The olive oil said to seep from Myrna Nazzour's hands is seen as a sign from God.
BOARDMAN -- At age 18, while praying in Soufanieh, the Christian district of Damascus, Syria, Myrna Nazzour experienced what she called a "strange, indescribable thing." Olive oil began oozing from her hands.
Many say the seepage, which began in 1982 and has occurred intermittently over the years, is a sign from God.
Nazzour will visit St. Mary's Byzantine Catholic Church in Boardman for the Divine Liturgy at 4 p.m. Sunday.
At the Nazzour house in Syria, a replica of an icon of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child is said to ooze oil as well. Nazzour says she has also experienced stigmata, wounds similar to Christ's during his crucifixion, and receives messages from Jesus and the Virgin that she shares.
"The messages that she receives can be summarized in two words: peace and unity. Praying for peace, especially in the Middle East, and unity of the churches, especially the Orthodox and Catholic churches," said Vito Carchedi, a parishioner at St. Mary's.
Carchedi is chairman of the local chapter of the Society of St. John Chrysostom. The group's purpose is to work and pray toward unity of the churches and to make Eastern Christianity better known to Western Christians.
The Rev. George Gage, St. Mary's pastor, went to Damascus in 1991 to see the phenomenon. He admits he was skeptical at first but "was blessed to see the olive oil oozing out of her hands three or four times. The first time I saw the olive oil, I was really overwhelmed and started to believe this."
Father Gage left the Orthodox church in 1992 and joined the Byzantine Catholic Diocese of Canton. He said he always thought bringing Orthodox believers and Catholics together was part of God's plan.
"Christ wants all his church to be one, like it was for a thousand years until the Great Schism of 1054," said Father Gage. "I strongly believe, based on the Bible, that we will be united before the Second Coming."
Carchedi said there are several differences between the Orthodox and Catholic churches, but perhaps the most important one is the jurisdiction of the pope.
In the schism, churches in the western half of the old Roman Empire gave the bishop of Rome power over all the other bishops, causing a major division between east and west. The Orthodox don't accept that this bishop, the pope, has jurisdiction over all the church.
"You often hear Orthodox, and some Catholics, say that we need to recapture the role of the pope as it was in the first 1,000 years of the church and then perhaps advances can be made toward unity," Carchedi said. Father Gage said he hopes Nazzour's visit to Boardman will work toward Christian unity.
"Not just Catholic and Orthodox," he emphasizes. "She will pray with us for Christian unity."
Example of unity
Carchedi notes that Nazzour's family is an example of unity of the churches. Nazzour is Catholic; her husband, Nicolas, is Orthodox.
He also points out that the last three times she experienced stigmata were when Orthodox believers and Catholics celebrated the feast of Pascha, or Easter, at the same time. Afterward, her wounds disappeared.
In his book, "The Apparitions in Damascus," French journalist Christian Ravaz documents the events at Soufanieh. He writes that the phenomenon has been observed, recorded and verified by doctors, religious leaders and state authorities. Ravaz also recounts several physical healings as a result of contact with the oil.
"People have changed their lives. There have been conversions to God because of the events at Soufanieh," Carchedi said.
Nazzour also came to at St. Mary's in 1996, when hundreds witnessed olive oil exuding from her hands, according to Carchedi. Those who wished were anointed with the oil after the liturgy, as will be the case this time.
Father Gage notes that it is not guaranteed that she will exude oil, and Ravaz documents periods of up to a year that have passed between the occurrences of oil.
Bishop John Michael Botean of the Romanian Catholic Diocese of Canton will celebrate the liturgy at St. Mary's. The church holds about 250 people, and there will be a large-screen TV set up in an adjacent hall for people who can't fit in the church. Carchedi said there will probably be seating for about 600 people.
Carchedi also said Nazzour doesn't accept money and doesn't travel without permission of the bishop in Damascus. All materials, such as books and prayer cards, are distributed free of charge.