BALTIMORE -- There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.

-- Albert Einstein

The memories are faded now, fragile and tattered like the tiny yellow dress Ann O'Neill still keeps, the beautiful silk burial gown sewn for her by an aunt who wept as she stitched the dreadful garment. It was Easter week 1952, in Baltimore. Ann was 4. She was dying of leukemia. The priest had already been by to give her the final blessing.

She remembers her parents bundling her up against the rain and taking her out of the hospital. She remembers dozing on a crib mattress in the back of the family station wagon, too weak to sit up and look out the window. When the car stopped, they were in a cemetery. She remembers being placed on a tomb, and feeling a small flicker of fear as nuns gathered suddenly around and began to pray.

Days later, when Ann was taken back to the hospital for new blood tests, there was no trace of the cancer. Even decades later, renowned hematologists and oncologists would be unable to explain her recovery. The Vatican would dispatch investigators from Rome, and the pope would eventually declare Ann O'Neill a miracle, one of the few ever authenticated in America. Her case would be used to canonize the first American-born saint, Elizabeth Seton.

But it wasn't until last Easter, long after the fervor had subsided, 41 years after she was said to have been touched by the hand of God, that Ann O'Neill faced the ultimate test of faith. It happened in the same hospital where she once had fought for her own life. In the same Holy Week.

Only this time, Ann O'Neill was the mother cradling her dying child. And this time, there would be no miracles.

She is reluctant to talk about what happened to her, about how an astounding event touched an ordinary person. Ann O'Neill is 46 now, a hairdresser intent on living a quiet, private life, a worried grandmother who knows too well that public mention of her miracle is bound to bring out the wackos again. There's been too much to cope with already this past year -- Robert's death, the trial, her divorce, an illness in the family, a move. Ann is tired.

"I'm just a normal person," she protests. "Really, I am." Her soft voice registers something between exasperation and panic. She works two jobs and baby-sits for her grandchildren in between. On this Saturday afternoon, her kitchen is a hive, overrun with two grown kids, a cooing baby, two rambunctious toddlers, a daughter-in-law and the daughter-in-law's father, who speaks only Finnish. Ann feeds everyone hot dogs and beans, potato chips and doughnuts. She eats her own lunch standing up, serene amid the happy chaos.

In her sunny living room, a two-foot statue of the Christ child beckons with chubby arms from an end table, and prayer cards mingle with lottery tickets in Ann's junk drawer. A discreet icon of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton hangs on the wall. But the strongest reminder of Ann's faith is a framed 8-by-10 photograph of a strapping young man with short dark hair and his mother's hazel eyes. Robert Hooe Jr., the youngest of Ann's four children.

It was her eldest son, Joe, who took the call after midnight last April 10, Holy Saturday. Robert was in the shock-trauma unit at University Medical Center (formerly University Hospital). A head injury. Court records of what happened that night are sparse, and Baltimore City police officials refuse to discuss the case or permit a review of their files. But what is certain is this much: Robert Hooe, 20, was cruising in his beloved Jeep with a couple of friends. They spotted a 16-year-old girl on a street corner and shouted obscenities. A bottle was hurled back at the Jeep and shattered the windshield. Robert stopped. As he got out, two male friends of the insulted girl angrily approached.

Christopher Brian Suter, a 20-year-old unwed father of two, later admitted that he punched Robert Hooe hard enough to knock him off his feet, and said Robert hit his head on the pavement when he went down. Some witnesses would later claim they saw Suter kick Robert in the head after he fell. Suter and his friend ran away, leaving the 16-year-old girl behind to deal with the police. The men returned to the scene a short time later and were arrested.

After pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter for the death of Robert Hooe, Christopher Suter served 90 days' confinement in his home and 40 hours of community service. To Ann O'Neill, the punishment was bewilderingly lenient.

She felt somehow ... betrayed.

Either there is a God or there isn't. Either He watches over our lives or we are all alone in a hostile universe, ruled only by implacable laws of physics. Either miracles occur or they don't.

Forty-two years ago a dying child inexplicably recovered, and exalted religious authorities declared it an act of God. The miracle girl did not survive to convert the heathen, or balm the afflicted, or bring peace to a troubled world. She became a hairdresser in Baltimore. She lived a cheerful, unexceptional life, and then she endured the worst pain there is, the senseless death of her own child. Needing compassion, she found public indifference.

What meaning are we to carry away from the story of Ann O'Neill? That God is fickle? Cruel? Manipulative? That for His mercies, He extracts repayment? That all is chance, and God does not exist at all?

Ann O'Neill attends Mass several times a week, and sometimes twice on Sunday. When she goes to charismatic church services, she says her body is electrified, jolted by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Amid crayon drawings and grocery lists stuck to her refrigerator door is a tiny picture of the Blessed Mother.

The meaning of the story of Ann O'Neill may be no more complicated, and no less remarkable, than Ann O'Neill herself.

The miracle has always been the background music in Ann's life, at times barely audible, at times almost too loud to bear.

Because she was so young when it happened, the story is patched together with fragments of her own memories and those of her mother, Felixena, who, like her daughter, is reluctant to tell it yet another time. "It's over for me," Felixena "Sis" O'Neill gently explains. "I don't feel it's going to make any difference to people." Either people believe or they don't.

When Ann fell ill in February 1952, Felixena was 29, a blue-collar housewife pregnant with the third of her five children. Her husband, William, was a diemaker, and the young couple lived in a house they had built themselves.

Normally a happy, robustly healthy child, 4-year-old Ann was suddenly fatigued and irritable. The family doctor put her in St. Agnes Hospital to run some tests. The results were horrifying: Ann had acute lymphatic leukemia. Today, the Leukemia Society of America reports a 73 percent cure rate, but in 1952, there was no effective treatment, and the disease was 100 percent fatal. Ann's diagnosis was kept secret from her mother for fear that the shock could cause Sis to lose the baby she was carrying.

But the truth was impossible to hide, and anyone could see that Ann was dying. She was losing weight rapidly, and her face was bloated and colorless. She was transferred to the University of Maryland Hospital to be treated by one of the country's foremost hematologists, Milton Sacks. The Jewish doctor testified years later before a Vatican tribunal, describing how his young patient had been admitted with bloody sores on her neck and back, severe anemia and a fever of 105 degrees. Sacks didn't expect her to live long.

Ann's mother kept vigil at her bedside, sponging the burning child with alcohol, tearing herself away only when she went into labor.

When Ann went into partial remission in late March, her parents took her home.

But as Easter approached, Ann grew worse, developing severe chickenpox and pneumonia. "She was white as a sheet," her mother recalled. "I thought that just to see pink cheeks once more ..." Then Ann began wheezing. "Her eyes would get so big just trying to get that breath, just struggling for air," Sis said. "My husband would slap her on the back." They rushed Ann back to St. Agnes, where she was placed in an oxygen tent. The doctors told William it wouldn't be long now, maybe a day, maybe a few hours.

Sis O'Neill had been praying for Ann's recovery all along, and believed fervently that miracles were possible. St. Agnes was a Catholic hospital, run by the Sisters of Charity. The nuns hovered anxiously over the dying child. When the head pediatrics nurse, Sister Mary Alice Fowler, asked the little girl if she wanted to go to Heaven to see the Blessed Mother, Sis firmly interjected: "No, Sister, not yet."

The young resident on the pediatrics ward, John Healy, found the desperate mother's unflinching faith so moving that he remembers it vividly nearly half a century later. "She never even questioned for five seconds that this girl was going to get better," Healy said in a recent interview from Arbutus, Md., where he still practices medicine at 75. "Every day was the day she thought her daughter was going to get better. She had tremendous faith."

But by Good Friday, her child was in such agony that Sis tearfully implored God to take her.

Tentatively, Sister Mary Alice approached Sis. The Sisters of Charity had been striving for years to have their founder canonized, a long and arduous process that requires at least four miracles attributed to the candidate for sainthood. Since her death on Jan. 4, 1821, Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton had been credited with one miracle -- the 1935 cure of a New Orleans nun suffering from pancreatic cancer. A second miracle was needed now for beatification, the next step on the road toward canonization. Sister Mary Alice wondered if the O'Neills would consider praying to Mother Seton for Ann's recovery.

Sis O'Neill knew nothing about Mother Seton. A deeply devout convert to the Catholic Church, Seton was a widow with five small children when she founded the country's first religious order and began living a life of abject poverty as a Sister of Charity in Emmitsburg, Md., where she also established the first parochial school.

In that spring of 1952, Sister Mary Alice launched an all-out campaign for Seton's sainthood, sending word to convents, parish churches and rectories to pray to Mother Seton for the recovery of Ann Theresa O'Neill. Masses were said on Ann's behalf, and children in parochial schools prayed for her as well. A relic of Mother Seton -- a scrap of cloth that had been touched to her remains -- was pinned to Ann's nightgown.

Doctors who saw Ann's fatally low blood count turn completely normal after the visit to the tomb wondered if they had stumbled across a cure for leukemia. Maybe Ann's chickenpox had forced her body to jump-start its immune system. A bad enough case could do that sometimes -- but no such remission had ever lasted.

Although a devout Catholic himself, John Healy was among the skeptical.

"We were all very, very amazed," he said. "I couldn't believe it. We thought it was strictly a remission." The disease would surely return, and just as surely, it would kill Ann O'Neill. When he was called before the Vatican tribunal a decade later, he told the roomful of priests and bishops and doctors that he had never before witnessed such fathomless faith.

Ann's health did not rebound overnight. She was pathetically thin and weak, but she grew stronger by the day, and the O'Neills were convinced that she had indeed been cured. Yet the family's troubles were far from over. The staggering hospital bills wiped the O'Neills out. They were forced to sell their house and insurance policies and go on public assistance.

For five years, Ann required regular checkups, blood tests and bone marrow scans. She remained free of cancer. It seemed as if the O'Neills had barely come through the crisis with Ann when tragedy struck again.

The family was just getting home from an errand. Sis was walking to the front door with a baby in her arms "when I heard this bang like a nightmare behind me." She turned to see a big black Cadillac in the yard, her husband sprawled nearby with the white bones of his knee jutting through his bloodied trousers. The woman driving the Caddy was drunk. William O'Neill, sole breadwinner for his wife and five daughters, was crippled.

The Sisters of Charity stayed close to the O'Neills, and Sister Mary Alice remained a family friend until her death last January. Detailed reports of Ann's cure were slowly wending their way through the Vatican bureaucracy, and Sister Mary Alice was certain this would be the miracle the nuns needed to prove Mother Seton's holiness.

Remembering those impoverished years, Ann recalls how the sisters would sometimes come by with bags of groceries, and how generous neighbors would give the little O'Neill girls Easter outfits each year. Eventually, the pulp and paper mill where William had worked found him a job that wouldn't tax his shattered knee. Now and then, the O'Neills would return to Emmitsburg to pray at Mother Seton's shrine.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore did not even begin investigating the miraculous cure of Ann O'Neill until 1961, when she had been healthy for nine years. Ann knew the story of her brush with death, and all about Mother Seton, but still she would flinch in embarrassment when strangers at church or the shrine reached out to touch her, as if she were imbued with holiness. The 12-year-old had no idea yet of the sacrifices she would be expected to make for the cause.

The process of recognizing miracles in the Catholic Church is exhaustive. First, a postulator is appointed to gather the entire medical history of the person healed, as well as testimony from witnesses to the healing.

All of this information is then given to two independent doctors considered leading experts in whatever disease or injury has been cured. The experts review the case history and, if even one of them suggests that it merits further study, the process continues. If both can find a possible logical or rational explanation for the event, the matter is dropped. About 65 percent of the cases never clear this first hurdle.

When Ann's case reached this stage, she and her mother were flown to Boston so Ann could be examined by Sidney Farber, a Harvard professor of pathology who had developed the first effective treatment against leukemia. Then 13, Ann had to undergo an excruciating bone marrow biopsy.

"What they do is stick these long needles into your chest and hip, straight into the bone. They can't use anesthesia or anything to deaden the pain. I remember they did the chest first, then my hip," Ann said. When the doctors decided the procedure hadn't been done properly the first time, they plunged the needle into the screaming girl a second time.

Did Ann have any say, any choice? She shakes her head. "My mother says I did, but I don't remember being asked," she says now. And even if no one was overtly forcing her to submit, there was, subconsciously at least, a deep sense of obligation. Her life had been spared. She owed. She was the miracle girl.

Rome sent a delegation to Baltimore to gather the secret testimony of witnesses to the 1952 healing. In a somber room at the city's cathedral, the interrogators gathered, including four physicians chosen from the Vatican's pool of 60 -- all Italian and all Roman Catholics. John Healy was among those summoned to appear.

"I can't talk about what went on, because we took an oath of secrecy," Healy hesitates some 32 years later. "It was tough. They are very, very nasty people. I almost leveled a couple of them.

"That's their job, to be the devil's advocate. And they take it seriously."

The bound transcripts of the tribunal are as thick as an encyclopedia, with pages and pages of complicated medical theories and tables. A small percentage of the testimony is in English; the rest is translated into Italian.

Ann herself was not called to testify. Sis O'Neill sat at the table in the center of the room. "I wasn't afraid," she said. "We all knelt down and prayed before the questioning began."

The doctors who had treated Ann acknowledged that her cure was unprecedented and could not be explained by the laws of science or nature. Milton Sacks was guarded. "I do not know whether there was a miracle or not," he testified, though he said he had never seen or heard of a spontaneous cure like Ann's. He said that at the time of her illness, the prognosis for leukemia was "inexorably fatal. The longest remission I know of is 2 1/2 years."

Is there any case where remission has been permanent, Sacks was asked.

"No, not that I know of. They would certainly have been written up. The only reason that this has not been written up in this case is that I have been afraid to." He did not elaborate.

Today, Ronald McCaffrey, the Leukemia Society's vice chairman and the chief of medical oncology at Boston University, remembers hearing about the O'Neill healing while in medical school at Tufts, where Sidney Farber was lecturing. "I remember him saying in public that there was absolutely no question ... that she had leukemia," McCaffrey said, adding that Farber "was the premier hematologist in the world."

A native of Ireland raised Catholic himself, McCaffrey has never reviewed records in the O'Neill case, and does not believe in miracles, though he encourages families of his cancer patients to pray. "The body to me is a very mechanical thing," he said in a telephone interview. "If a car needs gas, you can pray all you want and it won't start.

"Something definitely did happen that obeyed the laws of physics in respect to the body," he said of Ann O'Neill's cure. If that something happened for no explicable reason, McCaffrey admits, then "it's a friggin' miracle."

"All is a miracle," the French philosopher Voltaire once wrote. "The stupendous order of nature, the revolution of a hundred millions of worlds around a million of suns, the activity of light, the life of animals, all are grand and perpetual miracles."

Miracles are the foundation of all major religions; those recorded in the Bible were indeed grand and perpetual. Lazarus being raised from the dead. The waters cleanly parting on the vast Red Sea. The face of Jesus imprinted on the cloth that Saint Veronica used to tenderly wipe His bloodied brow as He bore the Cross up the Mount of Olives on Good Friday.

But now a bizarre banality seems to have supplanted that sense of grandeur, as if some celestial production company is test-marketing whether sitcoms might be a better format for miracles than epic dramas. Now holy apparitions are said to appear in flour tortillas, in cloud formations, in a forkful of spaghetti on a billboard. Places like Lubbock, Tex., become pilgrimage sites. A Northern Virginia priest who once rode a roller coaster for five days nonstop to set a world record mysteriously causes statues of the Virgin Mary to weep.

The Rev. James Gill, a Hartford priest and psychiatrist who helps the Catholic Church investigate reports of miracles and apparitions, readily acknowledges that, through the ages, such claims "seem often quite absurd."

"I mean, how many towns in Europe have got the head of John the Baptist buried there?" he said. "People want to think that holy people and holy events have been close to where they live and that Heaven shows preference for their locality."

Most claims, he finds, are without merit, either an outright hoax or a pathetic bid for attention by the emotionally imbalanced.

But interest in the power of prayer and divine intervention is clearly growing and even gaining some credibility as an area of scientific study.

For the first time ever, the National Institutes of Health is funding research into the effects of spirituality. Last fall, a fledgling alternative-medicine department at NIH awarded a $30,000 grant to a researcher hoping to measure the impact of prayer on the recovery of drug abusers.

"It's a sort of landmark thing," said Larry Dossey, a Santa Fe, N.M., internist on the panel that awarded the grant. Dossey, who recently published a book reviewing more than 130 studies on the effects of prayer, concludes that "some of these results just knock your socks off." His personal favorite involves experiments with simple organisms -- people praying for bacteria and fungi in a petri dish.

Fungi that are remembered in prayer "do significantly better" than those that aren't, Dossey reported.

Nine hundred eighty-four dollars and twelve cents. In the end, that was the value a Baltimore court put on Robert Hooe's life. The restitution Christopher Brian Suter was ordered to pay Hooe's family was neatly divided into two payments: $548.69 to repair the shattered windshield of his Jeep, and $435.43 for funeral flowers and the suit Robert Hooe was laid out in.

Suter received a six-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter, all of it suspended but for 90 days' home confinement. He was ordered to perform 40 hours of community service. In a motion his attorney filed seeking a reduction of the three years' probation Suter also received, it was noted that the defendant came from a family with five generations of Baltimore policemen, and had dreamed of becoming a cop himself. Reached by telephone at his Lansdowne home, Suter is asked if he would like to give his side of the story. "Just a minute," he says. Moments later, a woman comes to the phone.

"This is Christopher's mother," she says. "Is this something the Hooes are doing?" Susan Suter demands. "Did they contact you or did you contact them?" Told that Robert Hooe's family did not seek any publicity, Mrs. Suter states that her grown son will have no comment. "Everything that happened was resolved in court. We in our family have ... resolved it among ourselves." Before hanging up, she adds acidly: "It's just sad that they can't let things rest."

Indeed, Robert's family cannot let it rest. The death proved devastating, a greater strain than Ann O'Neill's 25-year marriage could withstand; she and her husband are trying to forge separate lives. Ann raised her children to trust in God, a God she knew from her own experience to be merciful and loving. Sitting in the courtroom last summer when Christopher Suter struck his plea bargain, Joe Hooe, now 25, was stunned.

"The system doesn't work," he says now. "That's all we had, was the faith then. ... No justice was done. The only thing is to find your faith and keep your sanity."

He jokes fondly about his mother the miracle, announcing that "she's not going to be parting the waters of the Chesapeake Bay today." And then, gazing down at the infant daughter sleeping in his arms, he turns serious.

"Miracles don't happen all the time. Robert, for example. You would think the life of a miracle, or of people affected by that miracle, would be very easy. It's not. A lot of people believe she can't be a miracle: All this has happened to her. They think, if she's a miracle, how could this be possible? To lose her youngest son?"

Ann herself has her moments of anger and doubt. "You definitely question your faith," she admits. "You ask why, why it had to happen."

Glancing at the framed photograph of her dead son next to the statue of the infant Jesus, Ann O'Neill cannot stop loving either one. "Sometimes," the miracle girl says sadly, "God changes His mind. The greatest faith we have is when God says no."

After Ann's painful bone marrow biopsies in Boston, the results of the Vatican tribunal were sent to Rome. On Dec. 14, 1962, Pope John XXIII confirmed the findings. Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton was beatified, in the next-to-last step toward canonization.

Ann was a teenager by then, enrolled at Seton High School, where the grateful Sisters of Charity waived the usual entrance exams. With the beatification of Mother Seton, Ann was a celebrity in the religious community. The attention embarrassed her and made other girls in her class resentful.

"She would be introduced as 'Mother Seton's miracle,' " Sis O'Neill recalled. "Ann was very sensitive, but she handled it well."

Ann is less annoyed now when strangers touch her; she has learned to accept it. As a child, "I didn't even know what the word 'miracle' meant. It didn't really impress me.

"I couldn't understand why people were so overwhelmed," she added. "The biggest miracle -- people see it every day! The sun, the stars, the trees."

Now, she acknowledges her role wryly. "I'm a walking relic."

When the time came for Ann and her mother to go to Rome for the beatification ceremony in 1963, Ann was just a normal teenager with little understanding of or appreciation for the momentous event at hand. She was the kind of girl who tested the nuns' fortitude by coming to school with her hair dyed blue-black and teased up high. She wore lime-frost lipstick. She favored miniskirts and fishnet stockings.

The years passed. Ann married a mechanic, Robert Hooe, Sr., and she had all four of her children by the time she was 25. She named her only daughter Mary Alice, after the nun on the pediatrics ward at St. Agnes. A Protestant man in Florida recovered from a deadly brain tumor, and the Vatican tribunal began its process again. The cure was declared a miracle, attributed to the intercession of Blessed Elizabeth Ann Seton. The usual requirement for a fourth miracle was waived. On Dec. 12, 1974, Pope Paul VI authorized the canonization.

The ceremony was set for Sept. 14, 1975, more than 23 years after Ann O'Neill recovered from leukemia. She flew to Rome with her mother, her husband and Sister Mary Alice.

When it was time for an audience with the pope, Ann discovered she had left her ticket at the hotel. Sister Mary Alice couldn't find hers either. Ann's mother gave up her ticket, over Ann's protests. It had been her mother's faith, her mother's prayers, that had been rewarded. Sis shouldn't be excluded. "They were all saying, 'The miracle must go in, the miracle has to go in.' I was begging my mother to take my ticket. 'No. The miracle has to go in.' "

Crying and angry, Ann stalked in to meet the pope while her mother and Sister Mary Alice waited outside. The pope looked at her with compassion and said, "I'll pray for you, and you pray for me."

Robert Hooe lay in intensive care, a 14-inch surgical scar from ear to ear where doctors had operated to try to relieve the pressure on his brain. Two bolts were screwed into his head to help relieve the swelling. Joe, the oldest brother, fights tears as he remembers that last day. "I held his hand while he died," he said. "I never thought I'd have to do that."

"You could do almost anything to him and he'd still forgive you. He's definitely the kind of people you miss every single day."

The irony of seeing her son at University Hospital does not escape Ann. "I kept thinking how he was in one wing fighting for his life, and I had been in another, fighting for mine." She prayed for divine mercy. She vowed to accept God's will. He received the last rites four times, until his mother was certain that "he had enough blessings to go."

"It was a beautiful death," she said, "a holy death. Now I have my own angel in Heaven."

In court four months later, she tearfully disputed testimony that Robert had never regained consciousness.

"I was standing over him," she recounted recently. "And I said: 'Robert, it's Mom. If you hear me, open your eyes. Robert, open your eyes and look up, you'll see me.' " When he weakly responded, Ann said, she looked into his face and knew he was gone. But what overcame her then was not grief or self-pity, nor was it rage at the God who had spared her only to take her child. Instead, she felt blessed, filled with grace.

"I saw Christ's eyes instead of his," she said.

That some people might scoff does not faze her. She has no interest in winning converts or convincing skeptics.

"If you believe, you believe," she says. "If you don't, you don't."