Irving “Francis” Houle was a Michigan father of five known for his holy life. He appeared to bear the stigmata, a physical manifestation of the wounds of Jesus Christ, and said he experienced the Passion and visions of Jesus and Mary.
Now the Diocese of Marquette is asking whether he was a saint.
For Gale Houle, his wife of more than 60 years, he was also her husband.
“Irving is my saint, and this is well deserved,” she said, speaking to the U.P. Catholic newspaper about the inquiry into his canonization.
“He was a husband and father and a grandfather. I love him with all my heart,” she continued, “But some days he just wasn’t there!”
In November 2018, Bishop John Doerfler of Marquette, Michigan opened the cause of canonization for Servant of God Irving C. Houle, who passed away Jan. 3, 2009 at the age of 83.
Houle believed he first saw Jesus when he was a young child, but didn’t recognize him at the time. He suffered near-fatal injuries in a fall from a horse, and his doctor said he was too weak for surgery.
A nun in the family encouraged prayers for him, and the next morning new X-rays showed no evidence of severe injuries. Young Irving told his mother a man in white robes and upraised hand had been standing by his crib in the night, and a bishop told his parents this figure must have been Jesus, the National Catholic Register’s Joseph Pronechen said in a blog post.
Houle graduated from high school in 1944. He served in the U.S. Army for two years in Europe and the Middle East, then worked at a shoe store and a Montgomery Ward department store before becoming a cleaning supplies salesman. He then served as a plant manager for a machinery manufacturer.
He and his family were parishioners at St. Joseph and St. Patrick Church in Escabana, a city of over 12,000 on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In addition to his five children, he had seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
“He was a joker,” his wife Gail said. “He was a little tease; he was a lot of fun. The kids miss him terribly.”
Irving Houle said he received his mission in visions from Jesus and Mary: to suffer the Passion every night to save sinners and to bring people back to confession and to the Eucharist.
He began a healing ministry, often in churches after Mass. He would pray and place his hands on people’s heads. His travels took him across Michigan, to South Dakota and, one time, to Fatima. He never took payment for the healings.
Though the healings were often spiritual, rather than physical in nature, some people reported immediate physical cures as well.
He prayed over one wheelchair-bound woman, a cancer patient given only four months to live. Five months later she came to him, walking, reporting that she was free of cancer. An eight-year-old boy suffering leukemia also reported healing after his prayers.
Witnesses, including his wife Gail, said Houle first received the stigmata in 1993, at the age of 67.
“I didn’t notice any real changes in him before it happened,” she said.
On Holy Thursday of that year, he felt sick and went home to lay on the couch after Adoration at the parish church.
“That night, he said his hands hurt,” Gail said. “I looked but there was nothing. I asked him if his arms hurt too, but he said no. Later, he said his head hurt.”
On Good Friday, he stayed home, an unusual action for the devout churchgoer. This continued through Easter.
“After Easter, he had red spots the size of dimes on his hands. He said they hurt, but didn’t want to discuss it.”
Deacon Terry Saunders told the U.P. Catholic he saw Howe immediately after Easter when the layman brought Holy Communion to him.
“He told me of the pain in his hands and when the marks appeared. He was nervous about it,” Saunders said. “Over time, I saw his hands swell, like they’d do if you were hit with something. His hands split open, and after that, he had open wounds sometimes as big as a quarter or half dollar. He wore bandages on the back of his hands for the rest of his life, and bands like sweatbands around them if he was bleeding.”
Gail said they struggled in dealing with the stigmata.
Doctors, priests, bishops and cardinals had examined his wounds, but they did not know what was happening.
Houle said he suffered the Passion and had visions every night, with the pain beginning at 12:30 a.m. and lasting 35 minutes. He would then have visions until 2:30 or 3 a.m., he told Father Robert J. Fox in an interview.
His wife Gail never witnessed this part of her husband’s life, though several people including his brother did. She believed that her habit of falling asleep quickly was God’s way of shielding her.
In one May 1993 vision, the Virgin Mary told him: “My beloved Son: I come to you this night to tell you how much your prayers and suffering have meant to my Son and me. Your suffering has been long, my child. You have pleased my Son and me. We will be close to you. The graces have been given to you. Satan is trying to cause confusion among you. But I tell you, he will not succeed…”
Houle said he would feel intense pain, at times feeling as if he were being torn apart. During this time God would show him who and what he was suffering for, like civil wars, abortion, homelessness, murders, and abused women and children.
He saw the people for whom he suffered, but not their names. He would say “it usually goes back to the sins of the flesh,” according to the National Catholic Register blog post.
Saunders said that all of Houle’s suffering was “for the conversion of sinners.”
Bishop Doerfler has appointed Dr. Andrea Ambrosi, a priest from Rome, as postulator of Houle’s cause. Ambrosi is involved in overseeing other canonization causes, including that of the American archbishop and television personality Ven. Fulton J. Sheen.
At its June meeting, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will review the cause of Houle’s canonization and give its opinion on whether it should move forward. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints will then review the case to determine if he led a life of heroic virtue. Should the congregation and the Pope approve, he will then be given the title “venerable.”
He could be beatified following sufficient proof of one miracle, and canonized upon sufficient proof of another miracle.
In 2005, Father Robert J. Fox published a book about Houle under the title “A Man Called Francis,” calling him “Francis” to protect his identity.
Father Fox was an observer of Houle’s sufferings and estimated that Houle prayed over 200,000 people. The priest founded the Fatima Family Apostolate and retired near the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama. In 2003, he hosted Houle on his EWTN radio show “Reclaiming Your Children for the Catholic Faith.”
The Irving C. “Francis” Houle Association has been formed to promote Houle’s canonization cause and to help raise funds for expenses, including for the work of Ambrosi and others. It currently has between 100 and 150 members.
Bishop Doerfler named Deacon Terry Saunders as its president and moderator.