Medjugorje: 4 Canton friends renew faith on unforgettable pilgrimage

By Jay Turner
Last month, on a pilgrimage with three lifelong friends to the Marian apparition site at Medjugorje, Jean Kelleher, a veteran teacher at St. John the Evangelist School, finally received the sign from God that she had been hoping and praying for ever since her cancer diagnosis in April 2011.

The cross that appeared in the sky at Medjugorje
There, under a red-orange sunset surrounded by a sea of fellow believers, two large clouds appeared in the sky — seemingly out of nowhere — and formed the unmistakable shape of a cross.
It was the only object in the sky, and it had a beautiful glow as thousands of people reached for their phones to take a picture.
“Then it just disappeared,” recalled Kelleher. “All at once it just disappeared. That was our sign. We were crying; I was crying.”

For Kelleher, it was an affirmation that she was exactly where she needed to be — miles away from the stresses of everyday life and the burdens of her disease, with her heart set on God in a place of mystery, wonder and peace.
Located in the southwest corner of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Medjugorje was altogether unknown until 1981, when the Virgin Mary appeared for the first time to six young villagers on a site now known as Apparition Hill. Three of the visionaries still claim to receive daily messages from Mary, while the others receive a message once a year on the same day. According to the visionaries, the messages are to be transmitted to the world and primarily address peace, faith, conversion, prayer, and fasting.

Today, Medjugorje is one of the most popular apparition sites in Europe, attracting more than one million visitors annually. The Catholic Church has not officially approved the claims of the visionaries, although a formal investigation is ongoing and a report is expected to be released in early 2013.

Kelleher, like many American Catholics, first became aware of Medjugorje through the story of Artie Boyle, a Hingham father of 13 who was miraculously cured of cancer following a pilgrimage to the site in 2000. Boyle, whose son Brian plays for the New York Rangers, had been given a 5 percent chance of survival and was scheduled to have his right lung removed four days after returning from his trip. However, a follow-up scan confirmed what he had already believed in his heart to be true: The cancer, including all three tumors in his lung, had vanished.
Boyle has since shared his story on ABC’s Good Morning America and has became close friends with one of the visionaries, Ivan Dragicevic, who now lives half the year in Medjugorje and half the year in Boston with his wife and children.

Kelleher, who has met both Boyle and Dragicevic in the past year, decided that she, too, would travel to Medjugorje, and she was able to convince three of her friends to join her: Marie Monahan, Lori Arsenault and Kate McNeil.
All four women are part of a close-knit circle of friends from the Canton High class of 1977, and as they headed to the airport on the morning of August 12, two others from the group, Susan Baker and Stephanie McClellan, stood on the Route 93 overpass at Houghton’s Pond holding a large sign that read, simply, “Believe.”

The message, as one might expect, brought Kelleher to tears, and it set the tone for a seven-day journey that exceeded all expectations.
“Going [to Medjugorje] just confirmed what we already knew,” said Monahan, “but to see it … you just can’t explain it. It was just so unbelievably moving to see that many people of our faith all together. It feels like we left a piece of heaven there.”

Monahan said there were 30,000 people from around the world who visited that week — and yet it never felt overcrowded or uncomfortable.
Together, they attended huge outdoor masses at St. James Church, climbed Apparition Hill and the rocky terrain of Cross Mountain, and prayed at the Stations of the Cross.
“It’s just amazing to see all of these people,” said Monahan. “We saw people climbing barefoot, little kids, older people; people waiting in line for hours to do confession. Some people would kneel down on the cement and pray for hours.”

(L-R): Lori Arsenault, Jean Kelleher, Marie Monahan, Kate McNeil
Throughout the trip, Kelleher said she felt “phenomenal” both physically and spiritually, and she even met a fellow pancreatic cancer survivor, a man from Connecticut who happened to be in the same tour group — and happened to be named Jean.

“The whole time I was looking for a sign or a message,” she said. “And I saw this man at the airport in Frankfurt who was wearing a purple bracelet. Out of all of these people, somehow there were two Jeans with pancreatic cancer.”
Kelleher prefers to think it was more than just a coincidence, and the cross she saw — that everyone saw — only solidified her belief that God’s hand was at work throughout the whole trip.
“Jean has been such an inspiration,” said Monahan of her childhood friend. “A lot of people would turn away from God, but she has done the opposite, and it’s brought our friends closer.”

And while she didn’t experience the miracle cure that Artie Boyle experienced, she started feeling better in the weeks leading up to her trip and got “great results” from her CAT scan, including news that her lymph nodes were no longer swollen and the fluid buildup she had been experiencing had all but disappeared.
“I was in a really bad place this past spring and summer,” she said. “Now I feel 100 percent better, and with the new chemo I’m taking, I now only have 30-minute infusions and I get to do two weeks on and one week off.”
Kelleher acknowledged that she still has her “moments” in which she doesn’t feel well or feels sad or scared. She still prays every day to be rid of cancer, although if her upcoming tests reveal that it’s still there, then “that’s okay, too.”

“I really do believe that everything is God’s will,” she said. “I know what I want and what I’m praying for, but it doesn’t always mean that it’s going to happen.”
As for her experience at Medjugorje, Kelleher said it will stay with her for the rest of her life, and her friends feel the same way, with Monahan insisting that she would “go every year” if she could afford the trip.
“Not only did we go for Jean, but we all got something out of it for ourselves,” said Monahan. “It solidified our faith. You can’t even explain how beautiful it was.”

“It was about faith and healing and being there with my friends,” said Kelleher. “It was unbelievable. I would recommend it to everybody, Catholic or non-Catholic. It’s just inspiring.”

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