Woodend is a charming, small town filled with leafy streets about halfway between Melbourne and Bendigo, in the foothills of Victoria’s Great Dividing Range. It’s a sleepy, quiet place where not much seems to happen apart from the busy constant hum of the through-town traffic of the Calder Freeway which connects Melbourne, in the south, with Bendigo in the north.
It’s close to Hanging Rock, made famous in the popular book and 1970s movie.
The parish church of St Ambrose, meanwhile, is a beautiful period church from the 19th century, with a striking interior and a friendly parish community. However the parish has clearly been drawn much closer in recent years by the story talked about here.
The bottom fell out of Sharon Simpson’s life in 1999 when her then-eight year old son young son Jack suffered a debilitating epileptic seizure.
The effects of the seizure were compounded by the fact that in addition to being diagnosed with epilepsy he was also diagnosed over the next two years with multiple sclerosis and hodgkins lymphoma, rendering him a complete invalid. From the 39 year-old mother of five’s perspective it seemed like there was no hope of a cure.
But in spite of suffering a loss of brain function, Jack completed Year 12 after an apparent healing of not just one, but all his diagnosed medical conditions. Eighteen years after several severe medical diagnoses of conditions which should have shortened his life and made a normal existence impossible Jack works in Woodend’s Coles supermarket without any visible signs of his previous conditions. What could account for such an extraordinary triumph over adversity? Sharon has no doubt. It was the direct intervention of St Mary MacKillop, after the parish community in Woodend, and the Sisters of St Joseph, implored her intercession.
Sharon, who is also a member of the parish choir, launched the book of her testimony entitled Seeing the Light, A Mother’s Story at St Ambrose’s in early December. It’s an impressive chronicle that illustrates the fact that in the most seemingly hopeless situations, faith, hope and charity can bring about the unexpected.
Many of the fellow parishioners at the gathering confirm the extraordinary tale, having personally known the Simpson family for many years, including from the time of Jack’s collapse.
Dr Andrew Kornberg, (a practising Jew) who was Jack’s neurologist at the Royal Children’s Hospital in North Melbourne, entirely concurs with the description of Jack’s recovery as a miracle.
“The treatment for the multiple sclerosis and lymphoma may account for the healings there, but what is so unexpected has been the recovery of brain function,” he told The Catholic Weekly.
Ann-Marie Elliot, a Woodend general practitioner who also sings in the choir with Sharon says, “I’ve known Sharon for 22 years. Our children went to the same school and I have shared this amazing journey with her … it has been at times a very difficult journey. I have seen Jack close to death, but I can personally say his healing was a miracle.”
But what is even more extraordinary is both Sharon and Jack’s testimony of appearances of Mary MacKillop both claimed to have received while many were praying for Jack.
Sharon says that on 12 August 2000, “I saw a woman who assisted me lifting Jack into bed. I believed it to be Mary Mackillop, by the clothes she [was] wearing, a brown nun’s habit”. On another occasion Sharon saw the same figure kneeling by her bedside. Due to the Jack’s debilitating condition, it was decided he would make his First Holy Communion at home, with his twin brother Vincent.
Despite a diagnosis of cancer the following year, by late 2002 there was an improvement in Jack’s condition which astounded everyone who knew him. As one parishioner said, “I used to see Jack so often in a wheel chair. Now there he was walking by himself again”.
Senior prelates of the Church also accompanied Jack with their prayers. Four letters from Cardinal George Pell appear in Sharon’s book. Cardinal Pell followed Jack’s progress and wrote that he would be visiting Mary MacKillop’s shrine in North Sydney and would leave a petition there for him.
In a further letter written to Sharon on 29 June 2004, he said, “Thank you for the news that your son Jack is again well, and in good health. I was delighted to receive the news.”
It is a great blessing especially for him, but also for you and the family that he has been restored to health. I join my own prayers to yours in thanking God for his goodness and hope and pray that Jack stays well. With every good wish to you and the family. Yours in the Lord, Cardinal George Pell.”
As supporters of Mary MacKillop’s canonisation worked to forward her cause, information and documentation on Jack’s remarkable healing were sent to the Holy See, for examination and consideration by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. At the same time, everything had to be kept confidential.
Sydney-based Sr Maria Casey RSJ, the final postulator for Mary MacKillop’s sainthood, encouraged Sharon throughout the whole process and has contributed a forward to her book. Jack’s healing and the apparitions of St Mary MacKillop were, collectively, one of the two claimed miracles submitted in support of her canonisation. However the complete recovery from lung cancer of Mrs Kathleen Evans of Windale NSW became the approved miracle clearing the way for the canonisation of Australia’s first official saint.
Asked if she was disappointed that Jack’s healing was not the officially accepted miracle for canonisation Sharon is not really fazed; in fact, she is delighted that the brown-habited nun she says she saw and who helped her with her son in the depths of his suffering was officially recognised as a saint at last.
“Anyone who has been part of the journey with us, knows that this is a miracle,” she says.
Jack’s healing has had other effects as well. One lady in the parish referred to Sharon as being like the “mother superior” of their community; her courage and good nature in spite of everything that happened has increased the faith of others, she says.
Sharon and Jack were quite happy to be a part of many Australian pilgrims in Rome when Mary MacKillop was declared a saint of the Universal Church, on 17 October 2010. But what of the man himself? Jack comes across as a very unassuming young man, of few words. It’s almost as if he wonders what all the fuss is about. He was, of course, happy to see the many visitors at the book launch and happily signed copies for anyone who asked.
Seeing the Light: A Mother’s Story, is published by Penfolk Publishing, Blackburn, Victoria. It is available through The Mustard Seed Bookshop (Lidcombe, Sydney), (02) 9646 9000.