Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
Michael Mencer, the “Miracle Boy” whose miraculously restored eyesight led to the beatification of Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich — the first ever such ceremony to take place in the United States — died in December in Lincoln, Nebraska, from complications after surgery. Days earlier, he had celebrated his 61st birthday.
The miracle took place when he was eight years old and his family was living in Teaneck, New Jersey. Young Michael had been diagnosed with juvenile macular degeneration, an incurable and irreversible condition. His vision was so poor he was already legally blind.
Sr. Jane Culligan of the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth explained that Michael’s third grade teacher in St. Anastasia School, Sr. Marie Augustine, sent home with him a prayer card and relic of Sr. Miriam Teresa who had died in 1927. The Sisters of Charity were working on her cause for sainthood.
Michael’s mother and family joined along with the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth in Convent Station, N.J., praying for a cure for Michael. On September 25 in the early 1960s, his eye doctor told the boy in six months he would be totally blind. He was already readying to learn Braille.
But the next day, as Michael walked home from school, his eyesight was instantly restored to normal. Doctors found his vision was perfect 20/20 and had no medical explanation why.
After years of Vatican investigation, Pope Benedict declared this the miracle for Sr. Miriam Teresa’s beatification. During the beatification, Mencer had the honor to carry her relic in procession in the sanctuary.
“When he recovered from the macular degeneration all I can remember is that Mike could see again,” said John Mencer who was four years older than Michael. He told his younger brother, “Let’s go out to play catch — to test you if you really can see.”
John’s responsibility was to get Michael and their sister Susan safely to school. Then there were two major streets to cross, and Michael could easily walk into the trees planted next to the city sidewalks. John was the guide.
Today, John said he also felt badly for his brother because of the five of them, “Mike caught everything from the beginning.”
John then explained how Michael, the middle of five children, was living in Lincoln with his mother Barbara who is 88. “He was looking after her and she was looking after him. He was disabled because of cancer,” John said.
Michael’s first bout with cancer began in 1985 when he was 30 years old. Because of other setbacks the following year, “We were never quite sure how long he was going to be with us,” John said.
Over the next 22 years, Michael was in and out of the hospital. He endured radiation, chemotherapy, and surgeries through 16 separate cancer treatments. In 1990 he had two bone marrow transplants that his brother said almost killed him. Michael spent some months in an isolation bubble. Yet he always pulled through.
John reasoned why that happened by going back to a window in time when Michael’s health seemed fine. “Mike was a fighter, a wrestler in high school. They’re a different breed. They’re tenacious and they battle. Mike was a fighter and he fought it.”
John Mencer described how “When Mike was in the prime of life, he was very strong and athletic, a lot stronger and bigger than me at that point. Then the cancer came at 30.”
There was another strength that Michael Mencer had in great measure.
“He had a noble quality,” revealed John. “He never complained about the problems and the setbacks that beset him, that kept him from leading a full life, never marrying or having children.” In fact, because of what turned out to be a never-ending round of hospital stays, he was unable to work steadily.
“Michael was wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. He never complained about anything,” Sr. Jane said. She entered the convent in Sept. 1955, and Michael born on December 5 that same year. They considered each other good friends.
Even though unable to work regularly, Michael did not sit around.
“He was very busy. He was always helping somebody. He never felt sorry for himself,” Sr. Jane affirmed.
John added that his brother was always trusting and patient and had a scientific bent. A few years ago when Michael thought he could go back to work, he started classes in nursing. He eventually did get a degree in medical equipment technology.
The night before the Oct. 4 beautification, Sr. Jane recalls that when Michael heard Father Benedict Groeschel was seriously ill, he “wanted to go that very moment. Father Benedict was so happy to meet him face to face.” Michael had the relic of Sr. Miriam Teresa with him, and Father Groeschel blessed himself with it.
“It was an incredible experience,” Sr. Jane recalls. “It was Divine providence.” Two hours later, Father Groeschel died.
There was more than just the cure of Michael’s eyesight through Sister Miriam Teresa’s intercession.
Speaking to me right after the beatification in Cathedral-Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J., Michael said, “When you get a blessing, you have to (be different spiritually). You have no other choice. I told God, 'Thy will be done.' I’ve always tried to say that.”
Michael who was a very modest, unassuming gentleman, also spoke about the newly Blessed Miriam Teresa. “She’s a friend; I talk to her like a friend,” he said. He advised others to do the same with their favorite saints. “I hope they start talking to a saint or blessed.”
Both Sr. Jane and Sr. Mary Canavan, the vice postulator for Blessed Miriam Teresa’s cause, mentioned the same local example of Michael’s kindness and concern for others. He met a young Catholic school student in New Jersey, a boy of about 10 years old, also suffering from the same macular degeneration condition as he did.
“When Michael came to the beatification he bought with him some football or baseball cards he gave to the boy and they really became close friends,” Sr. Mary Canavan said. “When Michael returned home after the beatification, he sent some baseball pennants to the boy who treasured them because they were from Michael. He let the boy hold the relics he had when he was cured in hopes he might be cured.” She found the relationship of the two sharing the same disease — the one receiving the cure and the other praying for the cure — quite moving.
Happy Trip then Health Trial
Michael’s health seemed to be going downhill this past year, according to John who was trying to get his mother and younger brother to move closer to one of the four Mencer children living in different sections around the country.
But before that happened, things seemed a bit different in mid-October when Michael took a trip back to New Jersey to the Sisters of Charity motherhouse in Convent Station. The sisters were transferring the remains of Blessed Miriam Teresa [Michael is in the photos] from a crypt in the vestibule in their Holy Family Chapel to a place in the body of the chapel. They invited him to be there.
He seemed fine to Sr. Jane. “I spent quite a bit of time with him. We had supper together. He didn’t show any signs of being ill at all,” she said. “We had a good time when he was down here. He had a present for (the boy with macular degeneration).”
John said his brother flew from there to Nevada where Mark, the youngest brother, lives. “Mark said he started to show symptoms of abominable pain.”
Once home, Michael’s mother, a nurse by training, got him to the hospital as pains grew worse. It was Election night. The next morning he had emergency surgery.
John said it was not cancer but an obstruction the doctors thought was brought on by all his surgeries and previous medications.
“In that it was a surprise — not cancer per se, but the effects of cancer,” John said.
When he and his wife Suzanne saw Michael in the intensive care unit at St. Elizabeth's Regional Medical Center in Lincoln, they thought he was going to recover. But Michael developed a couple of infections.
“We thought the antibiotics would take care of it,” John said. “They didn’t. He had two different infections and they wouldn’t go away.” His major organs began to fail. John and his wife were with him during the night before he passed away in the early morning hours of Dec. 13.
His simple funeral was held at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Lincoln on Dec. 29. Sr. Jane was there for her friend.
Life Well Lived
Those who knew Michael knew him as a kind, caring person. John pointed out how he “was very unselfish and concerned about the family.” He was always very good with his nieces and nephews, giving them presents and teaching them how to do things as they were growing up.
John described how despite the constant health battles and illnesses, Michael never looked inward and acted in his own selfish interest. “Mike was never like that. He was always interested in others and demonstrated it too.” He didn’t have much materially because of the health circumstances, but what he did have he left to his nieces and nephews to help them with their families. “He was always looking out for others.”
Despite serious health problems that left him in precarious situations over the years, Michael remained ever the “Miracle Boy” of Blessed Miriam Teresa.
In all his years after the miraculous cure of his macular degeneration, he never needed prescription glasses. In later years he sometimes used reader’s glasses bought in a store as people do when they get older.
“That was it,” John said. “Sometimes he put them [reader’s glasses] on when looking at documents. He didn’t need them to drive or watch TV or anything like that.”
Thinking of all that Michael went through in his life, John added with emotion, “It was a blessing he stayed with us as long as he did. But still he’s gone too soon.”
Memorial for Michael — His Memory
The Sisters of Charity in Convent Station have set up a memorial for Michael through their website or by mail. The donations will go to support the cause for Blessed Mariam Teresa’s sainthood.
Contributions may be made online at the Sisters of Charity website: www.scnj.org (Donate link} or direct mentioning Michael Mencer Memorial. Or by check to: Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth, Michael Mencer Memorial, Development Office, P.O. Box 476, Convent Station, NJ 07961-0476.