The Mother of all miracles?

A middle-aged man from Durham claims that Mother Teresa performed a miracle to cure him of manic depression and schizophrenia. Now his GP wants to help him have the nun declared a saint.
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Outside Norman Imms's council flat, a lollipop lady helps a gaggle of schoolchildren, swathed in numerous layers of clothes, to cross the road. It's so cold that the woman holds a scarf over her face. Only her eyes are visible. In a few moments it starts to sleet. It's a normal November day in the North-east of England.

Outside Norman Imms's council flat, a lollipop lady helps a gaggle of schoolchildren, swathed in numerous layers of clothes, to cross the road. It's so cold that the woman holds a scarf over her face. Only her eyes are visible. In a few moments it starts to sleet. It's a normal November day in the North-east of England.

The residents of Peterlee, near Durham, have all been talking about the "miracle" experienced by Norman Imms, who is sitting several feet away in the warmth of his living room. Dressed head-to-foot in grey, and sporting NHS specs, he looks like many other 54-year-olds. Yet this is the man whose GP claims he has been cured of paranoid schizophrenia, manic depression, psychosis and psychopathy by Mother Teresa.

A likeable, softly spoken man with exceptional manners, Imms makes sure my every desire is met - an endless stream of coffee, chocolate biscuits and offers to turn up the heating. Several years ago, he would not have coped with a stranger in his home, let alone provided such hospitality.

''The paranoia, the delusions, the hallucinations - everything has gone. I can't emphasise how well I am,'' he says, in an accent which reveals his Birmingham roots. The psychological problems began in the late Sixties, when Imms was in his early twenties, while he was working as a nurse in the intensive care unit at Newcastle General Hospital. ''I was hallucinating, seeing rats at the bottom of the bed. I was also hearing voices saying, 'Don't trust Cathy [his girlfriend and later wife], she's poisoning you.'"

When medication failed to help, he and Cathy emigrated to Australia. Imms taught nursing at a Melbourne hospital, but within a year and a half the couple were repatriated, in 1971. ''I found it very difficult to get on with the staff because I was paranoid. I was very difficult. I would just blow up for no apparent reason,'' remembers Imms. The couple came to Peterlee, and Imms turned to a string of GPs for help, but was rejected as too troublesome.

''I was arguing with them about everything. They couldn't handle it, I was so ill,'' he says. The couple's three children were put into a day nursery as Cathy struggled with her husband's behaviour.

''Norman couldn't cope with the outside world,'' she remembers. ''He couldn't mix with people at all. You never knew what to expect. He used to be like Jekyll and Hyde. There were times when he used to get up in the early hours and walk the streets. I had three little babies and couldn't go after him. I used to be worried sick until he came back.''

In 1973 Dr Joseph Chandy, a GP working in the village of Horden, near Peterlee, agreed to take him on. For 15 years Imms, who was on medication and seeing a number of psychiatrists, would call or visit Dr Chandy's surgeries up to five times a day. There were also frequent calls to the doctor's home at night.

''I used to jump out of bed with fear when the telephone rang, thinking it would be him,'' says the 58-year-old former registrar at Liverpool Children's Hospital. ''He would be shouting at me, cursing me and telling me I was mad. My staff would be crying. Every day there was some crisis. But he was a human being, if I rejected him where would he be without a doctor? He's God's child - somebody had to endure the sacrifice.''

In 1989 the Catholic GP suggested that Imms wrote to Mother Teresa, for whom the doctor had worked as a medical student in India. A Catholic convert since the age of 19, Imms started collecting for the nun's charitable causes and sending her copious letters, telling of his illness. He received his first response within a year. ''Accept your illness as a gift of God's special love for you,'' she wrote. Delighted, Imms set his heart on meeting her. ''I believed I would become well by her touch," he says.

Imms met the nun for the first time in Rome in 1990. ''That was the start of the healing. She blessed me and we went into the chapel and prayed together. We had a long talk. Mother said: 'You will be fine. God will look after you.' As I went away she said: 'Keep in touch'. I thought if anyone was going to make me well Mother was, she was a living saint.''

He met her 10 times. His ''transformation'' happened the last time they met, in Rome in May 1997, four months before her death. ''She blessed me and said: 'You're going to be fine. You're cured now.' It was like a veil being lifted from my eyes. The illness has gone, the fever is no more, I'm well. It's an absolute miracle,'' says Imms.

In May, Dr Chandy wrote to Sister Nirmala, Mother Teresa's successor as head of the Missionaries of Charity, in Calcutta, telling her of the "miracle". The letter has been sent to the Vatican to support the case for the nun's beatification, the first step to canonisation. The Pope has waived the mandatory five-year waiting period after death before sainthood is considered.

Two miracles are usually required, one for beatification and a second for canonisation. Several miracles have already been attributed to Mother Teresa, including a patient in West Bengal, who claims a tumour disappeared after receiving blessings from the nun. The case is said to have been authenticated by a doctor.

A year after Imms started seeing Mother Teresa, he also started writing to the Pope, and has since met him around 11 times. But he is adamant about who is responsible for his miraculous cure. ''It's Mother Teresa,'' he says, tapping an album containing some of the 30 letters the nun sent to him, all carefully mounted. ''Each time there was an improvement, but the improvement in May 1997 was so dramatic, I'm in no doubt. There are people who will be cynical, but there always will be.''

So out of all the needy in the world, why did Mother Teresa decide to heal him? ''Because I was persistent, I wasn't going to let go,'' explains Imms, who now only takes medication for arthritis. Dr Chandy is also convinced. ''After the last visit he totally changed from the devil he was to the angel he is now - a wonderful person and a good friend. It is nothing short of a miracle. Medically, scientifically, any psychiatrist will tell you it is not possible for a person with such a complex illness to establish a complete cure. I saw it happen.''

Dr Chandy says colleagues have phoned him offering their congratulations. ''I think I am giving the medical profession a good name because it will show that a true physician ... must not only heal the body, but also touch the mind, and that the inner spirit of a human being is the most important part.'' Imms's wife is also convinced. ''Norman is the same person, but his illness isn't there. It's very, very easy now,'' says Cathy, beaming.

Dr Chris Simpson, a consultant psychiatrist and a fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, offered an objective view of the case: ''Certainly God and Mother Teresa may have had a very, very positive influence on this and they really have helped this man. But it is possible that [the improvement] could have happened without [it].''

Imms has since been offered a place to study nursing or religious studies at Sunderland University. He is debating whether to take it up, or to continue his charity work in the community.

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