03/27/2000 at 01:00 AM EST
Almost from the day Amy Wall was born, in September 1992, her family suspected that something was wrong with her. "When all the babies in the nursery cried," says her mother, Constance, 42, a homemaker in Bucks County, Pa., "she didn't wake up." And sure enough, when Amy was a year old, doctors diagnosed her with nerve deafness and said she would never be able to hear. Then, in March 1994, at 17 months, Amy startled a teacher at her school for the deaf by suddenly reacting to noise. To the amazement of her doctors, tests showed she had somehow gained normal hearing. "I personally have not seen anything like this," says Dr. Stanley Farb, a hearing specialist who was consulted on Amy's case. "It was beyond what we could account for by rational scientific thinking."
Which is why some are embracing an entirely unscientific explanation. On Jan. 27, Pope John Paul II announced that Amy's cure constituted a miracle—the second attributed to Mother Katharine, a Philadelphia heiress who became a nun (she died in 1955 at the age of 96). The papal decision makes Mother Katharine eligible for canonization as just the second American-born saint in the Roman Catholic Church—the first being Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton. According to the Wall family and church officials, Amy began to hear within a week of her family's praying for such a miracle while holding an old piece of Mother Katharine's robe to her ear. On March 10, the Pope set Oct. 1 as the date for the canonization ceremony in Rome, an event that Amy, now 7 and in second grade, will attend with her family. Asked if she feels special, Amy smiles and replies softly, "Nooooo."
And yet she undeniably is. Amy's parents, Constance and John, 41, a contractor, along with Amy's brother Jack, 14, and sister Jeanette, 11, had more or less accepted that she was destined to remain deaf all her life. Then, one night in November 1993, Constance saw a PBS documentary about Mother Katharine. The film recounted how in 1974 a 14-year-old boy named Robert Gutherman was able to hear after bones in his damaged right ear purportedly regenerated themselves. The family had prayed to Mother Katharine for their son's recovery, and, after investigation, the Catholic Church accepted that cure as a miracle. Mother Katharine was beatified in 1988, an important step toward sainthood.
Constance, a practicing Catholic, was intrigued. She asked friends and family if they had prayer cards bearing Mother Katharine's likeness and received one that included a bit of the nun's clothing. She led family prayer groups, during which the relic was held to Amy's ear, and the family asked that the youngster's hearing be restored. She also learned more about the storied Mother Katharine, whose former name was Catherine Drexel. Born in 1858 to vast wealth—her father, Francis Anthony Drexel, founded a company that eventually became the Wall Street investment-banking firm of Drexel Burnham Lambert—she turned her back on all of it. In 1891, at age 32, she became a nun and over the years donated all her $20 million fortune to charity. She founded her own order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, in Bensalem, Pa., which dedicated itself to improving the plight of African-Americans and Native Americans by building schools around the country.
Constance vividly remembers the day in early March 1994 when Amy's teachers excitedly told her that her daughter had responded to noises. 'I walked in the door and her teacher starts yelling, 'Come look! Come look! She can hear!' " recalls Constance. Eventually she notified Mother Katharine's order of what had happened. The Philadelphia archdiocese, knowing that Mother Katharine needed one more miracle to qualify for sainthood, proceeded cautiously, bringing in their own set of doctors to review Amy's case before sending it on to Rome. "The miracle isn't so much the cure as it is getting through the canonization process," says Mon-signor Alexander Palmieri, chancellor of the archdiocese, wryly.
One of the ironies of the episode is that Mother Katharine herself had a keen skepticism about the bureaucratic effort that goes into the creation of saints, viewing it mostly as a distraction from what she regarded as the church's real mission—good works. "She would not be happy about bringing any attention to herself," says Sister Faith Okerson, a spokeswoman for the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, an order still numbering 245 mostly elderly nuns. Nevertheless, Amy Wall, who now attends a regular elementary school and shows no ill effects from her earlier hearing impairment, is grateful for whatever blessing it was that cured her. Asked her favorite sound, she doesn't hesitate. "The dinner bell!" she squeals with delight.
Eve Heyn and Matt Birkbeck in Philadelphia