Brendan King has sent me details of the life of a little known and very heroic Benedictine sister, whose feast day is today.
The Servant of God, Sister M. Annella Zervas, O.S.B.
1900 – 1926
Feast: August 14th
Anna Cordelia Zervas was born in Moorhead, Minnesota on April 7, 1900. Her father, Hubert Zervas, was a German immigrant and ran the local meat market. Her mother, formerly Emma Levitre, was a native of French Canada and worked as a full-time housewife. Her parents were devout Catholics and raised their children the same way.
In the summer of 1915, Anna applied to and was accepted by St. Benedict’s Convent in St. Joseph, Minnesota. Her sisters Mary and Emma would later follow her into the Benedictine Order. On June 17, 1918, she was received into the Novitiate. Shortly before the ceremony, Anna took the name Sister Mary Annella. In the summer of 1919, she took her Triennial Vows and was assigned as a music teacher at St. Mary’s Convent in Bismarck, North Dakota.
On July 11, 1922, Sister Annella returned to St. Benedict’s and made her final profession. In May 1923, she noticed a small reddish patch on her forearm which itched painfully. When it did not respond to treatment, Sister Annella was admitted to St. Alexius Hospital in Bismarck. The doctors there were baffled, however, and the reddish skin grew to cover most of her body.
In April 1924, her parents were summoned and, to their horror, did not recognize their daughter. After their shock wore off, they were deeply moved by Sister Annella’s serenity in the face of agonizing pain. The following month, Sister Annella was transferred to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. For a long period, the doctors there were also baffled by Sister Annella’s symptoms. After carefully consulting books about rare skin diseases, the Mayo Clinic’s doctors ruled that she was suffering from Pityriasis Rubra Pilaris, a hereditary skin disease. At the time, only six other cases were known to exist in the entire United States. Furthermore, there was then no course of treatment.
By this time, Sister Annella’s treatment costs were proving ruinous for St. Benedict’s Convent. As a result, Hubert and Emma approached the Abbess, Mother Louise Walz, O.S.B., and offered to take care of their daughter in Moorhead until the disease ran its course. Although Sister Annella was pained beyond words, she bowed to Mother Louise’s decision and returned to her parental home in Moorhead. This did not in any way alter Sister Annella’s religious status, Mother Louise received regular updates and sent the Order’s former Mistress of Aspirants to assist with Sister Annella’s care.
In the fall of 1924, careful dieting and osteopathic treatments brought about a brief improvement in Sister Annella’s condition. She was unconvinced that it was permanently gone, however. In the summer of 1925, she was attacked by a painful fit shortly after leaving the Confessional. The last and most painful of her trials was about to begin.
Symptoms previously in remission returned with a vengeance. In the midst of physical agony and disfigurement, Sister Annella’s faith remained unbroken. In the worst fits of pain, she would cry out, “Oh Jesus, send me more pain, but give me the strength to bear it.”
On August 5, 1926, a public novena for Sister Annella’s recovery was offered at the Shrine of Our Lady of Victory in Lackawanna, New York. As it began, so did the final phase of her struggle. The pains in her stomach she compared to a hammer blow. She expressed hope, however, that she would be able to celebrate the upcoming Feast of the Assumption in Heaven. She further said, “I don’t want anyone to pray for my recovery, but to thank God for the sufferings He sent me.”
On August 14, 1926, Sister Annella died at her parents’ home, in the presence of their parish priest and the Benedictine Sisters of Moorhead. It was the day before Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Sister Annella’s body was transported by rail to St. Joseph, Minnesota, and buried beneath a wrought iron cross in the Convent cemetery. The last word is best left to Sister Annella herself, “God did not see fit to answer the Little Flower’s prayer with a sudden cure. What he has in store for me, I do not know, but all He does is well, so there is no need to worry. God has given me the grace to be resigned, and I thank Him heartily for this, but also for all else He has given me with my illness… I often wonder what great harm of body or of soul I may have suffered had not God given me this ‘Blessing in Disguise.’”