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‘The Misfit Miracle Girl’: How Kate Mahoney became a miracle

Written By | Jun 19, 2017

Kate Mahoney: The Misfit Miracle Girl. (Book Jacket illustration)

WASHINGTON, June 19, 2017 — I had not seen Kate Mahoney for many years. In the 1980s, she was a friend and classmate of my son Peter at the Alexandria (Virginia) Country Day School. Now, she has written an inspiring memoir, “The Misfit Miracle Girl: Candid Reflections” (Divine Phoenix Books, Skaneateles, New York: 2016).

Diagnosed with stage four germ cell ovarian cancer at the age of 14, Kate’s world changed overnight. She later recovered from multi-system organ failure, something doctors said could not be explained medically.

The Vatican declared it a miracle.

Kate’s story is a collection of candid reflections from her life before, during and after her recovery. She recalls,

“I woke up from a coma to this declaration that I was a miracle. In everyone else’s eyes I was instantly the face of something bigger than myself and my immediate set of human circumstances, like walking, talking or feeding myself were seemingly overlooked because I was labeled ‘miracle girl.'”

In her book, Kate takes us on a tumultuous journey of personal transformation as she recalls her experiences as a patient, caregiver to her parents and someone repeatedly declared a “miracle.” Her memoir is a mix of humorous anecdotes, poignant memories and advice from someone who has seen more than her fair share of highs and lows. Read also:

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Kate’s story begins in the summer of 1992, when she was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer while vacationing with her parents in Central New York. She spent 46 days in a hospital in Syracuse, suffering from multiple organ failures after chemotherapy failed.

With hope nearly gone, the family was approached by a local nun who had been working on the canonization of Mother Marianne Cope, who worked in Central New York and later with lepers in Hawaii. After prayers for Mother Cope’s intervention in Kate’s health, Kate’s condition improved drastically and she was released from the hospital with a note that said her turnaround “could not be explained medically.”

That local nun was Sister Mary Laurence Hanley, a cousin of former Rep. Jim Hanley (D-NY), for whom Kate’s father John had worked as a legislative aide. “Kate’s poor condition was appalling to me,” said Sister Hanley. “I have never seen anyone this ill anywhere, at any time. Kate’s sad condition afflicted me much.”

She posted a prayer request in the Franciscan residence in Syracuse. A man in Utica, where Mother Marianne grew up, encouraged prayers. Students at Kate’s school were asked to pray for Mother Marianne’s aid for their schoolmate. Kate’s name appeared on local prayer lists.

When Sister Mary Laurence first came to the hospital, she brought with her a piece of a bookmark that once belonged to Mother Marianne. Kate writes,

“In the Church, an item like this is called a relic. Think of it as a trinket or token belonging to someone who is a great distance from you, but whom you need to feel close to, connect with, and rely on in times of unrest. The relic was placed on me in the Intensive Care Unit in connection with prayers said directly to Mother. Many people felt the relic was the thing that cured me.”

On January 22, 1993, Kate was awakened and her breathing tube removed. On March 18, she was released from the hospital. She describes the out-patient rehabilitation ordeal, during which she had to retrain all her muscles and relearn how to walk and talk.

Throughout this period, Sister Hanley was gathering paperwork to initiate a church inquiry of a miracle. In 1998, Bishop James Moynihan, who had twice talked to Pope John Paul II about the case, formally opened a church inquiry, in which 1,702 pages of documentation were gathered and sent to the Vatican.

Initially, Kate had little interest in being a “miracle.”

“People latched on with vice grips to the idea of me as Miracle; … but ironically, there was a complete disconnect to the challenge I experienced. In the process, as a person, a mere mortal, the set of human emotions and circumstances were seemingly ignored.  I refused the miracle—not publicly … but to my parents and in my mind. I believed it was the doctors and nurses who saved me. In my mind that was pretty cut and dried.  There wasn’t room on my plate for the entrapment of Miracle.”

Though not completely reconciled to the idea that a miracle had in fact occurred, Kate met with the Tribunal in 1998. “They asked, ‘Do you think this is a miracle?’ I said, ‘Well, yes, because I’m here.'”

The Tribunal agreed. Less than six months before he died, Pope John Paul ll signed a document and decreed that God had worked a miracle through Mother Marianne Cope’s intercession.

Sister Marianne Cope was declared a saint by Pope Benedict XVl on October 21, 2012. But Kate’s life was shaken again.

“After Beatification was announced, but before our flight out of LaGuardia, my parents’ dual diagnoses of cancer hit us like a tsunami. As Mom lay in bed in Syracuse, fatigued from radiation …I stood at Pop’s hospital bedside in Manhattan, with splits of champagne to toast our upcoming trip to the Vatican. None of  us knew if we would, in fact, all be well enough to make the trip.”

Kate tells of meeting Pope Benedict, adding a bit of humor to the story:

“The Pope had kind eyes. He took my hands in his as he welcomed me. ‘You are very blessed by Mother Marianne.’  Wait for it… ‘Yeah. Obviously.’ Yep. That’s what I said to the Pope… To recover, I had to hit my mark when kneeling to kiss the ring—all part of the protocol when you meet the Pope… We stood hands-in-hands for a bit. He told me I was the future of the Church, which was a lot to process… The Pope released his grip and swayed to the side. Harnessing laser-like focus, I went in for the kneel. I did not look up. I had a job to do! Then it happened. CRACK. I headbutted the Pope.”

Kate recalls,

“In an unprecedented move—everything, I guess, was unprecedented, given this audience was his first—His Holiness reached out to me for a hug. I missed the cue completely. Did I gracefully shake myself off, re-engage for the embrace? No. I did not. I again darted up, as clearly was my pattern, and cried, ‘OH, MY GOD! I’M SO SORRY!’ This was followed by my shrinking back down to an appropriate hem length, and whispering, ‘I’m so sorry I said ‘Oh, my God.’ In a flash the Swiss Guard swept me off the altar, back down the steps to my seat … So maybe that’s how not to meet the Pope… Regardless, I believe the message of the Holy Father to me is worth noting. He in his position represented the history of the church; I, in mine, the future. We all have the capacity to be bridge builders. Maybe it doesn’t have to end with a head butted, it should always begin with a reach.”

In Kate’s view,

“I felt this was not a Catholic story. I believe there’s a universal resonance for any reader who would choose to pick this book up. There’s nothing miraculous about me.  I’m just the vehicle. I have no special powers or authority. I have nothing but gratitude.”

Kate may be wrong here. Her emotional survival and her ability to be the caretaker of two parents stricken with cancer – in crisis at the same time, taking her mother Mary to the hospital while finding someone to care for her father, John, who was close to death – represents at least the extraordinary, if not the miraculous.

“Having to really, out of respect for the story, reconnect with those emotions was incredibly painful. But I found, almost every time I tried to read those out loud, I couldn’t get through it without choking up and crying.”

Kate’s father died not long after his visit to the Vatican. Her mother recovered and accompanied Kate to her recent book event in Virginia.

Kate rejects the intolerance religion breeds in some, embracing the love and acceptance she believes it is meant to foster.

“If you want to say that your Catholicism is why you won’t get divorced or talk to homosexuals or listen to a woman who’s had an abortion or vote for whatever legislation the media claims will ruin your life, that’s OK. But examine your faith, your prayer life, your relationship with church and community, and your history in the context of your religion, and then tell me what your beliefs are. I’m not going to live a life running toward a heaven, or away from a hell, so fast that I miss out on this mortal life I have here on earth, one for which I am profoundly grateful… There is comedy and tragedy in the normalcy of life, even when every day and sometimes every hour has a new normal… We often have a belief system different from our neighbors or friends. At the same time, we are all human and have infinite points of connection. Humanity and divinity deserve equal respect.”

Kate also remembers many pleasant days. She had a happy childhood in Alexandria, Virginia, playing soccer and having good times with friends. She carries fond memories of two years in Ireland, when her father taught American history at the University of Limerick. She learned to ride horses in Ireland and performed in a teen production of the musical “Godspell.” This whetted her appetite for theater. She performed as a student at Washington College in Maryland, and later in Chicago.

Kate is now an international speaker who travels the country and the world to share stories of her life as patient and caregiver. She is on a mission to inspire audiences by sharing reflections on the miracle of her recovery.

A belief in miracles is embedded in our Judeo-Christian tradition. When the Israelites flee from persecution in Egypt, the Red Sea parts to let them through safely, then closes on the Pharaoh’s army in pursuit. Water gushes from the rock when Moses strikes it to with his staff, and manna falls from heaven to feed fugitives in the barren desert.

Jesus is born of a virgin. When he dies on the cross, darkness falls at noon, as prophesied in the Book of Isaiah. Jesus turns water into wine, and is resurrected after death.

In his book “Miracles,” C.S. Lewis writes:

“Nothing can seem extraordinary until you have discovered what is ordinary. Belief in miracles, far from depending on an ignorance of the laws of nature, is only possible insofar as these laws are known. For this reason, the question of whether miracles occur can never be answered simply by experience. Every event which might claim to be a miracle, in the last resort, is something presented to our senses, something seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted.

“And our senses are not infallible. If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to the experience. It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical question… Miracles do not, in fact, break the laws of nature… In science we have been reading only the notes to a poem; in Christianity, we find the poem itself.”

One need not be a Christian, nor a member of any organized religion, to believe in miracles or recognize that there is more to our existence and our world than man’s mind can understand. For many, life itself is an inexplicable material. Albert Einstein noted:

“Behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force is my religion. To that extent, I am, in point of fact, religious… Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man… The divine reveals itself in the physical world.”

Kate Mahoney has provided us with a hopeful and inspirational memoir, one which is both moving and gives hope to all who face difficult moments in life. She is now a vivacious and accomplished young woman who is certain to make many positive contributions in our increasingly troubled world.

“Misfit Miracle Girl” is available via Amazon and other booksellers.

Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.