Devotion to Our Lady of Fatima played role in famous exorcism here

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org
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On a pedestal around a corner leading to the chapel at St. Alexius Hospital sits a statue with unusual significance.

The statue, adorned with cut flowers, dates from 1949. It's historic in part because of the popularity of devotions to Our Lady of Fatima in the middle of the last century. But it also is important because of its presence and role — and that of the Alexian Brothers community — in a well-known exorcism at the hospital, part of the event which remains largely untold.

William Peter Blatty's best-selling novel, "The Exorcist," and later its 1973 film adaptation of a 12-year-old girl possessed by the devil are forever etched in popular culture. The book and film are a fictional take on a series of unexplained supernatural phenomena that a 13-year-old boy in Maryland experienced beginning in January 1949 after playing with an Ouija board. It led up to a rite of exorcism performed in St. Louis by Jesuit Father William S. Bowdern.

In 1949, Brother Cornelius, the superior of the Alexian Brothers community and administrator of what was then Alexian Brothers Hospital, bought the 5-foot statue and put it in the lobby on the first floor of the hospital with a petition to Our Lady of Fatima to intercede on the boy's behalf. On Holy Week, Brother Cornelius moved the statue to the fifth floor near the 13-year-old boy's room.

The brothers, who took care of the boy from the time he entered the hospital in late March 1949 until mid-April after the successful exorcism was complete, prayed the Rosary in honor of Our Lady of Fatima around the clock. They promised community devotions to Our Lady of Fatima should the boy be spared from further affliction.

Alexian Brother Warren Longo recently spoke about the statue because of the 100th anniversary of Mary's apparitions to three shepherd children in Fatima and Pope Francis' pilgrimage last month to Fatima. Brother Warren's devotion to Our Lady of Fatima dates to his childhood, and he scheduled the recent celebration of his 60th anniversary of religious life with the Alexian Brothers on May 13, the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima.

Brother Warren has a copy of the case study for the famous exorcism given to the Alexian Brothers by the Jesuits. The boy came to St. Louis because "LOUIS" was visible on his skin — a sign that his family should bring him here, where his aunt lived. The boy had been at the Jesuits' residence before moving to Alexian Brothers Hospital for physical, spiritual and psychological care.

Alexian Brother Emmet Roche, who worked in the psychiatric unit, took special care of the boy, helping him have a normal existence when not having his episodes, which mostly occurred at night. "Brother Emmet kept him occupied (on walks to the garden outside the hospital and on the hospital floor) and what was most valuable won his friendship and confidence so that the psychiatric surrounding were more understanding and agreeable to him," the case study noted.

The Jesuits took the boy to the hospital so the other members of the family could relax. Since he was "so bolsterous in his tantrums, it was decided that the Alexian Brothers would have a room (in the psychiatric unit) away from the other patients and there the boy could scream without harm to the rest of the patients," the case study stated.

Many references to Our Lady of Fatima are in the case study. Quoting from the study, Brother Warren said that on several occasions the boy said, "Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us" and repeated the words of the Hail Mary.

The study also was the basis for a book by Thomas Allen, "Possessed" and film as well as an episode of "In the Grip of Evil." The hospital building where the exorcism took place was torn down in the late 1970s. 

>> Exorcism

Renewed interest and a wide variety of misconceptions about demonic possession and exorcism have been spawned by movies such as "The Exorcist" (1973), "The Last Exorcism" (2010), and "The Rite" (2011). Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., separates fact from fiction and provides a realistic overview of an extraordinary phenomenon that is very rare.

In a Catholic News Service article, he points out that, since possession and exorcism are rare, people mistakenly think that's the only activity of the devil, and that "if I'm not possessed, I don't need to worry about the devil." It is "quite the opposite," he said. "The ordinary work of the devil is temptation and everybody has to face that every day." This is one of the reasons why Bishop Paprocki has directed a reinstitution of the St. Michael the Archangel prayer after Mass in his diocese.

Father John Mayo, in a "Dear Father" column for the Review, wrote that demonic possession is indeed quite rare, but it does happen. In this case, the Church still conducts exorcisms. Father Mayo wrote:

"Before an exorcism is undertaken, a diligent investigation and history is done about the person. This history will look especially for points where the demon might have entered a person. Next, there is a psychological evaluation. There is a difference between psychological illness and possession; the Church takes time to truly evaluate what is best for this person before having them enter into an exorcism. After careful and prudent examination by the Church, the local bishop will either himself or delegate a priest to conduct an exorcism.

"This delegation is very important. Whenever a priest or anyone enters into battle against Satan, it is dangerous. This delegation by the local bishop asks that the Church in her prayers and good works protect this priest in his ministry of battling against Satan.

"The evil one cannot act directly on our higher faculties, the intellect and the will. The devil acts indirectly on the will, tempting us through our senses in an attempt to get us to consent to a sinful action."

Any purported exorcism by spiritualists, paranormal investigators, mediums, or non-Catholic clerics for the purposes of entertainment trivializes this ancient rite of the Roman Catholic Church and the very real danger of evil. 

Brother Warren Longo

Born in Racine, Wis., Brother Warren Longo joined the Alexian Brothers in 1956. He attributes his vocation to his devotion to Our Lady of Fatima and to a job in a hospital operated by the Wheaton Franciscan sisters. There he saw a brochure on the Alexian Brothers, known then as a hospital order. At 17, he had a dream in which Jesus, carrying a cross in a hospital corridor, motioned to Brother Warren to follow Him. He almost was denied entry to the community because of a heart murmur, but after praying to Mary at church to intercede for him, the Alexian Brother who he'd been in contact with asked him to get it checked out again. He did, and the heart murmur was gone.

For his 60th jubilee celebration, he wrote that "some years ago I was was challenged by someone who said to me that he felt religious life was a 'senseless waste.' But I responded that it is no more senseless than a God suffering, dying and rising for His people. Love does such things!"

Brother Warren serves on his provincial council, is on the advisory board of St. Alexius Hospital in St. Louis and directs associate members of the Alexian Brothers in St. Louis. He is the director of postulants (candidates) for the province. Brother Warren gives presentations on Alexian history, mission and values, and provides spiritual direction and counseling.

Brother Warren especially enjoys prison ministry. In the past, he has been a patient representative at hospitals and assistant superior general of his congregation. For 16 years he was spiritual care coordinator at the PACE program, which served frail elderly people in St. Louis until its closing in 2016. 

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