Dottie Zimmerman is a 63-year-old mother of three, an award-winning religion teacher at a Toledo Catholic school, a former Ursuline nun, and a director of the Children's Theatre Workshop.
For the last five years, Mrs. Zimmerman also says she has been "channeling" Padre Pio, letting the dead Italian Catholic saint mystically speak through her.
It is a "gift," she said, and although she never asked for it she believes she must use it to help others, especially children.
Last month, Mrs. Zimmerman channeled the saint during a meeting of the Toledo Lightworkers Co-op, a group of people who explore alternative spirituality.
It was the fifth or sixth time she has publicly channeled Padre Pio, a Capuchin friar from Pietrelcina, Italy, who was known for bearing stigmata, or the wounds of Christ, on his hands and feet. He died in 1968 at age 81 and was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002.
Mrs. Zimmerman said in a recent interview that although she doesn't channel Padre Pio publicly very often, she hears from him almost daily.
"He'll make these pithy little comments. He has a wonderful sense of humor," she said. "One of the things that he insists is that we breathe deeply and we laugh - love, laugh, and breathe are his three words."
An eighth-grade religion teacher at St. Patrick of Heatherdowns School for nearly 30 years, Mrs. Zimmerman said she felt as though spiritual conversations had been percolating within her for years before she began to explore her gift.
She had dismissed the voices as figments of her overactive imagination.
"I'm a very creative, right-brained person so this must be just me imposing my imagination on situations," she said. "That sounded logical to me."
It took a word from her adopted daughter, K.C., now 16 years old, and guidance from her younger brother, Jim Uhl, a psychologist and ex-Jesuit priest, to push her into taking the next step.
K.C. had been communicating with angels since she was a toddler, Mrs. Zimmerman said, adding that the teen's "mentor" is Michael the Archangel.
"She kept saying, 'Mom, the angels say you can do this, you're just not. You're just not.' And I said, 'Honey, no, this is your gift. It's not mine, it's yours.'•"
Meanwhile, at Mr. Uhl's suggestion, Mrs. Zimmerman decided to give "dream therapy" a try during the summer of 2002.
"In this dream I kept seeing a Merlin character," she said. " So he [Mr. Uhl] said if he's reoccurring that much, there's some energy there that we need to look into, and he gave me a couple exercises where in fact I would start asking Merlin what he meant or why this happened in the dream. And I would write answers, and it's like the answers would just come automatically. Well, pretty soon I couldn't write fast enough, they were just going in the computer, and then one day he just says to me, 'You know, I am not Merlin. I am Padre Pio.'•"
Mrs. Zimmerman said she was both stunned and humbled by the revelation.
"He's a person that I had admired since I was a little kid. My mom had a big, huge admiration for Padre Pio. We followed his history a lot," she said.
"I revered this man. I put him on a pedestal - a big pedestal," she said. "So one day I said to him, 'How come me? You are one of my favorite saints, why are you talking to me?' He said, 'Well, because you have the gift. You have something that you have to do with it. You have this gift but you weren't accepting it. The angels kept tell you but you wouldn't listen, so we sent in the big guns.'•"
Mrs. Zimmerman, who was named the outstanding teacher in the 19-county Toledo Catholic Diocese in 1981, said it was an odd sensation to begin writing down Padre Pio's messages.
"It just came through my arm I didn't think I was hearing anything, but my hand would keep writing, which was a really strange feeling for me," she said. "But then I couldn't go fast enough and when I transferred to the computer, all of a sudden it was a different sensation and I find it very difficult to describe. It's not hearing, but it's like if I looked at you and could tell what you are thinking."
After a while, Mr. Uhl suggested she try channeling Padre Pio.
"He says, 'You know, I think you could let him speak through you. I think that's where maybe we are going on this.' I said, 'That's scary I don't want somebody controlling my brain. I don't know if I want to do this or not.'•"
But Padre Pio told her - "and I'm using 'telling' as a verb because I don't know what else to say," Mrs. Zimmerman explained - that he has no control over her, she can break it off at any time, and that he would never interfere with anybody's free will.
"It's like the Prime Directive from Star Trek," she said.
The first time she attempted to channel, Mr. Uhl began by performing a ceremony with incense and chanting, Mrs. Zimmerman said.
"He was blessing and incensing the west and the east and all that and I hear this voice say, 'Tell him just to get on with it! We don't need all this ceremony! And so I started laughing and Jim said, 'What's so funny?' and I said, Padre Pio said, 'Let's just get on with it.'•"
Mrs. Zimmerman said she channels other spirits besides Padre Pio.
Every Saturday, for example, she channels her mother, who died two years ago, by typing out a letter to her surviving father, which she has collected in a looseleaf binder. "He really looks forward to it because he misses her so dreadfully," she said.
She also channels her late husband, John, who "crossed over" 16 years ago.
When she channels Padre Pio, Mrs. Zimmerman speaks in a normal tone of voice but the rhythms and inflections of her speech change.
Mrs. Zimmerman recently gave a demonstration of how she channels Padre Pio while sitting at a dining room table in her father's house in Lambertville, Mich.
In the 25-minute session, with eyes closed and hands folded, the Italian saint, speaking through Mrs. Zimmerman, discussed a wide range of topics, including the U.S. presidential election, the future of the Catholic Church, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"All presidential elections are a reflection of the way the world is at the moment. They all speak of change," Mrs. Zimmerman said while channeling. "So if you're looking for change, you have a wide path. They are all having their plans, their paths. Which one do you feel comfortable with? That, my brother, is your choice and I cannot tell you that.
"But do know that there was no accident that there was a female within this, because her purpose was to open the awareness of the line of the females, of the path of the females, not her particularly, but the path of a female, that nurturing, that love aspect that is part of what goes along with the term female."
On the clerical sexual abuse crisis, the Padre Pio channeler said: "The priest abuse and some of the other things, that is not making the church a bad or a good place. The way it will work is how it is handled. And in those dioceses where it is being handled openly and with compassion and with care, and explanation and openness, I think those parishes and that church there will be very strong."
Regarding the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy, Mrs. Zimmerman said while channeling that everyone who "transitioned" that day went immediately "home," or into heaven, "including those who perpetrated this particular incident. They didn't have their 21 virgins in their party but they were celebrated for three days in partying and love and acceptance because they did what they thought they were supposed to do."
The session closed with Mrs. Zimmerman channeling the saint as saying, "If you have no more questions, I greet you once more and ask you to be open, to be aware, and I ask you to laugh because laughter is so wonderful, and to love and to breathe deeply often during the day. And I withdraw."
The session was very tiring, Mrs. Zimmerman said as she rubbed her eyes.
She said she is hoping to use her gifts to encourage people, especially children, who may have similar talents but are afraid to use or even acknowledge them.
Mrs. Zimmerman just this week had her first book published, Why Am I Different?, by Outskirts Press. It is about a young girl who must cope with her gifts of seeing and hearing spirits.
"More and more kids are coming to me who are hearing voices or who are seeing spirits, some of them both, and lately I've asked him [Padre Pio] if this is an area that I'm being directed towards and he said, 'Absolutely. That's one of the reasons why you're here, to help these kids understand that it's a gift and it's not a fearful thing.'•"
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