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Strongsville Catholic plays ghostbuster but church urges caution

By Jennifer A. Webb, Diocesan Features Editor
   The shiny white Camaro convertible parked in the driveway has a soft black top and one of those vanity license plates that fits the car as surely as it does its owner. SPIRIT describes not only the snazzy sports car, but the lively ghostbuster behind the wheel, Mary Ann, as she is known, is a cradle Catholic with a unique occupation: She claims to see the "Earthbound" spirits of those who have died and, for one reason or another, were not ready to meet God. Moreover, she says she can get rid of unwanted spirits lingering in a home, hospital, court house, wherever she is called.
   Looking as sinister as a Tupperware saleswoman, this Strongsville "paranormal investigator" arrives on scene with only a purse. Inside the purse, she carries photographs she claims show possible spirits, a rosary with a Padre Pio relic, and quince seeds that supposedly ward off unwanted ghosts after the house is "cleansed."
   She is not flashy or mysterious. No flowing robes. No shrunken heads.
   Mary Ann is a 48-year-old wife and mother of two grown daughters. She grew up in Parma, in St. Francis de Sales Parish, graduated from the former Byzantine Catholic High School, and was married at St. Columbkille Church. The family moved to Wooster for 20-some years when her husband, Ted, started a car-repair business there. They returned to the Cleveland area recently to be near family.
   Despite her normal, suburban upbringing, Mary Ann has made a name for herself throughout Northeast Ohio as the enigmatic ghostbuster with a hearty laugh. She has been the guest on many radio and television shows, during which she displays her talent for seeing what others cannot and that which she seemingly could not know.
   While the church does not automatically discount what Mary Ann thinks she sees, priests urged caution and called for a dose of skepticism.
   Radio hosts delight in asking people to call if they think they have a ghost in the house. Mary Ann claims that if there is a ghost, she can conjure up a mental picture of a room or object in the house somehow associated with it.

WITNESSING THE 'GIFT'

   A recent "cleansing" arranged by the Universe Bulletin started with a phone call from a Parma Heights woman, whom we will call Maureen because she asked not to be Identified. The 61-year-old woman, an active Catholic, said she thought she had seen spirits walking in her house, though she initially blamed these visions on her glasses.
"One night when I was in bed, I turned over and saw someone sitting in front of my closet door," said Maureen, who is widowed and lives alone.
   At the UB's request, Maureen called Mary Ann, who determined over the telephone that she had a ghost, because she described things inside the woman's house. One item was an afghan, and she accurately described its pattern.
   "(Mary Ann) said, 'Where's the afghan on your couch? You used to have an afghan there, didn't you?'" Maureen said of their telephone conversation. "I said, 'Yeah, I put it away for the summer.' I had never said anything about an afghan to her."
   Mary Ann said Maureen had made it "when the boys were 8 or 9." In fact, she had made it when Maureen's sons were 10 or 12.
   When Mary Ann arrived at Maureen's home a week later, though, things had changed.
   "When I talked to her on the phone, there was one (spirit). Now there are two," Mary Ann said. "The one is standing in the hallway, the other is right behind me. The one in the hallway is Anna Gunther. Do you know anyone with that name?"
Maureen said no.
   "Anna Mae Gunther. This is the woman who was in the house the day I talked to you on the phone," Mary Ann said. "She's 61 years old. She died in 1966."
   It turns out Mary Ann knew about the afghan because Anna was in the house when Maureen was making it and thought it was pretty. Anna also visited with Maureen's sister-in-law, who had lived in a suite there before her death.
   The second spirit Mary Ann saw was another sister-in-law, one of 13 children in Maureen's husband's family. Mary Ann knew names of the spirit's children and other relatives, the street where several of them lived, and the date of death for some of them       "Where's Leslie?" Mary Ann asked.
   "Leslie? That's her brother, I assume. He's still in Pennsylvania," Maureen responded.
   "Did he move? Because she's tried to find him," Mary Ann said.
   Maureen later learned that Leslie was living in a nursing home.
   "I don't know how she would know Leslle's not living in his home," Maureen said, after checking with relatives.

'SNOOPING' GHOSTS

    For the next three hours, Mary Ann sat in a chair and described where Anna Mae Gunther was buried, how she came to live in the house, and what she did there. She did not cause trouble, Mary Ann said, but tended to "snoop" around and occasionally move things. Anna had met the sister-in-law once at a church function in life, and, in death, decided their house would be a nice place to stay, Mary Ann said.
   A check with Woodvale Cemetery confirmed Anna Mae's date of death, age, and burial place. It also listed "chronic alcoholism" as her cause of death: Mary Ann said she "looked like a drinker."
   Neither spirit was the man the woman had seen in front of her closet. Mary Ann said that might have been someone "passing through."
   Mary Ann said she has had this gift for seeing spirits since she was 26 months old, when her Italian grandmother claimed Mary Ann was conversing with the dead. Mary Ann first remembers seeing a spirit when she was in the first grade of a local Catholic school.
   "I looked back down the hallway and saw my girlfriend and saw this disheveled, rumpled-looking spirit of a man behind her," Mary Ann said. "I remember saying, 'Sister, I don't like that man that's behind Susie.' And she looks down the hall and looks at Susie and she saw nothing. I know she saw nothing. But she pats me on the head and said, 'It's OK, Mary Ann, it's her guardian angel.'"
   But Mary Ann said she knew it was not an angel because the man looked so unkempt. Her grandmother, who she said was able to talk with spirits in her sleep, took her to houses and funeral homes. She also helped Mary Ann learn to create a bright light in her mind, through which the spirits walk into the afterlife.

THE WHITE LIGHT

    Mary Ann claims that when a person dies, he or she has three or four days to enter a "white light" that is the path to judgment. Somewhere inside the light, she believes, a person's ultimate fate is decided. Some people aren't ready to leave earth yet, though, and use their free will to hang around, she said.
   "That white light is presented to you the very second that you die," Mary Ann said. "Your last breath, that white Ilght is there. And everybody stays around for their funeral, everybody. That person that is in the casket, their spirit is right above the feet. They hear everything that goes on, they see everything that goes on. They check out their flowers, see who's there, who's not there."
   Some ghosts stick around to say goodbye to those they love. Some, like a young father who dies suddenly, want to take care of the living, she said. While they don't all cause trouble, they usually are unwelcome. Once Mary Ann convinces them to enter the light, she prevents others from coming into the house by leaving the homeowner with little, shrink-wrapped quince seeds that she claims the spirits dislike. One seed is placed over each doorway and in each car.
   "I get these from relatives in Italy," she said. "I get a supply every few weeks. They do something to them before I get them. I don't know what they do, all I know is that it works."
   She claims to have "cleansed" Catholic churches in the diocese, local courthouses, and hospital surgical rooms. She says she also has worked for police departments, helping to solve murders by communicating with the dead victim. She declined to offer names -- including her own surname -- for privacy reasons.

'NOBODY WOULD KNOW BUT ME'

    But several clients were eager to talk about Mary Ann's prowess. They said they did not believe Mary Ann fabricated the stories or investigated their families for information before the cleansing because it would take a terrific memory and too much work for the $100 Mary Arm said she normallv charges for Cleveland-area visits.
   "There were probably half a dozen things Mary Ann told me about things happening in my house that nobody would know but me," said JoAnn Pfahl, a parishioner at St. John Neumann Parish in Strongsville. "There's no way she could be that good to be making this up."
    Pfahl, who runs the parish's social concerns group and whose husband is a city councilman, called Mary Ann four years ago when the television turned on by itself, the compact discs were rattling, a door mysteriously slammed and there were noises in the kitchen. Other relatives also saw spirits in the house.
   "Unless you've lived with ghosts in your house, you have no concept," said Pfahl, 46. "I don't want them in my house, lost soul or not. I said Hail Marys going to sleep."
   According to Pfahl, Mary Ann said one of the ghosts, who was trying to scare them, was a drug dealer who drowned in Athens County, which Pfahl confirmed with police. This ghost supposedly told Mary Ann that he came home from Ohio University with one of Pfahl's sons because "David Patterson's house was too small."
   "No one knew that David was the boy in the dorm next door to my son but me and (my son)," Pfahl said.
Sandy Dvorak, a parishioner at St. Leo in Cleveland and daughter-in-law of UB food columnist Ann Marie Dvorak, said she was scared by things she heard and saw in her house.
   Towels seemed to be thrown five feet I to her head in the shower. Lights were turned on. Drum beats were heard. The children saw a lady In a blue gown. Beer cans were lined up in the garbage can, all facing the same way.
   Mary Ann told ha one of the ghosts was a man named Richard, who looked like he died in the 1970s because he was wearing a polyester suit and high heels. Sandy Dvorak said her sister later said she worked with the man, who actually died in 1989, and that he often dressed that way. Her sister confirmed other details as well.
   "If she's a phony, she's a darn good phony," said Dvorak, adding that the house has been quiet since Mary Ann's visit. "I believe there's life after death, and I believe you have the option of not going where you're supposed to go."

WHERE THE CHURCH STANDS

    But Fathers Mark Latcovich and Thomas Tifft, both of St. Mary Seminary in Wickliffe, don't agree that one can use free will that way. They said God would not permit souls to be "lost."
   "If we believe God permeates our world and has given us a sign of his love in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, then we believe the souls of the just are in the hands of God and no torment shall touch them," Father Latcovich said.
   He cautioned Catholics to avoid trying to use human imagery to describe what happens when a person dies, because it is a supernatural phenomenon.
   However, he did not dismiss the notion that certain experiences with the dead are possible. Prayer, for example, is communicating with dead people we call saints, he said.
   Father Latcovich said he has had moments of "intuition," including a time he dreamed he talked to a friend he later learned had just died.
   "In one sense, I do believe people might have an ability to know things or see things, but I think that's rather rare and you have to be careful when we claim that," said Father Latcovich, who teaches a course on the afterlife.
   "I'll be the first to admit there's a lot we don't know about the mystery of death, but because we know it's the surrender of a person to an absolute end, which we define as the judgment they'll have,...to state that these people are aimlessly walking about, I think that's a human projection."
   Although the church might be skeptical of the notion of ghosts, Pfahl said her belief that spirits exist does not conflict with her Catholic faith.
   "You will never, ever make me not believe in this," she said. "What I would like is for the church to quit denying this. As far as I'm concerned, this is the same as what we learned in that little brown book years ago. The body dies and the spirit lives on."
   Mary Ann knows people often dispute her claims. But, she said, she is merely trying to help people and be true to her God-given talents.
    "I know I can see them, and whether somebody believes me or not, I don't even try to change anybody's mind," she said. "I have to be getting this information somewhere. I mean, I think I'm a pretty sane person."

© copyright 1996 by the Catholic Universe Bulletin. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.