SAN JOSE, Calif. — An uncommonly devout homemaker who spent the end of her life quietly in a community in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains, Cora Evans was content not to be the center of attention.
But now, after taking the first step toward sainthood, that’s no longer possible.
By declaring Evans a “Servant of God,” the Vatican has put a woman who still is largely unknown 56 years after her death on the path to the Catholic Church’s most exclusive club.
Canonization, which is steeped in both traditional faith and modern politics, could take decades — if it ever happens. That’s because two miracles will have to be credited to Evans’ intercession in order to become California’s first saint.
“There’s no shortage of people who are Servants of God but who don’t go on to become saints,” said the Rev. Gary Thomas, the pastor at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Saratoga, Calif. “These are difficult deals, and they don’t happen quickly. But having that status certainly puts her up a notch.”
Her cause is being led by Michael McDevitt and Michael Huston, cousins whose families were close to Evans. They find themselves navigating a cloistered process that stretches from the Bay Area to Rome.
“We’re just two regular guys,” said Huston, 65, of Saratoga. “Whether she becomes a saint or not, I don’t know. But we feel like something special is happening.”
At the center is Evans, who despite only a middle-school education wrote extensively of religious visions she experienced while in deep states of prayer. She died in 1957 and is interred with her husband at Santa Clara Mission Cemetery in a crypt high on a wall with a barely visible nameplate. Those who knew her say that’s fitting because Evans was so humble in life.
Evans was raised in the Mormon faith in Utah before becoming disillusioned and later converting to Catholicism and moving to Southern California.
Dorothy Evans remembers her mother as an excellent cook who loved nature and possessed a gift.
Throughout her life, she would slip into coma-like conditions where doctors could barely find a pulse. At those moments, she claimed to be with Jesus — whom she called “the master” — and other saints, sometimes visiting heaven and purgatory. Her daughter added that Cora Evans experienced the stigmata — painful marks that resembled the wounds on the crucified body of Christ.
“As a child, I would come home from school and say, ‘How was the master today?’” added Dorothy Evans, 83, a retired teacher who lives in Spokane, Wash. “I didn’t realize that it was unusual.”
Cora Evans did become known among a circle of Catholic clergy and lay people, and she faced skeptics.
“I would hear people say when they came to the house, ‘Who is this woman? She must be a kook. Nobody sees these kinds of things,’” Dorothy Evans said. “But isn’t that human nature? We want to see it and touch it ourselves in order to believe it.”
In 1992, Cora Evans’ spiritual adviser, the Rev. Frank Parrish, asked McDevitt, his nephew, to become the custodian of her writings. McDevitt and Huston formed a nonprofit, the Mystical Humanity of Christ, and organized retreats that promote her core message: Christ is in everyone, and people should try to be more like him.
“Over the years, I would read Cora’s writings and wonder: Why is Mike McDevitt reading this? The pope should be reading this,” said McDevitt, 72, of Half Moon Bay, Calif.
A closer look at sainthood
Two years ago, McDevitt and Huston joined Thomas on a pilgrimage to Rome to gain a better understanding of what sainthood entailed. Church officials wanted to know more about Evans and made clear their interest in having additional saints from the United States, which has a dozen.
The church went on a saint-naming binge during the tenure of Pope John Paul II, who served from 1978 to 2005. His reign is sometimes called the “saint factory” because he elevated 482 saints — compared with 98 by all of his 20th-century predecessors.
“He’s the Barry Bonds of saint-making,” said Bill Briggs, author of “The Third Miracle.” “It’s very hard to become a saint, but John Paul II watered down the process, and he did it for a brilliant reason. Saints are a great marketing tool. Any time there’s a new saint, it’s great publicity for the church, especially in the new regions.”
In March 2012, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints announced that it was considering Evans for sainthood — giving her the Servant of God title. Over the next few years, theologians will examine her life. If that research receives the Vatican’s approval that she was virtuous, Evans will be considered “Venerable.”
However, the final steps are the hardest: two verified miracles, usually in the form of unexplained medical cures, which come after prayers for her intercession. Briggs, whose book chronicles the 2006 canonization of 19th-century American nun St. Mother Theodore Guerin, calls miracles the “currency of sainthood.”
“But something is only very rarely accepted as a miracle,” he added. “The church is all about scientific proof. The process is incredibly intensive, forensic and takes a very long time.”
An expensive cause
Evans’ cause is being funded through donations of about $700,000 that McDevitt and Huston also are using to hold the free retreats to help spread her name and for the upcoming publication of her writings.
There is some evidence, the two men added, that there may have been miracles in her name, but those likely don’t meet the level of documentation the Vatican requires. But they hope as she becomes better known, and more people pray for her help, there will be other miraculous occurrences that can be more thoroughly investigated.
The Rev. Joseph Grimaldi, who is the postulator — or chief promoter — for Evans, said the church will be more interested in her life story than the mystical visions. Sainthood, he said, is about creating inspirational role models for others to emulate.
“Cora Evans might be a great example of someone who lived an ordinary life, was a good person, and should be imitated by living our lives in a prayerful way,” said Grimaldi, 73, who had an investigative role in the canonization of two saints in Hawaii. “But it’s not going to be an easy case to make, and Rome even has told us that. She is not Mother Teresa.”
Dorothy Evans said her mother considered her work completed when she finished writing shortly before dying of cancer. Now, the daughter wonders.
“I know Mother would have fun doing something for other people,” she said if any purported miracles are proved. “But I bet she’s glad that she’s in heaven now because I don’t think she would like all this attention one bit.”