On a 40-acre plot of land in Howell, in the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan, stands the humble foundation for the establishment of a worldwide network of health care facilities that St. Pio of Pietrelcina set in motion nearly 70 years ago.

In 1956, Padre Pio, as he is best known, founded Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza, or Home for the Relief of Suffering, in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy. The world-renowned Catholic international research hospital serves the poor and destitute, and today houses up to 1,000 patients.

Padre Pio once said this was the most important thing he did. His dream was the project would one day expand to other parts of the world.

That day has now come.

Thanks to the vision, faithfulness and tenacity of several Catholic health care organizations, individuals and the patronage of Lansing Bishop Earl A. Boyea, the Howell project, known as "Casa USA," seeks to duplicate St. Pio's hospital complex for the first time outside of Italy, including an exact replica of the great Capuchin Franciscan saint's original friary church.

The idea has been in the hearts and minds of many for decades, but efforts to establish a campus began when Bishop Boyea donated the land.

Right now only a small outdoor grotto with a mural dedicated to St. Pio sits on the land, but in the years ahead, there will be a hospital, an adoration chapel, a Catholic medical school and a rehab center named the Terri Schiavo Home for the Brain Injured.

Well before Bishop Boyea donated the land, Padre Pio's vision took hold in the heart of one man who had become disillusioned by the state of Catholic medical care throughout the world.

"The unfortunate thing is that over time, (some hospitals) lose the focus on the mission and vision that got them to where they were in the first place," said Jere D. Palazzolo, director, chairman and president of Catholic Healthcare International, the Missouri-based nonprofit sponsoring the ambitious project. "There was a lot of disillusionment when this was first going on, as hospitals changed to focusing on finances more than they did mission."

Palazzolo, who also founded Marian Medical Services, had a career as a hospital administrator. Over time, he witnessed health care facilities transition from being run by religious congregations to having more corporate structures, leaving less room for the Catholic health care principles that prioritized patient care over profit.

He wanted to find "a way to get back to our roots in faithful Catholic health care delivery," he told Detroit Catholic, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

Somewhere along the way, Palazzolo discovered St. Pio and formed a devotion to him -- and learned about the Home for the Relief of Suffering.

"Padre Pio's whole focus was the redemptive value of suffering," Palazzolo said. "You can't always make someone well, but you can help them relieve their suffering and find peace. My theory always has been that God is working on every single patient in a hospital as they are working on a crisis in their life.

"No one wants to be in a hospital; you have a problem if you are in a hospital. And ultimately, those things are God's way of talking to people."

Palazzolo quoted a saying of St. Pio's: "More people have lost their faith asking the question 'Why?' instead of 'What?'"

"Hospitals need to be aware of this question so when they deal with patients, they need to be considering, 'What is God doing?'" Palazzolo said. "So, if you have a 500-bed hospital, you have an incubator of 500 patients whom God is working on in a very big way.

"If all you do in pastoral care is basically sit down and pray with patients and give them Communion from time to time, that's awesome, and they need that, but they also need someone to sit down and help them figure out what God is trying to say to them in their life."

The more Palazzolo read, the more inspired he became. Then he experienced a direct inspiration from the saint: "It is time."

Palazzolo assembled a team of Catholic health care and church leaders, including Mike O'Dea, founder, board president and emeritus executive director for the Troy-based Christ Medicus Foundation; U.S. Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, a Vatican official; and Bobby Schindler, the brother of Terri Schiavo and president of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network.

They broke down the project into phases.

Before Padre Pio did anything, he insisted Casa Sollievo's success would be built on a foundation of prayer, Palazzolo said. In the 1950s, Padre Pio established a network of international prayer groups to support its development, and today, 3,500 such Padre Pio prayer groups exist worldwide.

Palazzolo and his team established three Padre Pio prayer groups in southern Michigan, as well as an international adoration program.

"We have almost 300 people around the world praying for an hour a week in front of the Eucharist for the work that we are doing," he said.

In the project's first phase, the first physical structures to be erected will be the spiritual components:

-- An outdoor grotto, which was dedicated on the 52nd anniversary of Padre Pio's death, Sept. 23, 2020.

-- A statue that replicates the experience of Padre Pio receiving the stigmata (the visible wounds of Christ).

-- And, eventually, an adoration chapel that will be a replica of the Madonna della Grazie (Our Lady of Grace) chapel in the Capuchin friary church of San Giovanni Rotondo, where Padre Pio lived most of his life.

Palazzolo hopes to break ground on the adoration chapel May 25, Padre Pio's birthday.

The second phase will begin with the development of the Terri Schiavo Home for the Brain Injured in collaboration with Trinity Health. It will begin as a unit at a Trinity Health facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan, housing up to five patients at a time. Eventually it is hoped it will reside on the Howell campus.

Schindler, Schiavo's brother, began advocating for the rights of people who are brain-injured following his family's legal fight in 2000 to keep Schiavo on artificial nutrition and hydration and get her the rehabilitation therapies she needed.

Schiavo's feeding tube was removed by court order March 18, 2005, and she died 13 days later.

"My family has for a long time recognized the need to better serve people with brain injuries," Schindler told Detroit Catholic. "Speaking with other families in similar situations, they are not given the time, rehabilitation and therapies they need to see if they can recover and the care they need to continue to recover."

The Casa USA project also will establish the Relief of Suffering Medical School. It will be founded in collaboration with an existing, fully accredited medical school in order to take advantage of existing facilities, faculty and training, Palazzolo said.

"We hope to be able to add into the medical school curriculum those components that will truly help physicians practice as Catholics in their communities, such as (St. Paul VI's) 'Humane Vitae,' (St. John Paul II's) 'theology of the body,' and the theology of life and suffering," Palazzolo said.

The campus also plans to house a public policy institute as part of the medical school with the guidance of the Christ Medicus Foundation, leaders in developing legislation to protect Catholic ideals and morals in health care.

While the physical building of the school might be one of the last pieces to fall into place, its establishment is what most intrigued Bishop Boyea when he was first presented with the proposal.

"What intrigues me the most is actually building a Catholic medical school, where Catholic (students) who, at other schools, might have been feeling pressured into engaging in certain medical procedures that they would rather not, find that not to be the case here," Bishop Boyea told Detroit Catholic.

He envisions the site of the Casa USA project becoming a place of pilgrimage, prayer and hope.

"Padre Pio is a great intercessor for healing," Bishop Boyea said. "I think there is a lot of potential for people to find great blessings in this encounter with him and in this shrine to him."