Sister Mary Annella Zervas, Servant of God (born April 7, 1900, Moorhead, Minnesota – died August 14, 1926, Moorhead, Minnesota) was an American Benedictine nun who died after a three-year battle with the skin disease Pityriasis rubra pilaris. Prior to the 1960s, Sister Annella's grave in St. Joseph, Minnesota was considered a place of pilgrimage.
Anna Cordelia Zervas was born in Moorhead, Minnesota. Her father, Hubert Zervas, an immigrant from the village of Immekeppel, in the German Empire, was a butcher and ran a local meat market. Her mother, Emma Levitre Zervas, was born in Saint-Theodore-d'Acton, Quebec.
Anna was raised as part of a large family which attended St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Moorhead, where her father was the choir director and a member of the Knights of Columbus. At the time, the parochial school from St. Mary's was looked after by priests and nuns of the Benedictine Order. According to Father Alfred Mayer, O.S.B., who was then Pastor of St. Mary's,"She sought only to please God and do His Holy Will in all things, and thence labored but for God's honor and glory. She sought to please God by an ardent desire and an earnest will to acquire virtue and perfection, a total renunciation and forgetfullness [sic] of the world and its vanities, and an invincible fortitude in her sufferings... It was during the summer vacation of 1915 that she one day called on me and expressed to me her desire of going to the convent at St. Joseph and becoming a sister. I told her that I thought she had a religious vocation and advised her to carry out her holy design. She seemed to be so convinced of her religious vocation that she expressed no doubts or fears regarding it. After I had spoken some words to of encouragement and explained to her, in short, the excellence of the religious state, she left happy and contented."
Hubert and Emma Zervas were reportedly very reluctant to part with their daughter at such a young age. Father Alfred, however, advised them, "Don't put anything in her way; she is not too young to give herself to God." Hubert Zervas wrote several years later that he and his wife had then "gladly consented to give back the child to Him from Whom they had received her." 
Anna entered Saint Benedict's Monastery as a postulant in 1915 and entered the novitiate in 1918. She would be remembered as a quiet and unassuming nun who was fond of reading The Following of Christ by Geert Groote.
On June 17, 1918, she received the habit in a ceremony conducted by Bishop Joseph Francis Busch of St. Cloud, Minnesota. According to Dr. James Kritzeck, "This was the day which Anna had so eagerly awaited; in a simple, beautiful ceremony, she exchanged an elegant bridal gown for the severe religious habit. Her expression of happiness upon returning from the sacutary that day was termed 'angelic' by one eyewitness. A notable incident occurred after this ceremony. Anna rushed to tell her parents her new religious name, Sister Mary Annella. Her mother remarked, not unkindly, 'But there is no Saint Annella,' to which Sister Annella, concealing her slight disappointment at this reaction to the name by which she would henceforth be known, replied, 'Then I shall have to be the first one!'" She took her final vows in 1922 and was assigned as a music teacher and organist to St. Mary's Convent in Bismarck, North Dakota.
During the summer of 1923, Zervas noticed a small reddish brown patch on her arm which itched terribly. Despite attempts to quietly bear the disease, the spreading rash soon proved impossible to conceal and soon covered the majority of her body.
In April 1924, her parents were summoned to her hospital bedside. According to Sister Mary De' Pazzi Zervas, "My parents informed them that they wanted to see Sister Annella. And they were quite concerned about letting her go up, but they said, ‘You wouldn’t have any trouble finding the room.’ They gave her the room number and mother went ahead so fast. I couldn’t keep up with her, she got there first. She looked at the number, the door was partly open. She was going to walk in, but she said, ‘I looked in and I saw someone’s head on the pillow and I thought, oh, it can’t be.’ She didn’t even ask, she just turned to Sister Annella and said, ‘Excuse me, I got the wrong room.’ And Annella broke down; she just screamed, ‘Mama, don’t you know me?!’ Mother said never could she have dreamt that she could change that much in that time. She said she though she was seeing an old man. Her hair was nearly all gone and her face looked terrible, blotchy. She said, ‘I couldn’t ever believe that my Annie could look like that.’"
After their shock wore off, Hubert Zervas recalled, "Her parents were highly edified at her composure, her resignation to her condition… [and] her joyful bearing of an affliction sent by a loving Providence. They remained with her two days, and had many good laughs at Sister Annella’s witty remarks."
In Rochester, the doctors noticed that, as she undressed, Sister Annella’s skin was exfoliating in a manner similar to falling snow. After carefully comparing her symptoms against the rare diseases in obscure medical textbooks, the doctors reached a verdict. Sister Annella was suffering from Pityriasis Rubra Pilaris, a skin condition so rare that only six other cases were known to exist in the entire United States. P.R.P., as it is known for short, is an inherited disease usually passed down from parent to child. In the most serious cases, the skin becomes overactive and is unable to regenerate. The blood vessels dilate, which causes the body to hemorrhage moisture. This leaves the weakened immune system quite vulnerable to secondary infections. In some cases, P.R.P. can be fatal. After her diagnosis, Sister Annella was transferred to the Worrell Hospital, where all skin diseases were treated. She was given a great deal of rest and fed a special diet consisting mainly of fish and vegetables. Every one of her nurses expressed revulsion at the task of changing her bandages and asked to be reassigned. There was little improvement, however. Sister Annella’s skin had grown so sensitive that lukewarm water seemed scalding hot. By the beginning of June, a grayish purple coloring began spreading outward from her face. Even hot packs could not stop her teeth from chattering. With the period of examination over, Sister Annella was transferred to St. Raphael’s Hospital in St. Cloud.
Decline and Death
In the summer of 1924, Hubert and Emma Zervas paid a visit to Mother Louise Walz, O.S.B., the Abbess of St. Benedict's. According to Sister Mary De' Pazzi Zervas, O.S.B.,
"…my mother very bravely spoke up and asked Mother [Louise], ‘If it were possible, could I take her home for a little while to see if I could do something?’ Mother Louise was always so tenderhearted, she almost broke down herself and said, ‘You mean you would try and take care of her now?’ ‘Oh sure, Mother,’ she said, ‘I can’t promise that I’d do the right thing to cure her, but maybe just being in her home and having me take care of her…’ Papa chimed in and said, ‘You know, Mother, we do have an ideal spot. We’re up just a hundred yards from the river… It’s quiet, a wooded area, and there isn’t a lot of goings on at the house.’ Mother Louise just seemed to be dumbfounded; she didn’t have anything to say. She said, ‘Well, wait for me. I have to tend to something and I’ll be right back.’…I didn’t think of that then, but very soon after it dawned on me that she wouldn’t let any of the Sisters be taken out of the Convent without the Bishop’s permission. …I don’t know if I mentioned that to mother or if I was just thinking it and in a few minutes Mother [Louise] came back and said, ‘Yes. You may take her with you.’ There was never anything as silent as the parlor that day. …Mother was so pleased and I’ve never seen Mother Louise look like she did that day when she came back with the report."
This in no way altered her status as a religious sister, as the abbess remained carefully informed of Sister Annella's condition. Furthermore, the Benedictine nuns of Moorhead visited regularly and regarded Sister Annella as a part of their community.
In the fall of 1924, careful dieting and osteopathic treatments brought about a remission of Sister Annella's symptoms. Her family was certain that it was only a matter of time before Sister Annella experienced a complete cure and the remission of her symptoms. Sister Annella, however, was unconvinced. She told her mother, “When this disease leaves me, God will have taken it away and he will not want me to have it anymore. I do not want anything but what God wills. Once I was free from this in Bismarck. Thinking that I had not carried my illness the way God wanted me to, I went into the chapel and told Our Lord that if he wanted me to have it all over again, I would carry it as he would want me to. It came back with double force. No, if it leaves me, He will have taken it.”
Sister Annella also said, "God did not see fit to answer the Little Flower's prayer with a sudden cure. What He has in store for me, I do not know, but all He does is well, so there is no need to worry. God has given me the grace to be resigned, and I thank him heartily for this, but also for all else He has given me with my illness... I often wonder what great harm of body or of soul I may have suffered had not God given me this 'blessing in disguise'"
In the summer of 1926, Sister Annella was attacked bya fit of pain immediately after leaving the confessional. Over the days that followed, the disease and its symptoms returned full force. As a novena was offered for her at Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna, New York, her condition seemed to enter its final phase. According to Hubert Zervas,"Lying on her left side, her head slightly bent forward, her eyes partly open, her mouth... drawn in a faint smile, her knees bent, the entire form presenting a picture like the stations where Our Lord lies prostrate under the cross, Sister Annella peacefully breathed her last. Death occurred at 3:15 AM on the Vigil of the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saturday, August 14, 1926. Sister Annella had desired to die before Our Lady's feast, God willing. Our Lord had granted her wish." After a Roman Catholic requiem mass at her parents' parish church in Moorhead, Sister Annella's remains were transported to St. Benedict's and buried in the convent's cemetery.
According to a 1989 newspaper article, "Within seven months of her burial at St. Benedict's Convent, Bishop Joseph Busch was hearing rumors of cures and favors granted through Sister Annella's intercession. He asked Father Alexius Hoffmann, OSB, St. John's Abbey, to collect information on "the circumstances of her sickness and death and the origin and progress of the cultus, if any, in her regard and any evidences there may be of miraculous intervention through her intercession."
In April 1927, Father Alexius reported to Bishop Busch that five cures had been reported. He also submitted a biographical sketch written by Sister Annella's parents. While there is no evidence that Bishop Busch took further steps in the case, devotion to Sister Annella spread through the efforts of her father and a priest from St. John's Abbey, Father Joseph Kreuter, O.S.B. While the policy of St. Benedict's Convent was to not promote canonization procedures for one of its own members, the sisters fulfilled requests for relics, memorial cards, and biographies."
According to Dr. James Kritzeck, "A short life scetch of Sister Annella's life was written ...by the Reverend Joseph Kreuter, O.S.B., entitled An Apostle of Suffering in Our Day. This account first appeared in the Josephinum Weekly, published at that time in Columbus, Ohio, and a German translation, made by the author himself, appeared in Der Wanderer, a German Catholic weekly published in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The Grail, a monthly magazine of the Benedictine Abbey at Saint Meinrad, Indiana, reprinted the English article in July 1928, and, to satisfy a large number of requests for copies, published it in booklet form in 1931. A German booklet, reprinted from Der Wanderer, was issued some time later, and there were also Dutch and Polish translations. A translation into Singhalese, after appearing in a Catholic paper in Ceylon, appeared in booklet form. A French translation, of the same sketch, with a preface by the Very Rev. Canon Cyrille Labrecque of Quebec, was published by the Librairie d'Action Catholique in Quebec in 1945. A second edition of the English booklet, published by Saint John's Abbey Press, followed in 1946.
Writing in 1957, Dr. James Kritzeck declared, “It is certainly not out of the question that Sister Annella may one be raised to the honors of the altar. Before that can occur, however, a long and thorough process of examination by the Church must take place. Should that meet with the plan of God, it would certainly be met with the greatest joy on the part of her many fervent admirers all over the world. Yet, as Canon Labrecque reminds us, ‘Whatever may happen, everyone can pray to her and have confidence in her intercession.’”
According to the Visitor, the official newspaper of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saint Cloud, "...While the St. Paul Daily News exaggerated when it reported that "thousands" were visiting her grave, there were some pilgrims to the convent cemetery, and many of them took a handful of dirt from Sister Annella's grave for a souvenir. Interest in Sister Annella dwindled during the 1960s, but she still has some fans. At least one of them, no one seems to know who, puts flowers on her grave regularly.
According to "The Record," a newspaper published by the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University, "Students who need a shoulder to cry on or a little advice can visit the St. Ben’s monastic graveyard. They may be fortunate enough to be greeted by the ghost of S. Annella Zervas. S. Annella belonged to the monastic community at St. Ben’s in the early 20th century. She was believed to be “very holy,” S. Owen said ...Despite the young sister’s death... S. Annella has not left St. Ben’s. Her ghost is said to be seen in the graveyard from time to time as she counsels distressed Bennies as they pass by. Want to pay her a visit? If you’re lucky, you may see the little white cloud that hangs over her grave on some nights, announcing her presence."
- Kritzeck, Ticket for Eternity, page 19.
- Ibid, page 19.
- Kritzeck (1957), pages 19–20.
- Kritzeck (1957), p. 30.
- The Apostle of Suffering: The Life and Death of Minnesota's Un-Canonized Saint, Catholic Family News, December 2008, pages 1, 23–26.
- Catholic Family News, December 2008, pages 1, 23-26.
- Catholic Family News, December 2008, Pages 1, 23-24.
- Kreuter, "An Apostle of Suffering in Our Day," page 7.
- Kritzeck, page 87.
- Catholic Family News, pages 1, 23-26.
- Kritzeck (1957), page 65.
- Kritzeck (1957), page 70.
- Kritzeck (1957), page 96.
- "Sister Annella: The Closest We've Come to Having a Saint", Saint Cloud Visitor, February 9, 1989, page 18.
- Kritzeck (1957), pp. 101–02.
- Kritzeck (1957), page 105.
- St. Cloud Visitor, February 9, 1989, p. 18.
- Saint John's University Record, October 31, 2008.
- King, Brendan D., "The Apostle of Suffering: The Life and Death of Minnesota's Un-Canonized Saint," Catholic Family News, December 2008, pages 1, 23–26.
- Kreuter, O.S.B., Very Reverend Joseph, "Sister M. Annella Zervas, O.S.B.; An Apostle of Suffering in Our Day," St. Meinrad Archabbey, 1928.
- Kritzeck, James, "Ticket for Eternity: The Life of Sister Annella Zervas, O.S.B.," St. John's Press, 1957.
- Mentions of Annella Zervas in Vivarium, the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John's University Digital Image Collection; accessed May 5, 2015.
- Joseph Pearce on Sister Annella Zervas, O.S.B., staustinreview.com; accessed May 5, 2015.
- Sister Annella Zervas profile, findagrave.com; accessed May 5, 2015.