Decades after he created the famed hospital for the ill and dying in Italy, St. Pio’s hope of a worldwide health care network coming to life in Howell
HOWELL — On a 40-acre plot of land in Howell, in the Diocese of Lansing, 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, the saint better known as Padre Pio founded “Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza,” or the “Home for the Relief of Suffering,” in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy. The Casa is a world-renowned Catholic international research hospital serving the poor and destitute, and today houses up to 1,000 patients.
Of everything he did on earth, Padre Pio once said, this was the most important. It was his dream the project would one day expand and reach 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 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 saint’s original friary church.
Though the idea has been in the hearts and minds of many for decades, the physical establishment of the campus began when Bishop Boyea donated a 40-acre plot of land for the cause.
While the land remains empty now with the exception of a small outdoor grotto with a mural dedicated to St. Pio, in the years ahead, it will hold not only a hospital, but an adoration chapel, a Catholic medical school and the “Terri Schiavo Home for the Brain Injured,” a rehab center for those with severe brain injuries.
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, began his own career as a hospital administrator. Over time, he witnessed health care facilities transition from being congregationally run to more corporate structures, leaving less room for the Catholic health care principles that prioritized patient care over profit.
“I always had in my heart that there must be a better way — a way to get back to our roots in faithful Catholic health care delivery,” Palazzolo told Detroit Catholic.
Somewhere along the way, Palazzolo discovered St. Pio and formed a devotion to him. As he spent time reading about the holy man and his legacy, he learned about the Home for the Relief of Suffering.
While the hospital treats bodily ailments, St. Pio’s main focus was to see the “wretched and suffering Jesus” in each patient. The hospital would provide a dual healing ministry: both in physical, medicinal care, and in the spiritual.
“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 said St. Pio had a saying: “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, until one day he experienced a direct inspiration from Padre Pio himself.
Padre Pio simply directed Palazzolo: “It is time.”
Palazzolo said a quote from Dr. Guglielmo Sangguinetti, St. Pio’s first director of implementation of the Casa back in 1950, further solidified his resolve:
“The Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza should therefore be the first link in a great chain. It should be the model for many other, innumerable Casa’s with the same name and above all the same spirit, which must bring love to all of humanity,” Dr. Sangguinetti said, “a program which would make us tremble with awe if it was not inspired by God who is above all love!”
Palazzolo’s long discernment process began with prayer and the guidance of a spiritual director. His spiritual director assured him that if Padre Pio and the Holy Spirit were truly behind the idea, then it would come to fruition.
Palazzolo began by presenting his idea to the leadership at the original Casa in Italy in 2000, and by 2009, Catholic Healthcare International had signed a collaboration agreement with permissions from the Casa and the Vatican, which oversees the running of the hospital.
Over the next 10 years, 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; Cardinal Raymond Burke; and Bobby Schindler, the brother of Terri Schiavo and president of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, in order to carry out St. Pio’s vision.
“We want to prove to the Catholic Church in America and to the Catholic health care systems and everybody that you can indeed build a hospital for the right reasons, operate for the right reasons and have it work,” Palazzolo said.
The Howell campus is a massive undertaking and will take years to complete, but Palazzolo and his team have it broken down into phases.
Before Padre Pio did anything, he insisted that the success of the Casa would be built on a foundation of prayer, Palazzolo said. In the 1950s, Padre Pio established a network of international prayer groups to support the development of the original Casa, and today, 3,500 such Padre Pio prayer groups exist worldwide.
As part of this network, 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,” Palazzolo said.
The first phase of the project — and the first physical structures to be erected — will be the spiritual components: an outdoor grotto, which was dedicated on the 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.
The hope is to break ground on the adoration chapel on May 25, 2021, Padre Pio’s birthday, Palazzolo said.
Terri Schiavo Home for the Brain-Injured
The second phase will begin with the development of the Terri Schiavo Home for the Brain Injured. That project will proceed in collaboration with Trinity Health, beginning as a unit at a Trinity Health facility in Ann Arbor housing up to five patients at a time, with the hope that it will eventually reside on the Howell campus.
The center is being established with the backing of Schiavo’s brother, Bobby Schindler, who began advocating for the rights of people who are brain-injured following his family’s legal fight in 2000 to keep Schiavo alive and get her the rehabilitation therapies she needed. Schiavo was removed from a feeding tube and hydration in 2005 and passed away.
“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.”
Michigan has seen its own battles in recent years, with several high-profile cases reaching the news involving patients on life support, including a University of Detroit Jesuit student who died in January after his family’s legal fight reached federal court.
When Schindler was invited to participate in the Casa USA project, he jumped at the opportunity to establish such a facility in memory of his sister.
“We need to change the way we think and treat people with brain injuries, as there are these prejudices that exist,” Schindler said. “Much of the decision-making power is with administrators, insurance companies and physicians who are able to make decisions that are contrary to what the family might want for their loved one.”
Schindler cited advancements in therapies and treatments for those with brain injuries as a reason for hope for such families, while decrying the hasty decisions that might lead to a patient’s removal from life support.
“You have a culture going in two different directions: on one hand, you see more and more money going into (studying) the mysteries of the brain, and at the same time we are making it easier to end their lives,” Schindler said.
School for the Relief of Suffering
In many ways, the Casa USA project will help bridge the gaps in research and physician care that Schindler has seen when it comes to patients like his sister with the establishment of a School for the Relief of Suffering Medical School.
While the campus one day will host both a hospital and medical school, the school first will be founded in collaboration with an existing, fully accredited medical school in order to take advantage of existing facilities, faculty and training, thereby fast-tracking its creation, 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 (Pope St. Paul VI’s) Humane Vitae, (Pope 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.
“We do need to have a Catholic public policy center that deals with health care,” O’Dea said. “We have really been lacking in that area in the Church. The Catholic Church was not really engaged as our religious liberty was being threatened. There still needs to be a lot more education from a Catholic point of view in public policy.”
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.
While the timeline for phase three, which would involve the construction of the hospital and medical school, is not yet set, Bishop Boyea said he envisions the site of the Casa USA project becoming a place of pilgrimage, prayer and hope.
The implications of the building of Casa USA are huge and far-reaching, but that’s exactly the impact St. Pio wanted, Bishop Boyea said.
“I have already seen a large number of folks praying to Padre Pio,” said Bishop Boyea, whose diocese recently hosted a relic tour of the great Italian saint. “Already, devotion to him has increased because of this project, and there have been some Padre Pio groups that have been set up in the diocese. This has become a spiritual enrichment, and I think that is in itself is always a great blessing.
“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.”
To learn more about the Casa USA project, which seeks to bring St. Padre Pio’s vision of a “Home for the Relief of Suffering” to the United States, visit the website for Catholic Healthcare International.