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1. A Vision Fulfilled
Ten thousand people came seeking not just a miracle. They came in search of their miracle.
On March 13, 2005, they came to Garﬁeld Heights, Ohio, to Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church by private ambulance, in motorized lift vans, and in sedans displaying handicapped hangtags. They came alone and they came with families. They walked with heads held high and they hobbled through the parking lot on crutches. They stood in Disney World–long lines that snaked across a network of sidewalks crisscrossing the parish campus. They came looking for hope. They came looking for healing. At twenty-one degrees and with a piercing wind blowing, many would later recall the desperation of the day wrapped in a memory of brittle cold.
Constructed in the 1950s, the Romanesque church seats eight hundred beneath her graceful arches and towering columns. Painted murals and stained-glass windows depict St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus and the primacy of St. Peter, among other images. As caretakers pushed loved ones up the aisles, some in wheelchairs, some on hospital gurneys, hymns were being played by the pipe organist in the loft above. Canes, crutches, and walkers could be seen throughout the dense gathering, hard evidence of injuries, disease, or just the physical deterioration of old age. In the pews, bald children pressed close to their parents.
People entered the church ﬁlled with a mixture of faith and skepticism, trust and fear, acceptance and anger. They braved the frigid weather and then waited many hours inside, lured by a glimmer of hope that they might be released from the pain in their bodies and the suffering in their questioning souls. They came because they had heard that Dr. Issam Nemeh would lay his hands on each one of them, one person at a time, and say a prayer that each would be healed.
For Dr. Nemeh, this day was the culmination of years of hard work and sacriﬁce. Over the course of two decades he had laid the foundation for this moment by working as an anesthesiologist who sat beside his recovering patients in hushed hospital rooms, and then as an acupuncture practitioner in private practice. When Issam was ﬁfteen years old he had a vision that he would share his gift of faith with thousands, but ﬁrst he would have to form a solid base for this ministry with a medical practice.
Dr. Nemeh was a physician licensed by the State Medical Board of Ohio with specialties in anesthesiology and general surgery but switched midcareer to the practice of Meridian Regulatory Acupuncture. He says he made the career change in response to a message from God that said this new practice would give him time to work with people one on one. Indeed, patients have reported treatment sessions lasting one, two, and sometimes even three hours.
Many patients came to the doctor in a last-ditch effort, after having been told by mainstream medicine there was noth
ing more that could be done to alleviate their pain, treat their cancer, heal their handicaps, or save their lives. All the while the doctor was bent over his patients administering acupuncture, he prayed. Many patients received dramatic healings: tumors disappeared; multiple sclerosis melted away; vision returned to the blind and hearing to the deaf; migraines vanished; clinical depression was lifted; nerves were regenerated; learning disabilities vaporized; people relegated to wheelchairs stood and walked for the ﬁrst time in years.
Through the years, when patients were restored to health after medical science had said cures were impossible, they wanted to share their stories with the media. Dr. Nemeh redirected them. He requested that they spread the word only to the sick and suffering. In the meantime, he waited for a sign from God that it was time to bring the praying from behind the closed doors of his practice out into the public forum.
Dr. Nemeh’s acupuncture practice grew by means of wordof-mouth referrals from his patients. A nun living in Parma, Ohio, began hearing about Dr. Nemeh from people who came to her chapel to worship at her Wednesday night healing Masses. This feisty sixty-six-year-old born in County Mayo, Ireland, would herself become a patient. After the doctor helped Sister Monica Marie Navin, she proposed that Dr. Nemeh participate in celebrating her miracle with a Mass of Thanksgiving, after which he would pray over seventy-ﬁve invited guests, one at a time. And so it began.
Like a far-off stampede that is felt and heard before it is seen, word of the doctor’s gift spread from the whispers of his patients, who told stories of their healings to loved ones and friends. One of those who caught word of what was going on was Emmy Award–winning Cleveland News Channel 5’s lead anchor Ted Henry. He heard the rumblings, investigated, and in November 2004 broke the story of this quiet man whose touch was sought by many.
Intrigued by his initial investigation and the testimonials of astonishing cures coming from people from so many walks of life, Henry continued his research. He developed an eleven-part report that began airing on Cleveland’s News Channel 5 on February 20, 2005. WEWS TV 5 cameras had ﬁlmed Cleveland Bishop Anthony M. Pilla celebrating a healing service liturgy at St. Mary’s Chapel on the campus of St. Ignatius High School, and some weeks later Bishop Pilla granted Henry an interview in which he probed the bishop on the Catholic Church’s ofﬁcial stance on miracles. In that interview Bishop Pilla explained, “It’s clear in Catholic teaching that miracles are possible—that healing can take place. This is not just magic. We pray to God and then patiently and humbly we wait for God’s response, which is always what’s best for us.”
Henry’s report included video footage of Dr. Nemeh giving a lecture at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and praying at public healing services. Viewers did not see a bombastic, aggressive showman preaching and preening onstage before a congregation. What they saw was a quiet, digniﬁed man praying in an atmosphere of solemn decorum, a gentleman in every sense of the word. In his interview, when Henry asked Bishop Pilla why he had chosen to sanction the doctor’s work by ofﬁciating at the St. Mary’s healing service, Bishop Pilla offered commentary on the style and motives of both Dr. Nemeh and his wife, Kathy. He said, “They’re not looking for any sensationalism. They’re not looking for any personal reward or praise or adulation. They’re just doing this as part of their faith commitment, their belief that God can heal and that every person can be an instrument of that healing.”
At the end of Ted Henry’s nightly reports, TV 5 ﬂashed a banner across the television screen detailing information about the next scheduled public healing service to be held immediately following the noon Mass on March 13 at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Garﬁeld Heights. City police, ﬁre officials, and church personnel braced for a crowd they estimated would be somewhere between three thousand and four thousand people. Their estimate was off by as many as seven thousand.
Two weeks before the healing service, Father Ted Marszal, pastor at Sts. Peter and Paul, and the parish’s lead event coordinator, retired police ofﬁcer Al Strnad, met with Kathy Nemeh and three of her volunteers to try to anticipate the needs of a crowd four to five times the capacity of the church, and to develop strategies to handle those needs. Diane Sloven-ski, the parish secretary, missed most of the dialogue because they had installed a new line to handle the deluge of calls requesting admission to the healing service, and that new phone never stopped ringing. Elaborate preparations were made for conducting the flow of traffic, including the establishment of a parking lot traffic control team. Maps giving directions to ten off-site parking facilities and area restaurants were printed so that they could be distributed to drivers who would have to be redirected from the church parking lot after it ﬁlled up. Homeowners and businesses in the neighborhood were alerted, and most everyone offered whatever parking facilities were at their disposal. Al conducted two instructional sessions to train 250 parishioners who volunteered for one-hour shifts. Yet when the day came, once the volunteers arrived at their posts many of them did not want to leave and go home. They were motivated by an overwhelming desire to serve. They also wanted to remain as long as possible in what they were experiencing as an intensely spiritual atmosphere. So Al then had to struggle with how to place these dozens of extra people into already overcrowded conditions.
Sts. Peter and Paul staff salted the sidewalks; overstocked the restrooms with paper towels, toilet paper, and cleaning supplies; and were poised to put in some overtime. They also prepared the school activity center, a combination athletics facility and social hall located across the courtyard from the church, by setting up ﬁve hundred folding chairs and a small but pretty altar on the stage in this cavernous room. Bishop Roger W. Gries was recruited to celebrate Mass in this makeshift chapel at noon. Throughout the day the building would provide shelter from the cold as people waited for space in the church pews to become available. Once inside the church, everyone would settle in for another long wait. Priests and chaplains from other parishes offered the sacrament of the anointing of the sick; they would go through several quarts of holy oil before the day ended.
The Nemehs had accepted an offer of assistance from Brecksville ﬁreﬁghter Lieutenant Patrick Coleman, who had received an instantaneous healing of an untreatable digestive disorder after a prayer from Dr. Nemeh at a service back in 2003. Kathy placed Patrick in charge of crowd control. He was the emissary and troubleshooter on behalf of the Nemeh ministry, the parallel of Al Strnad at Sts. Peter and Paul.
The Garﬁeld Heights chief of police and ﬁre chief both planned to be on-site the entire day. To everyone’s credit, preparations were so thorough the day would end without a single incident.
On the morning of the event, choppers hovered in the air and fed Cleveland’s local news stations video of a constant crawl of trafﬁc on the highway and lines of people streaming toward the church. Every Cleveland television station planted a live truck in the church parking lot, and reporters went live at each broadcast. When the six o’clock news announced that the doctor was still praying, Patrick faced a fresh onslaught of vehicles trying to ﬁnd places to park.
After the numbered tickets had been collected and the trafﬁc patterns analyzed from helicopter videotape, the Garﬁeld Heights Police Department provided an estimate of how many people had made a pilgrimage to Sts. Peter and Paul Church that day. Everyone was astonished to learn that not three or four thousand but more than ten thousand people had descended upon the Garﬁeld Heights parish.
Everyone, that is, but Dr. Nemeh. For him it was all simply part of God’s plan.