On a summer day in 1987, three-year-old Audrey Santo fell into her family’s backyard swimming pool and suffered massive hypoxia. Unconscious and submerged for several minutes, she lost blocks of brain cells from the lack of oxygen. Doctors declared her state critical and urged her mother Linda Santo to keep Audrey hospitalized in intensive care. However, Linda immediately insisted on taking her comatose daughter home. She paid for 24-hour in-home nursing services to monitor Audrey’s vitals and ensure her physical comfort. A devout Catholic, Linda was convinced that her daughter—having been visited by the Virgin Mary—was, in her vegetative state, capable of performing miracles for the weak and suffering.
For the past two years, the Santo home in Worcester, Massachusetts has been the backdrop for a heated debate over the qualifications for Catholic sainthood. The family has launched a campaign to canonize Audrey, who died of cardio-respiratory failure in 2007. For 20 years she lived in a coma and purportedly administered miracles to the faithful. The Santo family tragedy has been transformed into a debate about the nature of sainthood and the place of miracles in modern Catholicism.
Claims of holy oil secretions and weeping statues have attracted thousands of pilgrims to the Santo’s makeshift garage chapel over the years. Until Audrey’s death, the faithful filed past her bedroom window daily, hoping to catch a glimpse of the girl with allegedly divine healing powers. But for all of its believers, Audrey’s story has attracted an increasing number of skeptics. Some Catholics worry that her canonization would endorse a reliance on miraculous spectacles that is incompatible with the modern church. According to the Mercy Foundation, producers of a documentary film entitled Audrey’s Life, 70 percent of American Catholics today do not believe that bread and wine transform physically into the flesh and blood of Christ during communion. The saintliness of Audrey, who is associated with miraculous healings and bleeding communion wafers, rests on this belief. However, opposition to the validity of Audrey’s miracles is also unsettling for many in the church. Such opposition would force Catholics to question the foundation of their creed—if Christ himself is indeed present in the Eucharist, the notion of a bleeding wafer might not be so far-flung.
Soon after Audrey’s accident, Linda Santo flew her unconscious daughter to Medjugorie, a famous Catholic pilgrimage site in what was then Yugoslavia. Medjugorie had gained a reputation in 1981 when some Catholics reported sightings of the Virgin Mary. Linda still believes that during that trip her daughter was recognized by the Virgin as a victim soul, an individual chosen by God to alleviate the pain of others through his or her own personal suffering.
The term “victim soul” is seldom used in Christian literature today. However, it had particular clout in the period between the two World Wars. Extreme suffering was seen as a noble spiritual response to the magnitude of human misery. It was accepted as the destiny of a chosen few to suffer in order to alleviate the pain of others.
Audrey’s family and supporters suggest a telling connection between her accident, on August 9, 1987 at 11:03 am, and the detonation of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945—also at 11:03 am. They believe that Audrey’s suffering was meant to redeem humanity from the sin of nuclear destruction.
Linda heralds her daughter as the pro-life saint. Although strictly opposed to abortion, Linda uses the term “pro-life” in a broader Christian sense. She explains, “We live in a culture of death, so we need to know that life is valuable. Every individual’s life has value, whether he sweeps the streets, or has a degree, or is in a nursing home.” Santo believes that her daughter, as a victim soul, acquired power while in a state of physical helplessness. By placing value on an incurable cripple, Audrey’s mother and supporters hope to emphasize the value of human life in all its forms.
The Making of a Saint
In September 2008, a year after Audrey’s death, the Little Audrey Santo Foundation launched a campaign to see Audrey canonized. The foundation was given permission to appeal to the Vatican by Bishop Robert McManus of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Worcester. However, this is only the first step in a lengthy process that often lasts several years—in many cases even centuries. The candidate must first be recognized by the Vatican as a role model of Christian values. He or she must then be attributed to two posthumous miracles, which are submitted to the Vatican for verification.
There is no strict code for such miracles. Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross was canonized in 1997 after being attributed to the recovery of a young woman who had consumed seven times the lethal dose of Tylenol. Her parents claimed that they had prayed to the spirit of Sister Teresia for help. The Little Audrey Santo Foundation’s website asks believers to report healings and miracles associated with Audrey. Only by collection of such miracles can the organization hope to achieve its goal of canonization.
Many Catholics oppose canonization for Audrey because she was unable to actively follow the teachings of Christ in life. According to these naysayers, Audrey’s coma-induced silence and immobility made it impossible for her to perform saintly acts. There has been a shift in recent years in canonization policy, and most modern candidates for sainthood exemplify charity and wisdom rather than supernatural powers. Saint Joseph of Cupertino exemplifies the category of miracle-associated saints into which Audrey would be grouped. An Italian saint canonized in 1767, he was known not for his cleverness, but for his attested tendency to levitate.
“When it comes to making saints,” Reverend Paul G. Robichaud of Waltham told the Boston Globe last year, “the Vatican is much more concerned that people are like us [the general body of Catholics]—that they live the virtues of faith. When you hear about these apparitions or levitations or weeping statues, this catches the public imagination, but it does not impress the Vatican.”
An example of a contemporary candidate for virtuous sainthood is Reverend Solanus Casey, a friar from Wisconsin who served in Detroit, New York City and Yonkers between his ordination in 1904 and death in 1957. Twenty years of counseling at the door of St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit earned him the affectionate title “The Doorkeeper.” His legacy of aid to the urban masses exemplifies the saintly characteristics sought by the Vatican today. Unlike Audrey, he was capable in life of physically acting out his faith.
However, those who support Audrey’s sainthood—thousands of Catholics from around the world, according to her mother—cite her ability to propagate miracles. For these Catholics, faith is justified by physical evidence of God’s strength. They tell vivid stories of Audrey’s miracle magnetism and healing capabilities. Linda Santo says that Audrey once briefly manifested the symptoms of a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy, in the form of a bright red skin rash. Not long after Audrey’s rash disappeared, the patient reported that she had gone into remission. Audrey is also said to have borne stigmata—the five wounds of the crucified Christ.
Questioning the Foundation
Outside the Catholic Church, some skeptics question the motives of the Little Audrey Santo Foundation. Diane Williamson, a reporter for the Worcester Telegram, does not trust Linda Santo. “I’m skeptical because I’m a journalist. There’s an element of opportunism in that family. It’s a tragic story and they made money off of it.” In a 2008 article about the Santo family gift shop, Williamson describes how the family profits from the sale of refrigerator magnets and t-shirts of Audrey. She also documents the negative response among Worcester residents to the billboard erected over Pleasant Street in 2004 depicting Audrey’s face with wide-open, unseeing eyes. Many neighbors were deeply disturbed by the sign, viewing it as an exploitation of a helpless child for the sake of publicity and monetary gain.
Williamson also argues that Audrey’s comatose state put her at the mercy of her caregivers and allowed her family to market her as a saint. She believes that she is not the only one to see through the Santo family’s ruse: “My opinion is the dominant one in Worcester. I think there are a lot of desperate people in the world looking for miracles and desperate to think that people can help them. Audrey was just a poor little girl in a coma.”
Likelihood of canonization
Linda Santo insists that her motives are pure. “[I have] no hidden agenda [beyond canonization]. This is it. Everything costs money, right? She [Audrey] has 20 years of doctor’s notes that need to be transcribed. We have to respond to piles of mail. People aren’t giving money to me so I can have an air-conditioned doghouse.” As for claims that the Santos are forcing their faith on the community, Linda insists: “I’m not here to convert anybody. I don’t care. My job is my job here as a mother and grandmother. I’m here to serve.” Not that she’s entirely humble. “I make good coffee,” she chuckles, “You can quote me on that.”
Twenty years after Audrey’s accident, and two years after her death, the Vatican has yet to acknowledge a single miracle associated with Audrey. The 1997 investigation of the Santo residence, carried out by the Worcester Diocese, concluded that the events taking place in Audrey’s vicinity were strictly “deep mysteries.” Linda, however, remains defiantly optimistic: “Obviously the canonization will happen. Either in 10 years or 10,000. The fact that Audrey was Audrey: that was the miracle.”
EMMA WHITFORD B’12 is a sinner and a saint.