Across the cloistered courtyard of a southern French seminary college, dressed in a white habit, wimple and navy cardigan, strolled the shy woman known as the "miracle nun". Swinging her arms and striding confidently in her beige loafers in her first public appearance, she was the picture of health.
"It's like a second birth," she smiled "I feel like I've discovered a new body, new limbs." After two years of intense secrecy, Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre, 45, was yesterday revealed to the public as the earthly embodiment of the latest great mystery of the Catholic church. The nun, who knew she wanted to serve Christ from the age of 12 in her northern French village and now works as a nurse for the Little Sisters of Catholic Maternities, is being cited as the living proof that the late Pope John Paul II has healing powers from beyond the grave.
Aix-en-Provence, the southern French city better known for the painter Paul Cézanne and the writer Emile Zola, is in the limelight once again.
Diagnosed with incurable Parkinson's disease in 2001, two years ago Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre could barely move her left side. She could not write legibly, drive, move around easily and was in such pain she couldn't sleep. So great was her dread of her condition's inevitable degeneration that she could not bear to watch her esteemed Pope John Paul II, also a Parkinson's sufferer, appearing on television in his pope-mobile.
"It reminded me of what I would be in a few years' time, I had to listen to his broadcasts rather than watch them," she said. Her disease worsened after his death, and her whole order prayed for his intervention to ease her suffering. Then one night after scrawling his name on a paper with her trembling hand, she woke up the next day cured. She has spent two years back at work as a maternity nurse with no traces of the disease.
Since 2005, the Catholic church has kept the case quiet, conducting a secret investigation in which it has interviewed around 15 witnesses, including neurologists, university medical professors, a psychiatrist and a hand-writing analyst. Now satisfied that the mysterious recovery is medically inexplicable, the diocese of Aix-en-Provence will on Monday give its dossier to the Vatican. It is up to Pope Benedict XVI to rule whether it is a miracle. If he does, it would put the late John Paul II on the first step to sainthood.
On June 2 2005, two months after the pontiff's death, Marie-Simon-Pierre accepted her condition was so bad that she would have to resign from work. It was a difficult decision, being from a deeply observant Catholic family of five in northern France she had always felt a calling to serve in maternity. Her superior told her not to give up hope. "She asked me to write Jean Paul II on a piece of paper to give me strength. I didn't want to write in front of anyone because I had such difficulties, and if someone was watching me, it would be even harder. But I wrote Jean Paul II. It was almost illegible." Later the nun was "seized by a need to write". It was such an unusual urge that she couldn't even find a pen to hand. She wrote a few lines. "I looked at my writing and thought that's funny, your writing is very readable."
In the morning she was aware of a lack of the usual stiffness and pain. She said she felt an "inner strength". She went to the chapel at 4am, with none of her usual difficulty walking. "I realised that my body was no longer the same. I was convinced that I was cured.
"I went to a sister and showed her my hand. It wasn't shaking. I said John Paul has healed me. She looked at me wide-eyed and we stood in silence."
That day, she was able to work on the maternity ward, assisting a caesarean and registering the baby's birth in her own hand-writing. She stopped taking her daily medication. Five days later her neurologist was stunned by her agility in strolling into his office. He asked her if she had doubled her medication.
Beside Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre at her first media appearance yesterday sat the archbishop of Aix-en-Provence and the priest who headed the inquiry.
On the desk was a box file containing the medical documents, photographs and witness statements that the Aix-en-Provence clergy believe prove an inexplicable recovery has taken place.
To qualify as a miracle the recovery must be sudden, complete and permanent - as well as inexplicable. For an illness such as cancer, the church would take at least 10 years to verify an inexplicable recovery, in case the patient relapsed. But yesterday the diocese said Parkinson's, which was incurable, had no such time requirement.
The Vatican process requires that John Paul's life and writings be studied for its virtues and that a confirmed miracle be attributed to his intercession before he can be beatified - the last formal step before possible sainthood
This weekend Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre is to travel to Rome for ceremonies marking the second anniversary of the pontiff's death and the closure of a church investigation into his life.