Feature Articles from Healthcare Journal of Baton Rouge

A Touch of Healing

By Karen Stassi
PUBLISHED: March/April 2012

Exploring a Different Approach

In the heart of Baton Rouge something amazing is happening. Maybe you’ve heard the rumors. Perhaps you’ve caught the name. A story passed between friends or shared between colleagues. Not always a happy ending, but sometimes a miraculous one. The source of the hum? Sister Dulce Maria. A diminutive, plump nun with a sparkle in her eye and a mischievous grin who can apparently heal the sick through the mere touch of her hands.

You don’t have to believe it. You have the right to question it. You can argue against it. But for the thousands whose lives have been touched by Sr. Dulce, and for Sr. Dulce herself, it doesn’t really matter what you think. What matters is that these people and their families believe they have been healed physically, emotionally, and spiritually by the prayers and the touch of this self-effacing nun. “I am just a normal human being that God has chosen to use in a very special way,” says Sr. Dulce, who does not think of herself as a healer, just an instrument through which God, or as she calls him, Papa, heals.

While your own personal spirituality may allow you to believe this without question, as a physician, nurse or other healthcare professional you have been trained in the sciences, in the importance of empirical evidence. You have witnessed the seemingly miraculous results achieved by ever more sophisticated and successful technology and pharmaceuticals and have come to rely on them as your tools in saving lives. So, it is no surprise that some may be doubtful, uncomfortable, perhaps downright skeptical of the idea of illness being healed through prayer and the laying on of hands. However, it is also hard to ignore the evidence of countless local residents who swear it is true.

Is it really that much of a stretch? It has been proven that compassion, contact, and touch can help people to heal. Why else do we encourage family members to talk to those in a coma, urge parents to touch a premature infant, reach out our hand to someone else’s to calm them? It is also no secret that patients who are positive and hopeful thrive, while those who give up can fail despite all medical intervention. Despite the drive toward evidence-based medicine, we can all attest to the usefulness of anecdotal data even when it’s hard to explain. I would even wager that we have all witnessed recoveries that seemed impossible; recoveries we might casually dub a “miracle” without necessarily ascribing credit to a higher power.

That’s something Sr. Dulce will never do. “All I ask is that you give the credit to Papa,” she insists. “I am just a creature. He is working through me. Those gifts are not human. They come from Papa. I’ve got to give him all the credit.” Sr. Dulce’s healing gift was not something she sought out. Her religious order, the Mercedarian Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament is a teaching community and Sr. Dulce is an educator. She loves that calling, but apparently it wasn’t what God had planned for her. “We all want to be comfortable, we want the normal life. I want to teach, be a normal nun, say my prayers, have a schedule, continue my education,” says Sr. Dulce. “It’s not going to happen when Papa says, ‘I’ve got something I want you to do for me.’ My life belongs to him in every way.”

A Call to Healing
Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, Sr. Dulce joined the Mercedarian Sisters as a teenager. She went on to earn a Bachelor’s, Master’s, and a Doctorate in education and administration. Assigned to California, Sr. Dulce planned to attend the master educator program at San Diego University, but the program fell through. About that time the priest at St. Leo’s Mission in Solana Beach died. Sister received a call asking her to come help coordinate the mission programs, which catered to undocumented immigrants. She resisted. It was not her normal work, it would require her living away from her Order, and there was no salary offered. “I took a vow of poverty, not starvation,” she jokes, explaining the need to provide for the other nuns in the Order. “I said, ‘Papa this isn’t my job, this isn’t my work. My work is teaching children.’ But when Papa speaks you learn to listen.” A few days later a group expressed a desire to rent part of the mission to open a Head Start program. Sister was asked if she would reconsider—the rent could be her salary. “Papa that was sneaky,” thought Sr. Dulce, but she reluctantly agreed to work at the mission for the summer.

That summer position turned into a five year assignment caring for those who had no jobs, nowhere to live, and inadequate food and clothing. She rose to the occasion, finding housing, jobs, free medical and dental visits, and donations to help care for “her people.” As “Mama” to her flock, she ran herself ragged. One day, exhausted, she knelt down before the Blessed Sacrament and said, “Papa, I’m so tired, just let me kneel here a little while before you.” She believes she must have fallen asleep and describes what happened next as a dream where she was in horrible pain. “Papa asked me, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I said, ‘I’m in pain.’ And He said, ‘Show me your hands.’ I showed Him my hands and in my hands, were His hands, wounds and all.” She said that God told her to lay her hands where it hurt and the pain disappeared. “I thought, that was a strange dream, a lovely dream, but I only thought it was a dream,” said Sr. Dulce.

She was not thinking about the dream when, the next day, she returned home to find her little pug dog, Georgie, in pain. The dog had apparently eaten some poisonous fish and was covered in welts. Sr. Dulce prayed, “Papa please don’t take my pug…she can’t give you any glory, she’s just a dog.” In that instant she felt a hand take hers and place it on Georgie’s head. As she moved her hand over the dog, the welts disappeared and Georgie sat up and licked her hand. “I thought it was just Papa hearing my prayers and I thanked him and she was fine,” said Sr. Dulce. It wasn’t until she was called to the bedside of a woman with pancreatic cancer that it began to dawn on Sister that perhaps God had other plans for her. The woman was in terrible pain and, similar to the experience with Georgie, Sr. Dulce felt her hands drawn to the woman’s abdomen. She describes feeling terrible burning pain in her own hands, but she could not pull away. When the pain finally subsided, the woman had fallen asleep. “I took my hand off and wondered, “What was that?” said Sr. Dulce. “I went to Papa and I said, ‘Okay…What? What? What?’” The woman’s daughter called the next day to ask what she had given her mother because she had woken up with no pain, sat outside, and was able to get some sunshine. The daughter asked Sr. Dulce to come lay hands on her again. “But when I went, she was dying,” she said. “He took away the pain, but it was her time and I told her, ‘You are going to be okay. I am going to help you.’ And I lay my hands on her so she could die in peace.”

A Complex Gift
Those who are slow to accept Sr. Dulce’s gift question why she cannot save everybody. Some of the patients she sees experience miraculous cures, yet others still succumb to their illness. Sister is quick to explain that she does not choose whom she heals, that she is simply doing what God tells her. Sometimes it is just a person’s time to die, but her touch may relieve their pain or anxiety or her counseling may relieve a family’s grief. She is confident that she is providing whatever form of healing God wishes for that person and that He will put those who need her in her path. You might think that with her gift, Sr. Dulce might be tempted to frequent the hospitals healing everyone she sees. But quite apart from the fact that she is so busy with her own schedule at the prayer center, and her desire to help as many people as she can, she acknowledges that her work would never be complete. “If I could maneuver my gift I’d heal everybody and my neighbor,” she says. However, on occasion, God will send her to the hospital specifically to see one person. “If I show up at the hospital you are very lucky,” she jokes. “Because Papa has sent me to heal you. When I go to a hospital I am sent. I don’t go by my own design. I’ve got enough patients here.”

Although she devotes the early hours of her days to personal prayer, scripture study, and communion with God, Sr. Dulce claims to have an ongoing dialogue with God throughout the day. Sometimes there are no words, but He makes His wishes known to her. She admits that she often resists or bargains with Him, but it is that unspoken communication that allows her to know when someone needs her help even before they have contacted her, or to communicate with people despite barriers of language or silence due to illness. Sr. Dulce says she can also heal through other people’s hands when she cannot physically visit the person. Talking to a family member on the phone, she will have them lay their hands on the patient while she prays. Because she physically feels the pain and illness as she heals, this can be problematic. Sometimes the person laying on hands also requires healing and she can distinguish between the different types of pain. That doesn’t work, she said, because she can only heal one at time. “I can’t heal through the other person’s disease.” It may all sound a little supernatural, but to her it is perfectly normal because she believes God is aware of what is going on with each of us and through her connection with Him, she is also aware. “I’m nobody special. I’m very normal. What you see is what you get. No secret lives or mystical running off into the stars.”

Complimenting Medicine
Sr. Dulce stresses that there are different types of healing. A patient may succumb to cancer, but their healing may have been in their soul or in a family relationship so they could have peace before they died. Sometimes a healing is immediate and unexpected. At other times, it is a gradual process that may require some spiritual healing first. “When it takes a while, God is working something in their lives,” said Sister. Or they may just not be ready yet. “If a person doesn’t heal, they didn’t heal. I don’t take responsibility for that. Without God’s power I can do nothing. I leave it up to Him. I lay hands and while He’s healing I pray and wait on His word to be fulfilled.” Sometimes, said Sr. Dulce, a person’s physical ailment is healed, but it is clear they still have healing to do. “If I want a straight back and I didn’t have any faith, I could go to a doctor, have surgery, and he’ll get it done. The difference between the kind of healing God does and the kind of healing doctors do is they heal the body momentarily, until you die. But God heals you body, mind, and soul. He heals the inner person along with the body and that’s the difference.”

That is not to say that Sr. Dulce does not respect and encourage the work of doctors. She believes that, like her, they have been given their healing skills, their ability to care for others as a gift from God. When a patient complains of a pain or a problem she will ask them if they have seen their doctor or if they have taken their medicine. “I work with doctors. I like for the doctors to take care of them, because that’s their gift. They need to go see their doctor, they need to take their medication, they need to be helped by medicine,” said Sr. Dulce. However, she believes that a doctor who practices prayer before he goes to work and who trusts in God and who practices his faith, whatever that faith might be, is more likely to have a higher percentage of healed patients than a doctor who doesn’t. “I advise you to get yourself a doctor who believes in God and believes in prayer,” says Sr. Dulce.

The Reluctant Nun
Despite her ability to heal others, Sister cannot heal herself unless God wills it. In fact, it was while she was recovering from an illness of her own, that God chose her for a new mission. While recuperating in San Antonio, she began to see visions of trees and the place that would be her new home. She was not particularly receptive to this new plan. “When Papa said I was coming here, I said, ‘Oh give me a break. I want to stay and be a regular nun. I just want to teach and work with my people. Where are you taking me now?’” She was told that God would send her a priest after His own heart and that priest would tell her where she was going next. One day a call came from Father Jeff Bayhi of Baton Rouge. His mother was ill and he had heard of Sr. Dulce’s gift. He wanted to come see her. Confident that her Mother Superior who had been urging her to rest would turn him away, Sr. Dulce was somewhat surprised when not only did she allow him to come, but ultimately granted his request that Sr. Dulce come to Baton Rouge. Irritated by this priest who had managed to convince Mother Superior to let her leave despite Sr. Dulce’s desire to await a new teaching position, she was determined not to like him. “I said, ‘Papa is this the priest?’ and He said, ‘That’s the one.’ Everything was arranged and before I knew it I was here.”

The Source of the Hum
Sister’s beginnings in Baton Rouge in 2001 were humble, initially operating out of a home near LSU. As her ministry grew, St. Agnes Catholic Church offered her space in the school gym. In 2009 the Cypress Springs Mercedarian Prayer Center was constructed at the end of George O’Neal Lane through funding from the Sister Dulce Foundation. The complex of three buildings—the ministry office, a chapel, and a convent—sits on a lake surrounded by woods right in the heart of Baton Rouge. When you are there however, the city slips away and wildlife roam the grounds in peace and near silence. The center is dedicated to those who are seeking healing from Sister as well as regular spirituality groups for men, women, and youth seeking a closer communion with God. Additional public space and trails for meditation are being developed.

Today, most of Sr. Dulce’s days are spent with cancer patients or those struggling with a terminal illness, pain, loss, or grief. “I work with those who have cancer and other terminal diseases, those who are dying, so I can walk them past their fears, their anxieties, and maybe sometimes past their disease, to God,” she explains. She also works with grieving family members. Despite her busy schedule, she remains on call for those in crisis and responds to hundreds of prayer requests during the early morning hours she spends talking and praying to God. “As many as God has targeted for me to work with, that’s how many I will work with.” That works out to be approximately 500 people a month, according to her assistant, Kim Johnson.

Sr. Dulce has been loath to publicize her gift, but of course word spreads so her work continues and grows. She is confident it will continue for as long as God wills it, but also knows that this is the end of her journey, that she is where God wants her to stay. “Healing is God’s presence on this earth. Disease and sickness comes with our nature, our fallen nature,” says Sr. Dulce. “God has brought me here to heal people and teach them to live in His presence and to do their part to grow in their relationship to Him so that they, on their own part can heal others.”

Sr. Dulce’s absolute belief is contagious. It is easy to approach her and the stories that surround her armed with questions and healthy skepticism. She understands that. Perhaps even welcomes it. But it is hard to look into those eyes and question anything she is saying, to avoid feeling she is getting a little insight into your soul, to not hope she might just get the word from Papa to heal you, too.

To find out more about Sister Dulce you can visit the center’s website at http://cypressspringsprayercenter.org.