God has a plan for every soul and it carries it out very successfully, but it is cleverly disguised.
The year that Audrey was born, I was also ordained a priest for the Diocese of Worcester, by Bishop Bernard Flanagan, who was retiring as the Bishop of Worcester. Four years later, I was learning a new assignment in another corner of the diocese when that August of 1987, Audrey was found floating face down in the pool behind her house. Rushed to the hospital, a decision was made to prescribe phenobarbital by a doctor. Someone made the mistake to administer an adult dose. Audrey’s life and that of everyone around her, would be forever changed.
One of the friends of Audrey’s family had the same surname that I do. His name was Father George Joyce. He was a retired priest from the military who had been born and raised in Holyoke, but had become friends with the Santo family. Visiting at least once a week, many of Audrey’s admirers learned that Fr. Joyce was a wild card to get to visit Audrey. Call him, tell him a sad tale, and he could get people to jump a waiting line or include them in his next visit to Audrey and her family. Holyoke is in the Diocese of Springfield, an hour west of the Diocese of Worcester.
When people were looking for Fr. George Joyce, they would call the Chancery Office in Worcester and ask how to get in contact with Fr. Joyce. The Diocese of Worcester has a priest, which is me — Fr. Peter Joyce — and so they would give these people my contact information. Most people would call and when I would talk with them, I explained that I was a different Fr. Joyce and give them information to contact the Chancery in Springfield.
Every now and then, a person would leave a message for the other Fr. Joyce with this Fr. Joyce. It might be a prayer intention, the details of someone who was sick, or a request for prayers. Often if they left a message, beyond their need, there was no address, phone number, or other contact information. I would call Audrey’s house, speak to her mother Linda, and share the concern or request that had been left as a message for me. My concern was that people had reached out in faith, and I couldn’t let it end in a dead letter box with me.
I needed to pass the information along to Audrey’s team. Each time, Linda would invite me to the house, and I would politely decline that I was very busy, my parish was on the border of the diocese, and I was unable to visit at that time. Linda hung up and told others in the room I wasn’t coming.
See, I only knew the false narrative that had been promoted in so many circles regarding ‘Little Audrey.’ That she was in a vegetative state or coma. That she didn’t interact with the world around her. That people were exploiting her or using her for some sickening voyeuristic spiritual balm.
From my understanding, it seemed all inappropriate and unfair to this little girl that she was held up as a quasi-saint when she was totally unaware of the world around her. I wondered if she was even able to know who she was. In time, I would learn how wrong my assumptions and the story I had been told were.
In the winter of 2017, the youth minister in my parish wanted to take our parish youth group to Audrey’s to visit and tell her story. Since I had never been, I explained that I would need to go and determine the appropriateness of a visit before agreeing to let the youth of my parish be exposed to this situation. The day we arranged to visit, it was snowing and the roads were not in good condition. In truth, I was relieved for the reprieve. Another date was set. This time it snowed again, but I was determined to go and learn firsthand what was the real story of Little Audrey Santo.
When we arrived, Audrey’s mother greeted us and explained the story of Audrey from her birth, through her accident and recovery, to the challenges of caring for her at home, until when God brought her into his glory in 2007. There were several aspects of the conversation that were personal connections for me that I had no idea of, and so they caught me completely unaware. We visited almost two hours, praying in Audrey’s room and the chapel, and visiting with Linda, hearing her stories and having our questions answered. When I left, I recognized that I had not ever been told the REAL story of Little Audrey Santo, and all of my presumptions and judgements were based on details that were untrue and arbitrary, from someone else’s agenda.
Six months later, the current Bishop of Worcester, the Most Rev. Robert J. McManus, appointed me as the diocesan liaison to Audrey’s cause of canonization. My new role brought me responsibilities to learn and understand the story of Little Audrey and to appreciate what actually happened in the place where she lived for twenty years until the end of her life. While some aspects might have frightened some, I learned quickly to look beyond them to discern the truth of holiness and determine what lesson God wanted us to learn. Bleeding statues, statues and images that weep oil, odd noises, and strange lights at all times of the day, called me to probe deeper and to listen with my heart to what I was being told and what I experienced.
I have realized the truth of the words of the French Jesuit, Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, SJ, who was quoted by Fr. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy at Little Audrey’s funeral in 2007. He quoted the Jesuit’s writings, “God has a plan for each soul and carries it out very successfully. But it is well disguised under the name of misfortune, illness, and spiritual weakness. ” These words come back to me often as I think of Little Audrey’s life and her witness, and as I hear the stories of those who still come to visit and pray in her room, in her chapel, even just in front of the place she lived for two decades. They come with faith, a faith in God to hear them, and a faith in a little girl whose misfortune God used as a disguise of His very own purposes in our midst.
These words come back to me often when I give tours to the pilgrims who still come to visit and tiptoe into Little Audrey’s room. Who try to be human sponges to absorb all the images, presence and holiness that lingers from its holy occupant. Who whisper as if in church for the holiness they sense and the awe of the place they have been privileged to enter, to pause, and to pray. God in the most unusual of places. In the most unusual of circumstances. Using what it is ordinary to reveal his extraordinary presence in our human world.
These words bring me to remember the woman who came to visit and pray in Audrey’s room during one of my monthly ‘tours.’ At the end, I would share a small cotton ball with some drops of the oil which inexplicably appeared in Little Audrey’s room that seem to have healing capability. As I passed out the oil, a woman spoke up and asked to tell her story. It had only been the third or fourth time I had given this witness in Little Audrey’s room so I invited her to share. Without a lot of detail, but a firmness in her conviction of what she believed, she shared how she had struggled to bring warmth and love back to her marriage. She prayed to Audrey and then put the packet of oil on her husband’s side of their bed between the box spring and mattress. She continued to pray, and three months later her marriage was strong and vibrant. She gave the credit to her prayer to Audrey.
Another woman cried telling of her husband who had struggled with an unknown illness for three years. They had been to every imaginable doctor and even psychiatrists to eliminate any psychological issues without any resolution to his pain and discomfort. Sitting in the emergency room yet again with her husband, with no answers and no direction, she reached in her pocketbook and placed the packet of oil in her hands. She prayed hard. Her prayer was for a diagnosis, not a cure, just the knowledge after three years of what was wrong with her husband. She sighed, as she sobbed to tell the story; saying she just wanted an answer. Any answer, but an answer! Then the door opened and a doctor rushed in. He said, “I know what’s wrong. I know what your husband has. This is what his ailment is. This is how we need to treat him.” She credits her prayer to Audrey with finally getting that answer and knowing relief as her husband now recovers. She came that day to offer a prayer of thanks for an answer received.
Another couple has come every month this year of 2022 for our first Saturday celebrations. Wearing a mask it was hard to know at first. But that first time, while visiting Audrey’s room they asked for a special blessing and he pulled down his mask to reveal a tumor on his lower jaw the size of a golf ball. The last time they came, when he pulled his mask down, it was nearly gone. They were going that week to meet with the doctor to know his stats and status with his disease. Though I couldn’t see their smiles, I knew it in their eyes, the strength, the hope and now the joy that these monthly visits had brought to his struggle.
Since Little Audrey has not yet been declared a Servant of God, none of these presumed healings count for anything toward her being a saint with the Church’s process. Any miracle toward sainthood can only take place after the declaration by the Holy Father that a person is Venerable, the step that follows Servant of God. Miracles in the process of a canonization require diagnosis, medical verification and unquestionable proof that no other means (chemotherapy, radiation, medication) could have brought about the healing. And it must be irreversible. These stories are told not to advance the cause of Little Audrey’s canonization, since they don’t merit that kind of authority.
They are told here because for each of them, it is about faith. Faith in God and His favor for the prayers of a little girl who spent twenty years of her life in his presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Without speaking a word in our world, we believe she spoke volumes to the Lord she loved and loves still. They are stories of healing and hope, when it was most needed. And all of us need more hope. All of us can learn from those who pray and find answers that strengthen their faith and commitment to God. Each of these have come through Little Audrey, who loved Jesus so much that she never spoke again in our world for whatever happened in that pool and the days that followed. Her broken body, her wounded life, surrounded by the love of family and an extended family gave care and compassion that Little Audrey knew and appreciated and in turn returned with her own love, that continues to bring people to her house. Our role is to bring those who come to us there to God. To know hope more than healing, joy in their faith, strength for their struggle because of their prayer, and the truth that every prayer is answered, even when the answer isn’t what we want or expect, but what God knows we need.
“But in the hands of God, everything flourishes and ultimately turns to good. God arranges the accomplishments of his highest designs by means of what deeply offends our normal feelings” (Fr. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, SJ).
The Foundation is looking for volunteers and donations for those interested in helping with the cause for Audrey’s canonization. For more information or to make a donation, please contact the Little Audrey Santo Foundation:
For a free cotton ball with some drops of the special oil and Audrey’s prayer card, please send a stamped self-addressed envelope to:
Little Audrey Santo Foundation, Inc.
68 South Flagg Street
Worcester, MA 01602-1822
*** 1st SATURDAY MASS & ADORATION
Saturday – August 6, 2022 in recognition of August 9, 2022, the 35th Anniversary of Audrey’s accident. Mass at 10:30 am Under the canopy behind 68 S. Flagg Street, Worcester.