Felix Carroll: For Lee woman, an ailment, a miracle cure - and a beatification

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LEE — When they navigate the aisles of the Big Y, they can proceed unencumbered by celebrity. Same thing in the hardware store. Same thing pretty much anywhere they travel in these parts.

The other day, they attended a training seminar in Pittsfield for chaplains of military veterans. They made their way into Temple Anshe Amunin, and no one knew them. Never heard of them. Nice couple, though — no doubt.

Yet, in places like Ireland, people reach out to touch them like they have super powers. In Poland, if they came knocking, the archbishop of Krakow wouldn't hesitate to set out the good silverware. For the record, they are Robert Digan, a deacon at St. Mary's in Lee, and his wife, Maureen, receiver of a miracle that led to the beatification of one of the Catholic Church's most popular saints.

They live in a simple, single-story ranch, in a working-class neighborhood. They lead a "normal" life — which is one way of saying that Jesus and Mary don't come visiting for coffee and share the mysteries of the universe. A normal life — except for that little incident one evening 36 years ago in a dimly lit chapel in Poland.

In faith, in desperation, Bob had dragged his family halfway around the world to the tomb of a then-little-known Polish nun named Faustina. Maureen recalls the words she prayed, though you can hardly call it a prayer: "OK, Faustina, I came a long way — now do something."

She was healed on the spot from Melroy's lymphedema, an incurable disease.

This is, above all else, a love story — Bob's love for God and Bob's love for Maureen.

Guileless, self-deprecating, with a Boston accent thick enough to backfill a Logan runway expansion, Bob recalls the day in 1959 that he first set eyes on Maureen.

"I was playing drums for the drill team, practicing in the church hall. I saw some girls walking in, and I zeroed in on Maureen," he says. "I said to the kid next to me: `I don't understand this, but someday I'm going to marry that girl.'"

Bob picked a girl who would soon be broken, physically and spiritually. As a high school sophomore, Maureen learned that she had lymphedema, a condition in which excess fluid collects in tissue. She would undergo more than 50 operations, lose her school friends and live in the hospital for long stretches. Her right leg was soon amputated above the knee. Then, it had to be amputated to the hip.

All the while, her parents would tell her to trust in God, that God has something special planned for her, but Maureen was done with God.

Still, Bob was there for her, in a Marine uniform by then. They wed June 6, 1970. Maureen strapped on a prosthetic leg for the first and last time. It was painful. But it enabled her to walk down the aisle.

Life would not be easy for the newlyweds. After one failed pregnancy, Bobby was born March 23, 1973. At 21 months, he had his first grand mal seizure. Eventually, he lost his ability to walk and to talk. Some days his seizures occurred around the clock. On his sixth birthday, he was admitted to a hospital weighing 35 pounds and discharged 5 1/2 months later weighing 18 pounds. He was not expected to live for long.

Meanwhile, Maureen's lymphedema worsened in her left leg.

Bob's family was falling apart.

"All the while," says Bob, "I felt God had a plan for us."

One day, he found a flyer in the mail advertising the screening in Cambridge of a film about a nun named Faustina who died in 1938. The nun had left behind mystical writings about the mercy of God that had begun to draw the interest of theologians in the dusty far reaches of the Roman Catholic Church. Bob attended the screening, and though the film kept jamming up in the projector, the message came through loud and clear. For him, the message was: I have to bring my family to the tomb of this nun and pray for healing.

Maureen, who was mad at God, mad as hell, was not amused. Still, with a Marian priest from Stockbridge accompanying them, they landed in Poland on Bobby's eighth birthday. After her impetuous prayer at Faustina's tomb, all the pain drained out of her body. Back at the room that evening, Maureen inspected her leg, which was due to be amputated shortly. The swelling was gone. Confused and fearful, she went to bed without saying anything to anyone. When she awoke the next day, Bobby was sitting up coloring. Sitting up on his own was not something he had been able to do previously.

With the swelling still gone in her leg, Maureen called Bob over to see.

"Yeah," Bob said nonchalantly. "That's what we came here for. You've been healed."

When she returned to the United States, five doctors examined her independently, each concluding that she had been completely healed with no medical explanation. The Vatican, in consultation with five doctors, examined the accumulated evidence. Then, a team of theologians did the same. The cure was accepted as a miracle caused through Faustina's intercession, which led to St. Faustina's beatification April 18, 1993, in St. Peter's Square in Rome.

The Digans say Bobby received a dramatic but incomplete healing. He soon learned to ride a bike and he won medals in the Special Olympics. By this time, Bob and Maureen had left Boston and moved to Lee. Life was good for the Digans. But in 1989, after an operation to correct scoliosis, Bobby's condition suddenly deteriorated.

By May 1991, bed-bound, Bobby called his mother into his room. "Mommy," he said, "God is going to send his son Jesus to take me to heaven soon. Don't be sad and cry."

He then asked her to send his daddy in.

"I just called Bob, and then I went into the bathroom and turned on all the faucets so Bobby wouldn't hear me crying," recalls Maureen.

Bobby declared that he would be in heaven before his mother's birthday in June.

On May 23, 1991, Bobby took his last breath. Despite his developmental disabilities, he had arranged to have his nurse get his mother plastic flowers for her birthday — flowers, he insisted, "that will never die."

Those four flowers still hang on Maureen's bedroom wall.

To this day, Bob and Maureen cannot talk about Bobby without it bringing tears.

"They say time heals," says Maureen. "It doesn't."

They've sorted out why they think God chose "stubborn Maureen" for a healing.

"It's to prove to people that even when we turn our back to God, like I did, he never turns his back on us," Maureen says.

Meanwhile, these days, Faustina, whose devotees include Pope Francis, consistently ranks among the world's most popular saints.

The Digans give talks to various groups around the world. Sometimes, things can get weird, even disheartening, particularly when people expect that the Digans have magical powers or some direct line to the beatific vision.

They don't.

"Everyone wants to see the rabbit get pulled out of the hat," Bob says. "But we're just ordinary people trying to live out our faith in a world that needs faith."

Felix Carroll is The Eagle's community columnist. He can be reached at fcarroll@berkshireeagle.com.

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