Velma Gorman was only 16 years old in 1918 when the Spanish flu broke out, killing 675,000 people. Her job at a phone company required she receive a vaccine, but the needle hit a nerve in her arm, and within three months, the teenager’s arm began to atrophy, and she was bedridden.
Gorman had heard of the miracle-worker, Brother Columba O’Neill, in the Congregation of Holy Cross, and she wrote to him. A proponent of novenas, he sent her a homemade “badge” depicting the Sacred Heart and implored her to pray the nine-day prayer.
On the eighth day of her prayer, she wrote back that the pain had become so intense she thought she might die.
However, on the ninth and final day of the novena, Gorman awoke to her arm restored and the pain gone. She and two of her relatives each wrote to Brother Columba, thanking him for this miracle that even the doctors could not explain.
“I can’t express my joy,” she wrote to Brother Columba in a four-page letter.
There are more than 2,000 similar letters addressed to Brother Columba, in which writers thank him for their “miracles” and “favors” after praying a novena with his homemade “badges.” These miracles range from healing chronic headaches to blindness.
To celebrate and spread awareness about the life and faith of Brother Columba, for whom a building on campus is named, the University of Notre Dame is holding a spotlight exhibit called “Path to Sainthood: Brother Columba O’Neill.”
This free exhibit, which opened in early October, is open to the public on weekdays until Thursday, November 30,
in the Rare Books and Special Collections room of the Hesburgh Library. Several letters and a few of his homemade badges are on display.
The curator, Brother Philip Smith, a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross, created the exhibit to teach students, faculty, and friends of Notre Dame about the impact of Brother Columba.
Brother Philip began the project after he was appointed as the order’s archivist in 2019. A year later, he discovered three misplaced boxes full of letters and documents from, to, and about Brother Columba and immediately jumped headfirst into the project.
Sixty years prior, another priest had worked on the project, but when he had a stroke at only 37 years old, the letters were boxed up and put away, hidden for decades until Brother Philip came across the boxes, which were labeled “Correspondence: Brother Columbo” by chance.
Brother Philip and a few seminarians spent eight months organizing the letters, putting them in chronological order, before they even began to fully read them.
Now, Brother Philip estimates he’s read about 5,000 of the more than 10,000 letters and documents about Brother Columba and his ministry.
The evidence he found of miracles and Brother Columba great devotion to the Sacred Heart, as well as his devotion to evangelizing the students of Notre Dame, was so convincing that he brought it to Bishop Rhoades.
“There is so much evidence that Brother Columba lived an extraordinary life, one filled with heroic virtue,” Brother Philip said. “It’s evident that he was not only holy but was known as the miracle man of Notre Dame.”
Last summer, Bishop Rhoades announced the formal opening of Brother Columba’s cause for canonization. In his decree of acceptance of the Congregation of Holy Cross’s petition for a canonization cause to be opened, Bishop Rhoades wrote, “Brother Columba’s saintly character was revealed in his ardent love for Jesus and Mary and in his love and care for the multitudes of people who came to see him or wrote to him.”
In May of 2023, the five bishops in Indiana all agreed that the evidence Brother Philip produced warranted that he take it to Rome. Eight weeks ago, he sent his work to the Vatican, which will eventually decide whether Brother Columba’s cause for canonization will progress toward sainthood.
“I am completely convinced that he’s a saint, and I think that Rome will also arrive at that,” Brother Philip said.
Brother Philip continues to work in the archives every day, reading letters and organizing them, as well as summarizing their contents. The work is slow, and the letters can be difficult to read.
Many of the letters from Brother Columba have spelling and grammatical errors, do not use punctuation, and refer to people and things that are not easily understood today. Because of this, Brother Smith estimates that Brother Columba had the equivalent of a fifth-grade education.
By the end of his life in November of 1923, in what is now called Columba Hall on Notre Dame’s campus, Brother Columba had handmade 30,000 Sacred Heart badges and 10,000 Immaculate Heart of Mary badges. He prayed, on average, 70 novenas at a time for others.
When he died from complications of the Spanish flu in 1923, his contemporary, Brother Isidore Alderton, wrote: “News of his death soon spread to the people of South Bend, and dozens of members of the community, sisters, and strangers were lining up to pass before his casket. For the past two days and nights, the parlor in the Community House has become a veritable shrine.”
“He had a great love for people who were suffering,” Brother Philip reported.
Until 1893, Brother Columba worked as the night nurse for Father Edward Sorin, Notre Dame’s president at the time, but after Father Sorin’s death, Brother Columba devoted himself fully to his day job as a cobbler, and to the people around him, and those who wrote him letters.
“He never took credit for anything,” Brother Philip said. “He believed that he was somehow an instrument of God. He is completely baffled as to why it’s his prayers that seem to be effected. But he believes that it is through his devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and praying that assisted folks.”
For more information on Brother Columba, to read letters regarding the miracles he performed, and more, visit the website Brother Philip established in his honor at BrotherColumba.com.
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