On August 20th, 1878, when the pipe organ of Enniskeane church was originally dedicated and used for the first time at the Convent of Mercy, Clonakilty, two of the women who made their Final Vows that day as Mercy Sisters were sisters of a man who later became a priest and in 2000 was put on the road to sainthood by Pope John Paul II — with the help of a grandmother from the USA!
Pat Bizan, then a sprightly 73-year-old mother and grandmother, was one of the prime reasons Columba Marmion, an obscure Irish Benedictine monk who died in 1923, was beatified by Pope John Paul II at a ceremony in the Vatican on the first Sunday in September, 2000.
In 1966, American housewife Pat Bitzan, then 39, had a cancerous tumour removed from her breast. Within days, however, she was told by her doctors in St Cloud, Minnesota, that her cancer had spread to her lungs and she probably had just three months to live.
Bitzan, a devout Catholic mother of seven children, and her husband Donald immediately flew to Europe to visit a monastery in Belgium, where a dead Irish priest named Columba Marmion, once a modest and popular curate in Dundrum, South Dublin, was rumored to have healing powers.
Marmion, who died in a flu epidemic in 1923, was known for his spiritual writings and his holy life as the Abbot of the Benedictine monastery of Maredsous. Almost immediately after his death Columba Marmion’s tomb became a place of pilgrimage. His reputation for sanctity grew year by year, with people claiming favours, and even cures, through his intercession. As early as the 1950s people were working for Marmion’s canonisation, and in 1960 the cause for Marmion’s beatification was officially introduced in Rome.
The Catholic Church is cautious about designating people as saints. The process of beatification, one step below sainthood, must include evidence of at least one healing resulting from prayers to the dead candidate for sainthood. Priests had advised Bitzan to pray only through Columba Marmion.
“We talked to God and asked Abbot Marmion to ask God to intercede for us with a miracle cure,” Pat Bitzan told American reporters earlier this year. “We didn’t pray to the Virgin Mary at all. We prayed only to Abbot Marmion because then we could prove that he is where we got help.”
Bitzan and her husband spent four days at the Maredsous Abbey in southern Belgium, asking the deceased Abbot Marmion to intercede on her behalf. “We went to the abbot’s tomb every day and said our prayers,” she said.
“We had been in contact with the monks there, so every day we were at the monastery, the monks came to Abbot Marmion’s tomb and celebrated a mass.” Despite her recent surgery, Pat Bitzan said she felt strong and healthy during her stay in Belgium.
When Pat and Donald Bitzan returned to the United States, they went straight to her doctor and to his complete amazement he discovered that her cancer had vanished. “My doctor was not a Catholic, but he said he could not explain it through medicine,” Bitzan said. “He said I had cancer in my lungs and it had disappeared.”
About 10 years after Pat Bitzan was cured, the Catholic Church had a hearing in the St Cloud Diocese. “My husband, Donald, and I met separately with the committee, and then each of my three doctors met with them,” Bitzan recalls. “We had to swear we would not tell what was said. Then they sent doctor’s records, X-rays and all our testimony to Rome.”
In January 2000, Patricia Bitzan’s amazing cure from cancer was examined by a tribunal in Rome and accepted as a genuine miracle. On the first Sunday in September, Dublin born and bred Joseph Marmion was beatified as Blessed Columba Marmion in recognition of his life of heroic virtue. He is in elevated company, because two of the four other candidates beatified that day were former pontiffs, Pope John XXIII and Pius IX.
Joseph Marmion was born in Dublin in 1858. His father was a Kildare man descended through his mother from the O’Rourkes of Breffni though the Marmions originally came from Normandy, arriving with King John in 1210. His mother, Herminie Cordier, was French and met her future husband at the French Consulate in Dublin while on a short visit here.
William and Herminie Marmion had nine children four girls and five boys, two of whom died at an early age. Three of the daughters became Sisters of Mercy, two in Clonakilty and one in Waterford. Marmion’s younger brother became a doctor and died in 1927.
Joseph was educated by the Jesuits at Belvedere College. He was a delicate boy but a brilliant student. It seems that his parents had always aimed him towards the Church and at 16 he joined the diocesan seminary at Clonliffe. After Clonliffe he was sent to the Irish College in Rome for the remaining two years of his student training where he won the gold medal. He was a ordained priest on 16 June, 1881.
Fr Marmion had made a deep impression on his tutors and even before he returned to Ireland Dr McCabe, the Archbishop of Dublin, had earmarked the young priest for the job of his private secretary. However, Dr McCabe was persuaded to allow him to spend time as a curate in Dundrum, where he was described by a parishoner as “a grand young man, very popular and welcome in every family, full of life”. Through his work with the sick, the poor and the elderly he built a big reputation for his holiness.
His time in the parish of Dundrum didn’t last long. The following year, 1882, he was appointed Professor of Philosophy in Clonliffe College. He remained in the post for four years until the pull of the contemplative life of a Benedictine monk proved too strong.
He asked to be released from his duties and, in 1886, the young ex-curate and ex-professor became a simple novice monk in Maredsous Abbey in Belgium. He was 27 years old. As a foreigner with little French, he found the early days of his novitiate very difficult but as time went on he was convinced he’d found his true vocation. Just over 20 years later his brother monks elected him Abbot of Maredsous.
Although a deeply spiritual man three of his books have become spiritual classics, Christ, The Life of the Soul, Christ, in his Mysteries, and Christ, the Ideal of a Monk and have been translated into 16 languages, including Korean and Japanese he was a practical man and ran his monastery extremely well.
During the First World War he had to flee Belgium disguised as a cattle dealer and set up a temporary home for his junior monks in Edermine House near Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, owned by the distiller Sir James Power.
Dom Columba Marmion is remembered in Ireland today by things like Marmion House, a large day-care centre in Dundrum, a housing development, Marmion Court, near Arran Quay in Dublin and Marmion Bridge over the Slaney near Enniscorthy.
There is also a Benedictine Abbey in Aurora, Illinois, called Marmion Abbey, which was founded in 1933 and named after him just 10 years after his death.
Almost 110 of Joseph Marmion’s Irish relatives are traveling to Rome to be there for his beatification. They come from all over Ireland, including the North. They will be joined there by Patricia Bitzan, cancer free for 34 years thanks to the Abbot’s intercession, her husband Donald and their seven children.
* Blessed Columba Marmion: A Short Biography by Mark Tierney OSB. The Columba Press £8.99
(This is adapted from an article that appeared in the Irish Independent in 2000.)