There is a calculus to family histories that goes something like this: time plus memories, divided by facts, equals family lore.
Events tend to garner more import and more facts with age, so it is always a delicate thing to recall something that has been handed down from others. It is especially important to be as accurate as possible when what is being recalled has to do with something miraculous.
It is easy to stipulate “little” miracles we take for granted that occur on a daily basis. The mere everyday fact that the sun and the moon are in the exact positions in the universe necessary for life on earth to exist is one such mysterious and immutable miracle. But when God really wants to get our attention, he is not averse to interceding in a more stupendous manner. “Big” miracles happen on a regular basis as well.
When our mom was in the grasp of advanced Alzheimer’s disease, we were at a loss to find a place where she might get the round-the-clock care she needed. We found Santa Teresita in Duarte, run by the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles.
I knew immediately it was a special place. And it was a place where Father John Houle, SJ, resided.
This is where the fog of family history comes in. What I know for sure is that soon after Father Houle’s release from imprisonment at the hands of the Communist Chinese in the 1950s, he went back to work in Los Angeles and his ministry intersected with that of our uncle, Father John L. Brennan.
The story goes that Father Houle rehabilitated himself in the same rectory where our uncle was living. I cannot confirm that, but when I met Father Houle at Santa Teresita, he seemed to know a lot about my then late uncle. I can confirm that when my sister worked in the office of Incarnation Church in Glendale, Father Houle would come to help out, and he would recount more stories about our uncle and our family that he had learned years before I was even born.
And there he was at Santa Teresita. He still suffered from the lifelong side effects of torture from his time of imprisonment, but I also learned that Father Houle should not have even been alive when our paths eventually crossed.
It has been chronicled in better detail elsewhere, but the short version was that in 1990 Father Houle was suffering from what doctors determined was a fatal case of pulmonary fibrosis. He was given hours to live. A priest brought a relic of then-Bl. Claude la Colombiere and he, along with the sisters at Santa Teresita, prayed for intercession. The next morning there was no evidence of the lung disease, and Father Houle’s miracle was part of the beatification for the now-St. Claude la Colombiere.
I may not have been present when the miracle that saved Father Houle’s life took place, but for the grace of God I was privileged to know this remarkable man for the years he was a resident at Santa Teresita and our mother was in the tender care of the Carmelites. I would drop into his room either on my way from or to visit my mother. He always asked how she was doing and asked about the family. We talked about no great theological point, but just being in his presence was miracle enough.
I have a hard time not resenting the guy who cuts me off on the 405 freeway. Father Houle demonstrated not an ounce of resentment or hate toward his torturers in China who had broken his body and left him with a lifetime of pain. For the all too brief time I had to know Father Houle, he never complained about anything and had a supernatural ability to devise joy. And I have never met another person so completely willing to bring his pain and disappointment to the foot of the cross and leave them there.
Whether Father Houle himself becomes an official saint in the eyes of the Church is unknowable, but probably unlikely. But if the definition of a saint includes loving one’s enemies, being charitable to all, and living life as Christ instructed us, then I do not see how Father Houle is not a saint already. I count myself and my family blessed undeservedly again with having known him, and having been so close to a man who was so close to God.