Sainthood for nun who died near PB, supporters urge

Some believe Sister Agnes Hart produced miracles

The Rev. Warren Harvey, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Pine Bluff, stands next to the headstone of Sister Agnes Hart, whom Harvey believes could be considered for sainthood.
The Rev. Warren Harvey, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Pine Bluff, stands next to the headstone of Sister Agnes Hart, whom Harvey believes could be considered for sainthood.

— Ten miles northeast of Pine Bluff, behind a more-than-170-year old church infested with wasps, sits the grave site of a 19th century Catholic whose supporters say she deserves to be listed among the most pious of saints.

A 6-foot-tall monument stands there in memory of Sister Agnes Hart, a nun who helped set up an academy to educate children at the now idle St. Mary Catholic Church near Pine Bluff.

The Rev. Warren Harvey, pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Pine Bluff, says documentation shows that Hart’s body was found petrified - it didn’t decay - 30 years after she died in 1839.

People prayed to Hart in 2007 to intercede to God on behalf of Greg Mattics, a Pine Bluff man dying of cancer. After Mattics spent two months in the hospital with little hope for survival, a doctor found that the cancer had left Mattics’ body in what the doctor referred to as a “near miraculous recovery.”

“The potential for a saint being buried in Pine Bluff, now that’s exciting,” Harvey said.

“If her body is indeed petrified, people would come from all over the world to Pine Bluff to see it. It would be a boon for Pine Bluff like nothing this city has ever seen before. There would be traffic jams everywhere.”

Hart, who served with the Sisters of Loretto in Kentucky, went to the Pine Bluff area in 1838 with three other nuns to teach at St. Mary Catholic Church.

Founded on the Kentucky frontier in 1812, the Sisters of Loretto originally was a group of traveling nuns who dedicated their lives to educating poor children, according to their Web site.

A year after the sisters arrived in the Pine Bluff area, Hart died of malaria on Aug. 20, 1839, at age 41 or 42, according to her tombstone, which lists her date of birth as only 1797.

Hart ranked among the great women within the religious group, and “none ever gave herself to it more loyally,” according to the 1912 book, Loretto: Annals of the Century.

Hart was the last nun buried in cloth according to ancient custom - without a coffin - and people lined her grave site with roses because they “felt they were burying a saint,” the book said.

Thirty years after Hart was buried in 1839, men dug up her body and moved it as a shift in the Arkansas River threatened to wash away the cemetery where she rested, the book said.

The men found that her body had petrified, the book said. An additional historical document filed in the archives of the Sisters of Loretto congregation also said Hart’s body was unearthed and found to be petrified.

Hart and others in that cemetery were then moved to the Plum Bayou area a few miles north of her original burial place.

Harvey said if the book’s account is accurate, that means Hart is among a group whose bodies are deemed “incorruptible,” the belief that supernatural intervention prevents decomposition.

There are more than 200 known in corrupt bodies of Catholic saints, Harvey said. Many are on display for public viewing, drawing tremendous crowds because they’re so unusual, Harvey said.

Harvey said it’s premature to consider the possibility of having a public unearthing and viewing of Hart’s body.

While rare, the Catholic Church does not consider incorruptibility a miracle, said Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

“There could be a thousand explanations why a body is found incorruptible. In popular imagination it counts for something, but as far as the church is concerned it doesn’t count for much,” Cunningham said.

Still, Hart has ardent supporters, including Mattics, who was diagnosed with Stage 3 testicular cancer in the fall of 2007.

As Mattics was going through chemotherapy, his wife, Becky, Harvey, the congregation at St. Joseph and others across the country prayed to Hart to intercede to God on Mattics’ behalf.

By Christmas of that year, doctors ordered another round of chemotherapy for Mattics, who refused the treatment, saying he didn’t have the strength after spending eight weeks in the hospital and losing 65 pounds.

“The day we started to ask for her intercession was the turnaround point for him,” Becky Mattics said. “He literally began to improve at that point, which was amazing because prior to that, I literally had physicians telling me to call funeral homes.”

In February 2008, during a checkup, Dr. Asif Masood of the Arkansas Cancer Center in Pine Bluff found that the cancer had left Mattics’ body.

Masood describes Mattics’ sudden recovery as “near miraculous” in a Feb. 10, 2009, letter to Bishop Anthony Taylor in Little Rock.

Mattics was hospitalized during the latter part of 2007 with three intestinal infections and had “minimal hope for survival,” according to Masood’s letter.

Mattics said his family members believe that Hart heard their prayers.

“It’s a miracle, there’s no doubt in my mind,” Mattics said.

PETITION FOR SAINTHOOD

Harvey, who visits Hart’s grave site at least twice a month, wants the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock to petition Hart for sainthood, a long and arduous process that takes time, money, testimonies and at least two confirmed miracles.

Sister Katherine Misbauer, the archivist with the Sisters of Loretto in Kentucky, said her congregation has not explored petitioning for sainthood for Hart, mainly because the Loretto congregation doesn’t have the money to seek Hart’s canonization.

“We respect her, we talk about her quite a bit, but people who have been involved in that kind of [canonization] effort know it’s a long and costly process,” Misbauer said.

Harvey said he became interested in Hart after arriving at St. Joseph in the summer of 2007, when he saw an old portrait of a nun in the church rectory, where he lives.

He saw the same portrait hanging on a wall inside St. Mary Catholic Church in front of the cemetery where Hart is buried, he said.

Later, a woman from out of town unexpectedly gave him a framed portrait of a nun that looked a lot like the images of the nun in his rectory and in St. Mary Catholic Church.

Harvey said the woman gave him the portrait after he gave a talk about the mother of Jesus at a conference in October 2008 in Morrilton. He said the woman, who purchased the portrait at a yard sale in Chicago, told him that she felt compelled to take it to the conference.

All people who go to heaven are considered saints by the Catholic Church, although those considered exceptionally pious may be canonized by the church, Cunningham said.

Canonized saints are honored by the church, added Cunningham, who wrote the 2005 book, A Brief History of Saints.

For Hart to be canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church, Taylor would have to begin investigating Hart’s life and reputation for holiness, and create a journal on her life and any potential miracles that occurred after her death, Cunningham said.

Taylor would then send the dossier to the Vatican in Rome. He was out of town and did not return two phone calls seeking comment.

If the Vatican decided to continue the investigation, Hart would be declared a servant of God, Cunningham said.

If there was confirmation that Hart produced one miracle, then she would be considered by the Catholic Church as blessed. A second miracle would be necessary for canonization and sainthood, Cunningham said.

“Canonization is done in Rome, usually at St. Peter’s Basilica, and it means only that a person is venerated, or honored, publicly in the Church under the authority of the Church and you can name churches after the person and have a feast day for the person and so on and so forth,” Cunningham said.

To his knowledge, Cunningham said, there are no canonized saints with roots in Arkansas.

“I don’t want to make a judgment about Sister Hart because I do not know enough information,” he said, “but I think it’s a very interesting story.”

Arkansas, Pages 7 on 11/09/2009

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