friday 1993, when he received the stigmata, his wounds would bleed every Holy Thursday night into Good Friday. All during Lent, every Lent, there was extra suffering. He also had visions of Christ and locutions, although these only in the first years of his ministry."
In fact, it was Our Lady's locutions, Father Fox said, which defined Houle's mission to souls.
"You said 'Yes' to my good Jesus," Our Lady allegedly told Houle in an Oct. 2, 1995, locution, which Father Fox printed in his book on Houle. "All hurts, persecution, betrayals and pain is the Passion. You will continue to suffer. This is all for conversions; many, many will be saved."
After confirming that his prayers to suffer like Christ had been answered, the message reveals the exact nature of his ministry.
"Continue to touch my children whom you are led to and to whom I lead you," the message reads. "Continue to pray for those who have gone astray."
Terry Saunders was a police detective with the Michigan State Police from 1987 until his retirement in 1993. Covering everything from murders to burglaries and sex crimes, Saunders also served on the State Police SWAT team, taking part in hostage situations and other high-pressure crime scenarios.
As a close friend and member of Houle's prayer group, Saunders witnessed enough healings to fill up "three notebooks," he said. But it was his own healing, after being diagnosed with lung cancer in 1992, which had the most profound effect on him.
"Every time Irving would see me, he would greet me and put his arm around me and his hand on my chest," he said. "Every time he did that, bolts of white heat would course through my chest. I could feel it immediately."
Not long after his failing health forced him to stop chemotherapy, Saunders attempted a last-ditch effort at removing the cancer through surgery. After the procedure, his doctor informed him of a remarkable discovery -- the cancer was completely gone.
"I asked him how he could explain that, and he said he couldn't," Saunders said. "They told me I'd be dead in six months. Now, it's 15 and a half years later and I'm nowhere near dead."
Looking back, Saunders realized that his healing had begun soon after Houle received his wounds in1993.
"He looked haggard that day, and I said to him, 'Irving, what happened to you?'" he said, noting that Houle held up his hands to show the wounds and in a calm voice said, "I don't know what's happening to me."
At that point, Saunders fell over involuntarily on his side.
"My very first thought was, 'Thank you, Jesus, for showing that you died for me on the Cross and that no matter what happens to me, I'm going to be OK.'"
Wounds of the healer
As the most conspicuous sign of Houle's life as a victim soul, his hands were used to heal -- but had themselves a constant reminder of Christ's eternal wounds.
According to Father Fox, Houle first detected pain in his hands Holy Thursday evening at Mass.
"In the morning he woke up and here were these big marks on the palms on his hands," he said. "The tops of his hands were different too. He never showed the tops to anyone and he never called himself a stigmatist."
In 1997, Father Fox had asked David Wachs, a family practice physician from South Dakota, to examine Houle's wounds. In summarizing his findings, Wachs noted that Houle's circulation was "excellent," and there was no evidence of "self-mutilation" or infection.
"I cannot understand medically why these wounds would not heal or open up at different times," Wachs concluded in his letter to Father Fox. "I am not able to explain the source of his pain."
In an interview with Our Sunday Visitor, Wachs said he stands by the results of the 1997 examination and remembers it well.
"I remember that examination, absolutely," he said. "It's the kind of thing you only see once in your life."
Certain features of the wounds, Wachs said, indicated that this was not a natural occurrence.
"If you look at the symmetry of the wound in the wrist area, for instance," he said, "it's very difficult to self-inflict a wound like that."
Also of interest, Wachs added, was the fact that the wounds neither healed nor seemed to become infected.
"They didn't seem to change or show up anywhere else on his body either, like other sores might," he said. "They would continue to ooze blood, too."
Wachs, who joined the CatholicChurch before meeting Houle, said he would willingly stake his entire 25-year medical career on the claim that these wounds had no natural medical explanation.
"And if the Church ever needed a person to testify about these wounds, if it were ever to open his case, I would gladly do it," he said.
Bishop Alexander K. Sample had followed his predecessor, Bishop James H. Garland, who retired in 2005, in granting Houle approval to continue his work of healing among the faithful. A native of the Marquette diocese, Bishop Sample said he first met Houle while serving the diocese as a priest.
He said he doesn't remember much about their first conversation, but like many people -- including Saunders and Father Fox -- he experienced something about him he would never forget.
"I remember distinctly the aroma of roses about him," he said.
The bishop's second meeting with Houle took place shortly after he was ordained bishop of Marquette. He said he was impressed by Houle's desire to seek his bishop's blessing of his ministry.
"He was respectful that way, and wanted to be in communion with his bishop," he said. "He wanted to make sure his bishop approved of what he was doing."
"He didn't draw attention to himself," Bishop Sample said. "He gave the glory to God and not to himself. That was a confirmation for me that he was authentic."
As for the stigmata, the bishop said neither he nor Bishop Garland sought official confirmation of the wounds, satisfied that the man himself was blessing enough for the Diocese of Marquette.
"He clearly touched the lives of many people," he said. "He helped many people, and that certainly was a blessing to the Church and to our diocese."
The Diocese of Marquette has no plans at this point, Bishop Sample said, to officially investigate any of the phenomena associated with Houle.
"I think Irving would be the first to say he wouldn't want any further attention drawn to himself," he said. "He wasn't the kind of guy that wanted some sort of official spectacular recognition as a stigmatist or extraordinary person of healing prayer."
Joseph O'Brien writes from Wisconsin.
What is the stigmata?
Far from being fantastic legends attributed to saints, the stigmata are an outward manifestation of individuals who willingly accept the role of "victim souls" -- those who willing pray to share in the sufferings of Christ.
St. Paul writes that all Christians are "heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him" (Rom 8:17). The Church understands that although Christ suffered and died once for all, humans may still pray to unite their sufferings to Christ for both the love of God and of neighbor. While the Church does not recognize every instance of stigmatism, it has affirmed its occurrence as a reality reflecting a profound gift from God.