The Servant of God Sister Mary Annella Zervas (born April 7, 1900, Moorhead, Minnesota – died August 16, 1926) was an American Benedictine nun who died after a three year battle with the skin disease Pityriasis rubra pilaris. She is known for the most part simply as "Sister Annella".
Anna Cordelia Zervas was born in Moorhead, Minnesota. Her father, Hubert Zervas, a German immigrant from the village of Immekeppel, Prussia, was a butcher and ran a local meat market. Her mother, Emma Levitre Zervas, was born in Saint-Théodore-d'Acton, Quebec.
Anna was raised as part of a large family which attended St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Moorhead, where her father was the choir director and a member of the Knights of Columbus. At the time, the parochial school from St. Mary's was looked after by priests and nuns of the Benedictine Order. According to Father Alfred Mayer, who was then Pastor of St. Mary's,
"She sought only to please God and do His Holy Will in all things, and thence labored but for God's honor and glory. She sought to please God by an ardent desire and an earnest will to acquire virtue and perfection, a total renunciation and forgetfullness of the world and its vanities, and an invincible fortitude in her sufferings... It was during the summer vacation of 1915 that she one day called on me and expressed to me her desire of going to the convent at St. Joseph and becoming a sister. I told her that I thought she had a religious vocation and advised her to carry out her holy design. She seemed to be so convinced of her religious vocation that she expressed no doubts or fears regarding it. After I had spoken some words to of encouragement and explained to her, in short, the excellence of the religious state, she left happy and contented."
Hubert and Emma Zervas were reportedly very reluctant to part with their daughter at such a young age. Father Alfred, however, advised them, "Don't put anything in her way; she is not too young to give herself to God." Hubert Zervas wrote several years later that he and his wife had then "gladly consented to Him from Whom they had received her."
Anna entered Saint Benedict's Monastery as a postulant in 1915 and entered the novitiate in 1918. She would be remembered as a quiet and unasumming nun who was fond of reading The Following of Christ by Geert Groote.
"This was the day which Anna had so eagerly awaited; in a simple, beautiful ceremony, she exchanged an elegant bridal gown for the severe religious habit. Her expression of happiness upon returning from the sacutary that day was termed 'angelic' by one eyewitness. A notable incident occurred after this ceremony. Anna rushed to tell her parents her new religious name, Sister Mary Annella. Her mother remarked, not unkindly, 'But there is no Saint Annella,' to which Sister Annella, concealing her slight disappointment at this reaction to the name by which she would henceforth be known, replied, 'Then I shall have to be the first one!'"
She took her final vows in 1922 and was assigned as a music teacher and organist to St. Mary's Convent in Bismarck, North Dakota.
During the summer of 1923, Sister Annella noticed a small reddish brown patch on her arm which itched terribly. Despite attempts to quietly bear the disease, the spreading rash soon proved impossible to conceal and soon covered the majority of her body. Eventually, dermatologists at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed her with Pityriasis rubra pilaris.
Decline and Death
In 1924, Hubert and Emma Zervas received the permission of Mother Louise Walz, the Abbess of St. Benedict's, to care for their daughter at home. This in no way altered her status as a religious sister, as the Abbess remained carefully informed of Sister Annella's condition. After a brief remission of her symptoms, the disease returned full force in the summer of 1926. As a novena was offered for her at Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna, New York, Sister Annella's condition seemed to enter its final phase. According to her father,
"Lying on her left side, her head slightly bent forward, her eyes partly open, her mouth... drawn in a faint smile, her knees bent, the entire form presenting a picture like the stations where Our Lord lies prostrate under the cross, Sister Annella peacefully breathed her last. Death occurred at 3:15 AM on the Vigil of the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saturday, August 16, 1926. Sister Annella had desired to die before Our Lady's feast, God willing. Our Lord had granted her wish."After a Roman Catholic requiem mass, her remains were transported to St. Benedict's and buried in the convent cemetery.
According to a 1989 newspaper article,
"Within seven months of her burial at St. Benedict's Convent, Bishop Joseph Busch was hearing rumors of cures and favors granted through Sister Annella's intercession. He asked Father Alexius Hoffmann, OSB, St. John's Abbey, to collect information on "the circumstances of her sickness and death and the origin and progress of the cultus, if any, in her regard and any evidences there may be of miraculous intervention through her intercession." In April, 1927, Father Alexius reported to Bishop Busch that five cures had been reported. He also submitted a biographical sketch written by Sister Annella's parents. While there is no evidence that Bishop Busch took further steps in the case, devotion to Sister Annella spread through the efforts of her father and a priest from St. John's Abbey, Father Joseph Kreuter, O.S.B. While the policy of St. Benedict's Convent was to not promote canonization procedures for one of its own members, the sisters fulfilled requests for relics, memorial cards, and biographies.
According to Dr. James Kritzeck,
"A short life scetch of Sister Annella's life was written ...by the Reverend Joseph Kreuter, O.S.B., entitled An Apostle of Suffering in Our Day. This account first appeared in the Josephinum Weekly, published at that time in Columbus, Ohio, and a German translation, made by the author himself, appeared in Der Wanderer, a German Catholic weekly published in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The Grail, a monthly magazine of the Benedictine Abbey at Saint Meinrad, Indiana, reprinted the English article in July, 1928, and, to satisfy a large number of requests for copies, published it in booklet form in 1931. A German booklet, reprinted from Der Wanderer, was issued some time later, and there were also Dutch and Polish translations. A translation into Singhalese, after appearing in a Catholic paper in Ceylon, appeared in booklet form. A French translation, of the same sketch, with a preface by the Very Rev. Canon Cyrille Labrecque of Quebec, was published by the Librairie d'Action Catholique in Quebec in 1945. A second edition of the English booklet, published by Saint John's Abbey Press, followed in 1946.
According to the Visitor, the official newspaper of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saint Cloud,
"...While the St. Paul Daily News exaggerated when it reported that "thousands" were visiting her grave, there were some pilgrims to the convent cemetery, and many of them took a handful of dirt from Sister Annella's grave for a souvenir. Interest in Sister Annella dwindled during the 1960s, but she still has some fans. At least one of them, no one seems to know who, puts flowers on her grave regularly.
According to "The Record," a newspaper published by the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University,
"Students who need a shoulder to cry on or a little advice can visit the St. Ben’s monastic graveyard. They may be fortunate enough to be greeted by the ghost of S. Annella Zervas. S. Annella belonged to the monastic community at St. Ben’s in the early 1900s. She was believed to be “very holy,” S. Owen said, and she was blessed with the ability to cure physical illness and ease restless minds. As the legend goes, her mother’s finger was infected and needed to be amputated, until she touched S. Annella’s neck. A few days later, any sign of disease vanished. Despite the young sister’s death in 1922 [sic](+), S. Annella has not left St. Ben’s. Her ghost is said to be seen in the graveyard from time to time as she counsels distressed Bennies as they pass by. Want to pay her a visit? If you’re lucky, you may see the little white cloud that hangs over her grave on some nights, announcing her presence."
- "Resign yourself to the Holy Will of Jesus, our Heavenly Spouse, Whose infinite love will not permit Him to forsake those who place their hope and their trust always in him... Haven't we a wondrous lot to be thankful for! God has surely shown us every special favor and we must give all we can in return." 
- "The time when I feel most confidence in prayer [is] after Holy Communion, when Jesus is so close that He hears the gentlest whispers and knows the unuttered prayers, and at the Elevation of the Mass, when Christ prays for us Himself... I have known from experience that what we may ask for at these times we may be sure God has heard, and will grant what He sees best."
- "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'"
- King, Brendan D., "The Apostle of Suffering: The Life and Death of Minnesota's Un-Canonized Saint," Catholic Family News, December 2008, pages 1, 23–26.
- Kreuter, O.S.B., Very Reverend Joseph, "Sister M. Annella Zervas, O.S.B.; An Apostle of Suffering in Our Day," St. Meinrad Archabbey, 1928.
- Kritzeck, James, "Ticket for Eternity: The Life of Sister Annella Zervas, O.S.B.," Saint John's University [disambiguation needed] Press, 1957.
- ↑ Kritzeck, Ticket for Eternity, page 19.
- ↑ Ibid, page 19.
- ↑ Ibid, pages 19–20.
- ↑ Dr. James Kritzeck, Ticket for Eternity," page 30.
- ↑ Kritzeck, Ticket for Eternity, page 96.
- ↑ "Sister Annella: The Closest We've Come to Having a Saint," Saint Cloud Visitor, February 9, 1989, page 18.
- ↑ Kritzeck, Ticket for Eternity, pages 101–102.
- ↑ St. Cloud Visitor, February 9, 1989, page 18.
- ↑ Saint John's University Record, October 31, 2008.
- ↑ James Kritzeck, "Ticket for Eternity", page 45.
- ↑ Ibid, page 46.
- ↑ Kreuter, "An Apostle of Suffering in Our Day," page 7.
- ↑ Kritzeck, page 87.
- ↑ Kritzeck, page 70.