Baptist woman from Kissimmee edges Austro-Hungarian emperor toward Roman Catholic sainthood

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The last ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire moved a little closer to Roman Catholic sainthood Thursday, thanks to a Baptist woman from Kissimmee who claims the monarch's intercession saved her from metastatic breast cancer. Emperor Karl von Habsburg, beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004, needs a Vatican-approved miracle to be canonized, the final step to sainthood. The Central Florida woman claims she was cured of terminal cancer after she prayed to Karl of Austria to intercede with Jesus on her behalf.

The Kissimmee woman, who remains a devout Baptist, attended a Mass and ceremony at St. James Cathedral Chapel on Thursday, but she would not be identified or interviewed. Bishop Thomas Wenski, who celebrated the Mass, said the matter involved discretion rather than secrecy. However, Paula Melancon, a Catholic from Baton Rouge, said after the ceremony that she had become interested in Karl while traveling with her husband in Europe. She sent the emperor's prayer cards to a number of relatives and friends, one of which found its way to Kissimmee, where the cancer sufferer was near death.

"It is an honor for our diocese to be part of something that is larger than all of us," Wenski said. "Miracles are not done for show. Jesus didn't do miracles because he was a showoff."

A judicial tribunal convened by the Diocese of Orlando and officially concluded Thursday has found that there is no medical explanation for the woman's dramatic recovery, and more than half a dozen doctors in two states -- most of them non-Catholics -- agreed.

Who is this saint-in-waiting?

Karl took the throne in 1916, during World War I, reigning as Charles I of Austria and Charles IV of Hungary. A pious Catholic who opposed the war, he was forced to abdicate in 1918, when his empire collapsed, and died of the flu in exile on the island of Madeira in 1922 at the age of 34. Among his accomplishments, Karl censored obscene materials, closed soldiers' brothels during World War I and sent the troops more chaplains. Until his death, he tried to regain the throne of Hungary.

Few argue that Karl was a political or diplomatic success as a leader.

"He was well-intentioned, but he was ineffectual," said Vladimir Solonari, a University of Central Florida history professor.

But church officials and observers of the sainthood process say that is not the issue.

"It's fair to say you have a failed emperor who is being canonized," said Bert Ghezzi of Winter Park, author of Voices of the Saints. "But the criteria are not success in the political or secular arena. The church looks at how the person behaved in a Christian way. Did they live wholly for God? He lived a holy life -- and that's what people do, except that he's a Habsburg emperor."

After Mass, the sealed findings were turned over by Wenski to Andrea Ambrosi, an Italian lawyer who is Karl's chief advocate. On the table near the documents, which were sealed with red wax, was a reliquary containing a piece of Karl's rib. The documents now go via the Vatican's diplomatic pouch to Rome and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, where more scrutiny will follow.

Ambrosi said it is highly unusual for the person claiming the miracle to be a non-Catholic.

The 16-month process of investigating the miracle claim was a first for the Diocese of Orlando.

"We didn't have any knowledge of the process," said the Rev. Fernando Gil, the diocese's judicial vicar, a situation that required him to do "a lot of study and a lot of reading."

The doctors who testified, Gil said, "would never admit there was a miracle."

However, they could find no medical explanation for the recovery -- which is the standard Rome requires to accept the evidence. Informally, Gil served as the tribunal's "devil's advocate," a Vatican position that no longer exists.

While the medical miracles play a central role in the Church's sainthood process, so does money. Some experts say this may especially be true in Blessed Karl's case. Ambrosi, who does not work for the Vatican or any order or religious organization, said he is employed by the Habsburg family.

"You can't buy a halo, but the process for getting someone canonized takes a lot of time and effort and work to do the research," said the Rev. Tom Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. "That costs money."

There are, he said, larger issues.

"This is the kind of canonization I don't think is terribly helpful," said Reese, a Jesuit and former editor of the magazine America. "We don't need any more kings or princes or bishops . . . We need to find saints that connect to ordinary people.

"The cult of beautiful people and royalty and superstars -- that should not be what the church is about."

Mark I. Pinsky can be reached at or 407-420-5589.