Billie's scream got her siblings to the window. It was a shocking sight: soft, pastel-colored balls of light about a foot in diameter, radiating from within, rising and falling on Mt. Elliott Cemetery across the street. The children tried counting them but couldn't keep up. They just kept coming in blue, pink, yellow, orange, purple and green. Jay cocked his head at the sidewalk below to see who was catching this. But there was no one — not even a car — on the street outside his parents' grocery store.
It wasn't long before they all saw the bodies; hundreds, floating skyward and down into the ground.
Jay saw a small cross, only about 3 feet tall, with thorns entwined, descending slowly in the sky. It took about 10 minutes before it landed close enough to make him shudder, just inside the cemetery fence. He ran for the stairs to go outside and grab what he thought was a gift from God, but his older sister Rose told him not to dare. When he looked out the window again, he saw three floating figures: a woman dressed in blue and white with her hands folded, a man with a beard and a child in the palm of the man's hand.
This episode lasted about an hour.
Once the vision fell away, the kids ran downstairs, through the screen door and spilled their guts to Mom. Mom didn't see what they saw, but she believed her children, reminding them it was Ascension Thursday, a holy day when Jesus rises up to heaven from Mount Olivet.
The Samonie family lived above the grocery store at Mt Elliott and Waterloo, on Detroit's east side. The late morning was sunny, and Mom and Dad were downstairs working, probably shelving cans of beans or soup. The kids Rose (15), Billie (13), Tony (10) and Jay (7) had a day off school and were horsing around upstairs until Billie screamed.
The next day at school, when the Samonie brood told friends, nobody believed them, so they shut up about it. That was May 27, 1937. They kept quiet for decades.
The "vision" was an experience not unlike one described 20 years prior by three shepherd children in Portugal, who said they were visited by the Virgin Mary in the mountain village of Fatima.
Today, 70 years later, Jay Samonie explains. "Some of the bodies were prostrate, some were standing up."
"And they weren't statues," his sister Billie adds.
Father Samonie says what he witnessed as a boy made him powerfully aware, for the first time, of a spirit world. Throughout his childhood and his 50-year career as a Roman Catholic priest at nine metro Detroit parishes Samonie didn't talk much about that day, but it was the first of many episodes that eventually changed his views about religion.
He made his story public in 1998, when, he says, Jesus granted him permission to publish a tell-all book, On My Way Home. He's written four books since. The latest, Rite of Passage, comes out this month, and he's got another already in manuscript form about the teachings of Edgar Cayce, a clairvoyant and well-known author who claimed to be able to answer questions about the meaning of the universe and countless other topics through a process of self-induced hypnosis. Samonie's an accomplished writer, musician and painter.
And now there's a film that documents Samonie's life. Shot in 2004 and released in January by Schmaltz Productions, Light is a considerate and compelling account of a man who's served Detroiters passionately for decades, but not without controversy.
Light executive producer Paul Schmaltz was introduced to the priest by his own father and says he "just felt compelled to tell Samonie's story." Schmaltz recalls the first time they had lunch:
"He just got out of the hospital. He started talking about God coming to talk to him. God told him he lost his way, and he needed to focus more on what he was supposed to do, which was teaching. And then God leaves by saying, 'You gotta pray for the animals; they're suffering on this planet.' Driving home I was thinking, anybody who tells me that, I would think they were crazy. With him, I believed him.
"We started out thinking we were going to make a film showing what incredible things he's experienced," Schmaltz continues, "but through the process we decided the most important thing is his teachings that all religions are the same. Personally, I have kind of drifted away from the church our whole generation has. Father Jay bridges the gap between fundamentalists and spiritualists, he brings it all together."
Schmaltz and his partner Ritch Wedeking are hunting for a distributor for Light and looking into getting it on the film festival circuit.
Here's a man of the cloth a Roman Catholic priest, no less who thinks Lucifer's gotten a "bum rap" and believes in a perpetual cycle of reincarnation. He looks for truth on his own terms.
Samonie has a doctoral degree in metaphysics from University of Detroit and two master's degrees. He meditates and practices yoga has been for more than four decades and his quest for truth has led him to study Eastern traditions in which religion coincides with personal mystical experiences. But it took him years to come to terms with the out-of-body sensations the visions, the visits from spirit guides and spontaneous trances that brought to his mind vivid memories of past lives as a concert pianist, a Mayan architect and the 17th century painter Diego Velásquez.
As fantastic as his tales seem, it's hard not to believe the man. He's a persuasive and witty storyteller, and he's extremely intelligent without being at all arrogant. He speaks Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, French and German. He teaches about the importance of following your conscience no matter what the Bible says, and lectures on the difference between being religious and being spiritual. Remember: He's a Catholic priest. He's been reported for heresy by his peers ("fine gentlemen," Samonie calls them) four times, and yet he considers those charges "credits." Samonie's unassuming and humble, someone you can't easily dismiss as a wacko.
Yes, some do think he's bonkers.
James "The Amazing" Randi is a magician turned skeptic who has gained notoriety on Larry King Live and national radio programs by debunking pseudoscientific, paranormal and supernatural experiences. His Web site Randi.org promotes a $1 million challenge to any applicant seeking to prove the authenticity of their experience.
"If your priest friend wanted to prove any of it, he would go to anyone he wants to judge these matters," Randi says. "Tell him we've got one million waiting for him to be used for charity. You can use the money for wine, man or song. All I want is evidence. If someone says to me, 'I have a blue unicorn in my garage' I say, 'Show it to me. No, you won't? OK, goodbye.'"
Samonie is seated at the corner of the couch in his cozy Westland condo, looking as fragile as a cloth doll. His ailing health has made him emotionally sensitive so he keeps a box of tissue within easy reach. Since 2004, he has suffered two heart attacks and a stroke that left his body partially paralyzed. He's lost a lot of weight in the couple of years since Light was filmed. The thick wave in his hair is gone, and his brown, deep-set eyes appear deeper. Friend and caregiver Sally Owen explains that doctors forced him to starve for 10 days, because his lungs kept filling with fluid.
Symptoms of the stroke remain. He wakes up late these days, around 1 p.m., and tires easily. The stroke closed his throat. Once an articulate and impassioned speaker, Samonie is reduced to soft tones. You can barely hear him over the sound of rustling paper in the next room, where his sister Rose sits at the kitchen table, stuffing envelopes promoting his latest book. He gets breathless after each short sentence, but in between sips of apple cider, he tells his story.
Born in Detroit to Lebanese immigrants on April 27, 1930, Samonie comes from a long line of Maronite Catholic bishops in the Assemani family, a common Lebanese name that was altered when his parents emigrated. His family tree includes Yusef Assemani, Archbishop of Tyre and librarian of the Vatican Library. Assemani's brother, Bishop Josephus Aloysius, along with his grand-nephew, Bishop Simeon, were also great scholars admired by the popes. The last in line was Samonie's great uncle, Bishop Louis of Tripoli, with whom Samonie corresponded via mail as a young boy.
Although his parents had always hoped to "give one son back to God," Samonie didn't believe it would be him. Even his mom thought him too much of a shutshought, which is Arabic for a "real slob." But his path changed one summer day, on the way to play baseball on a Vernor Highway field. He thought someone was playing a prank when a voice came from nowhere and said, "Why don't you try going to the seminary for one year?"
At 14 he began studying at Detroit's Sacred Heart Major Seminary to become a Roman Catholic priest. He can still remember the confused looks on faces of seminary classmates when he asked them how they received their "calling."
Samonie stops his story and shuffles across the carpeted floors of the small room to show off one of his talents, playing piano. Performing an excerpt of Richard Addinsell's Warsaw Concerto, his fingers command the sounds of bombs exploding and birds twittering. Either hanging or propped up on the walls are dozens of his oil paintings, misty pastoral scenes of lakes and wooded pathways that have sold out Detroit-area exhibits in 1990, 1995 and 2003. His fourth exhibit is a one-day solo show in March at Plymouth's Frameworks Art Gallery, in conjunction with the release of his latest book.
Al Larson, who owns the store and gallery, says they sold $30,000 worth of work in one day at Samonie's last show.
"You don't see very many places that have art work of inspirational nature," Larson says. "People come to look out of curiosity as to the significance of it." Like a religious version of Where's Waldo?, Samonie has recently begun hiding a Christ figure either in the clouds, in the trees or elsewhere in his canvases. "He's really one of the most genuine, one of the kindest, most compassionate people I know, and he doesn't appear to have a selfish bone in his body. Either he's crazy or he's had some incredible experiences that you and I are likely to never have, so it's amazing to sit and talk to him."
Samonie swears he tried quitting seminary school at least a dozen times, but "the voice" kept telling him to press on. After finally taking priesthood vows in 1956, he studied in Mexico City, living at a seminary called El Seminario Conciliar. He visited the nearby pyramids of Teotihuacán. It was there that he recounts his first past-life vision. In On My Way Home, he describes the episode from another lifetime:
I remember seeing a flash of light from the camera when she took the picture. I started to go join the tour group. However, the most amazing thing happened! I said to myself, "What is this? What's going on?" I looked at my arms. They were very dark. I then noticed I had only a loin cloth around my waist. I felt my hair. It was straight and jet black. I kept saying to myself "I'm a Mayan. How can this be? I am Jay Samonie. How did I get here? And how do I get back?"
As I was standing there in a state of complete confusion someone came up to me speaking in another tongue, not Mayan. Nevertheless, I understood perfectly and told him to how to place a large block in place. The stone must have weighed several tons. ... I was actually doing the work of an architect supervising the construction of two rows of structures that eventually joined the two pyramids."
Samonie writes that two women found him standing, unresponsive, with his head tilted to the right. Later that day, his tour guide told him that it was possible the architects of the pyramids were Mayan. Almost 20 years later, while leading a tour to the same site, Samonie says he discovered that two rows of stone buildings he'd envisioned decades ago had been excavated by archeologists.
Another past-life vision came to him while he visited Madrid's Museo del Prado, standing in front of Diego Velásquez's painting Las Meninas, featuring three little girls and the artist himself. Samonie claims he fell into a trance and envisioned himself painting the picture. Years earlier, on two separate occasions, he says psychics students of his in a seminar told him he was Velásquez in a former life.
Reincarnation, the belief that a living soul is recycled and evolves as a result of good deeds is a core tenet of Hinduism, among other traditions. Father Randall Joyce, who worked with Samonie for a year at Corktown's Most Holy Trinity Church, says he thinks his friend is an extremely talented and good person, but sometimes he needed someone to keep him from "straying into strange territory." Joyce explains that reincarnation, in a strict sense, is not in harmony with Catholic faith.
"We believe that Jesus died on the cross for us," Joyce says. "By his resurrection, his sufferings, he has saved us I don't like to use the word 'saved,' but that he's the one that does it. We don't have to keep working to get it right through the karmic experiences. Jesus gets it right for us."
Scholars say reincarnation was acknowledged in Christianity and in the Bible, until 553 AD, when Justinian, Emperor of the Eastern Empire in Constantinople, and his wife Empress Theodora, had the references taken out. By some accounts, they burned all the Bibles and had them rewritten because Theodora was afraid she was going to return loaded down with bad karma for, among other things, working previously as a courtesan and promoting ethical treatment of prostitutes.
Samonie says he's not alone in his beliefs. Two well-noted examples he cites are Cardinal Desire Joseph Mercier, an early 20th century leader who became the Belgian spokesman against German occupation during World War I, and Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and author ordained as a Roman Catholic priest.
Still, the Amazing Randi is skeptical about the priest's testimony. "It's not a case of whether or not I believe or whether or not it exists. I may not believe in the law of gravity but if I step off a cliff, I fall."
Where's the evidence?
"We've had people who have said they spoke German based on former life, and I say, 'Well, then say something, and then they say something that sounds German. If you check with people who say they lived in England in a former life and then ask them who was the king or queen, they can't answer you. Now that seems fundamental, doesn't it? Knowing the monarchy?"
Samonie says he saw Christ. It was on an early November evening in 1970 at St. Bernadette in Dearborn. Samonie was walking up a side aisle when he saw him a bright light blocking the altar. He tells of the sighting in Light: "I fell to my knees and I could not stop the tears. The only way I can explain it is ... I felt unworthy. Unworthy to be in the presence of my master."
He'd begun seriously meditating through yoga six years earlier. But that next morning at 4 a.m., he had the awakening he had sought. He says a spirit guide held his hand and said, "Do not be afraid, I'm going to take you on a little trip." Samonie says he shot out of his body and into outer space.
For 40 nights in a row, Samonie says he visited ancient places. On the last night, he saw a stone slab, sort of like an Aztec calendar, which played a movie of an artist who time traveled, living as an Egyptian, Greek and Roman. The "movie" played through the late centuries, when Samonie sees the man lying on his deathbed. The artist asked for a painting of a crucified Christ to be brought to him, and said aloud: "Next time, I will give you everything." Samonie says his spirit guide motioned that the artist was talking to him. The guide said to Samonie, "That's when you decided to become a priest."
Father Jay never preached about his personal experiences in church services, but Eastern philosophies, including reincarnation, came up in workshops he taught. During the late '70s and early '80s, while working at Holy Trinity, Samonie taught classes in the Silva Method of Mind Development and Stress Control, which focuses on meditation, healing, positive thinking and memory techniques to sharpen the mind. One local priest accused Samonie of "teaching the work of the devil" and claimed heresy.
Heresy is defined by church law as a Catholic person's "obstinate denial or doubt, after baptism, of a truth which must be believed by divine and Catholic faith."
Ned McGrath, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Detroit, says, "I'm not a canonist, but another way of saying this would be to so deliberately mislead people that their belief in Christ and salvation would be compromised."
"I personally don't believe in reincarnation but I am respectful of others' beliefs," says Sister Margaret Hughes, who worked with Samonie at Most Holy Trinity and took the Silva class. "I think even back then, Father Jay was right on in delving into other faiths' traditions. He never said, 'This is it.' For years we as Catholics have said, 'We belong to the one true church,' and we built fences around ourselves and were isolated. I want to learn about others' beliefs so I can understand them. We have so much in common."
But an accusation of heresy is serious and can lead to excommunication. "It's not a common occurrence in the U.S. Church ... nor, for that matter, in the universal (or world) Church," McGrath says.
In Samonie's case, all four reports one of which he says called for an all-out investigation into his teachings were dismissed. McGrath verifies that "Father Jay Samonie is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit in good standing. His views and statements on metaphysical issues are strictly his own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Detroit archdiocese on such matters."
Father Joyce believes the point of the class was misunderstood. "Some people thought he was trying to control other peoples' minds, but what he was trying to do was help people get control of their own minds and use them more effectively, through study habits and concentration, to get focused, to be more aware."
Samonie doesn't regret one minute of his work. His theological curiosities are, in part, an attempt to find answers to what he's witnessed his whole life, those answers Catholicism refuses to provide. Still, Catholicism is the closest Samonie can come to a religion that's aligned with his personal beliefs.
When Samonie arrived at Corktown's Most Holy Trinity in the '70s, he followed in the footsteps of the legendary Monsignor Clement H. Kern, a friend to Jimmy Hoffa and the homeless. Kern literally offered street people clothes off his back; he once gave his grave site to a family needing to bury a loved one.
But Samonie established his own reputation at Holy Trinity. While continuing the free medical and legal clinics and Kern's open-door policy for helping the poor, he also founded the Manna Soup Kitchen, a program that continues to feed the public. Samonie served for five years as the director of the Pastoral Team for the Hispanic Apostolate, which founded Latin Americans for Social, Economic Development (LASED), and hosted the first pilot project for Alternative for Girls, a 20-year-old local program that provides support, shelter and counseling to high-risk young women and girls. In 1989, Samonie was officially appointed by Michigan Gov. James Blanchard to serve on the Judicial Tenure Commission, a group that oversees the conduct Michigan judges. Samonie was the first priest to be appointed to the commission.
Despite his reputation in the community, Samonie's career has been contentious because he promoted the notion that an individual's personal conscience is superior to any rulebook, saying that the Bible is full of metaphorical teachings. That's not so controversial today, with many priests putting their careers on the line to speak out against the policies of this country and the church. But in the 1950s and '60s, Samonie was delving into ideas that weren't church-approved. In 1963, Samonie says he got some backup, when the Second Vatican Council "let some fresh air in," calling for an examination of all the church doctrines, but many clung to conservative notions.
"There are some that are always supportive of leadership even when they shouldn't be, some that are rewarded for their support in many ways," Sister Hughes says. "And yet if you are a prophet ruffling the waters, you're going to suffer." Hughes remembers Samonie approached the notion of hell and alluded to his ideas about reincarnation during one Sunday service:
"Jay asked the parish, 'Does everybody here believe in hell?' People had their hands up. Even one priest, who was a friend of mine's brother from California, had his hand up. Of course there's a hell, right? That's what we believe. Well, Father Jay said, 'You know, if I'm in heaven, and a person I loved dearly is in hell, I could not be completely happy.' He said, 'I think God, in his goodness, would have us all in heaven, but maybe not all at the same time.'"
A woman with dyed dark hair waves her hands; her long fingers are decorated with gold jewelry and capped with long red nails. She says Samonie healed her. In front of Light's camera, Barbara Duckworth retells the story of meeting Samonie at a dinner party on Nov. 21, 1998, and asking for his blessing. Duckworth was about to go into surgery to fix ulcer problems that'd plagued her for years. Before leaving the party, Samonie put his hands on top of her head and warmth spread through her.
The film cuts to testimony by Duckworth's surgeon, Dr. Richard Spinale. He says when they went in for surgery, the ulcer which had been seen on x-rays was gone.
That's as close to proof as Amazing Randi's going to get with Samonie, but it's not good enough. Samonie prefers not to call it a miracle at all. He says parents perform healings and miracles, there's just no proof of it. They don't know they are doing it. By showing love, one could be warding off infection.
The Catholic Church believes in "private revelations," such as miracles, healings and visions, as long as they don't contradict the church's teachings.
Father Joyce says such revelations aren't very common. "I certainly have never had experiences of that sort. I don't know any of my friends who have." He cites Padre Pio, a Capuchin priest from San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy, who allegedly bore the wounds of Christ for 50 years, and was not too long ago canonized by Pope John Paul for his gifts of bilocation, prophecy, conversion, reading of souls and miraculous cures.
"He was a very holy man, and he didn't parade around and try to make a big show about it. And Jay wasn't a big sensation either. He just quietly lives his life and never talked about these things until he wrote these books. He's not an oddball or anything like that, and he's not a wild heretic. He's a good man with some deeply spiritual experiences and I hope everybody puts this into context in his life. Jay in some ways is like a little child, he just accepts the reality of another world, the invisible world."
After 30 years as a professional magician, the Amazing Randi knows how people can be confounded. We fool ourselves easily. He thinks people need to believe because they need magic in their life if they're not getting solutions in other places, and he hasn't bought any stories of healings or miracles well, except for one: Sophia Loren doesn't look that good at her age without witchcraft. "That ain't Oil of Olay," he says.
To Samonie, personal experience is the highest, most perfect form of experience you can have. In Light, he says he won't deny what's happened to him he can't anymore than he can "deny sitting here talking to you."
After a visit to his basement, where he keeps his philosophy and theology books and his painter's studio, Samonie steps cautiously up the stairs. He calls himself a "slowpoke" and motions for his visitors to pass. Though he's tired, his sense of humor is intact.
"One time Jesus played a trick on me. I heard voices laughing in my room in the night and I said, 'What is this?' And Jesus said, 'I'll play a trick on you.'" The next day was April 27, my birthday, and the winning Lotto number 427 and the year 076. Jesus is a real funny guy. Did you know that?"
Light is available at fatherjay.com or Thomas Video at 122 S. Main St., Clawson; 248-280-2836. An exhibit of Father Jay Samonie's paintings is Sunday, March 18, at Frameworks Gallery, 833 Penniman, Plymouth; 734-459-3355.Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts and culture editor. Send comments to [email protected]