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Restoring the mystical healing power of prayer // Tampa woman formed a lay ministry to help people focus on and practice personal prayer

Never underestimate the power of prayer, says Barbara Spoto McGowan ofTampa.

She believes it can reunite broken couples, heal traumatized children, solve nagging problems and yes, even cure cancer.

Although McGowan has no medical proof that prayer cured her bladder cancer 14 years ago, "I choose to believe it did."

McGowan is so committed to prayer's mystical force that she founded the Tampa Ecumenical Healing Team, a lay ministry comprised of members from several denominations in the Tampa Bay area. According to McGowan, participants have been trained "to pray with and for others for needs that can be met and helped through the power of God's love and grace."

By appointment, McGowan's teams visit churches to help members learn to practice and focus on the healing power of prayer. Although that may sound simple enough, McGowan says many people have lost touch with how to communicate with Jesus.

"I haven't come up with anything new - what I'm trying to do is restore a lost art," she says. "We seem to have forgotten prayer's place in our lives."

Moreover, McGowan is quick to give credit where credit's due.

"This was God's idea," she says. "I'm just following through on his plans."

McGowan will present a Healing Prayer Seminar on Feb. 24 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 518 Marion St., Tampa.

Cost is $3. For reservations, call 229-1595.

As with all her seminars, McGowan's goal is to help participants learn to be partners with the Lord and to "help yourself, your family and friends with healing prayer." She points out, quite emphatically, that her ministry is not a part of the charismatic renewal, nor is it connected to "anything New Age."

"This is strictly sanctioned by the (Catholic) church," she says. "We rely on the gift and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit."

McGowan's journey from homemaker to prayer leader began 14 years ago, when she developed bladder cancer. She was a former Roman Catholic who had become an Episcopalian, her husband's faith.

Terrified she was going to die, McGowan, then 37, wouldn't talk about the cancer with anyone. She kept her fear and despair to herself. She had one operation, which was successful, but then another growth six months later called for a second operation.

"That's when I knew I couldn't take it anymore. I was terrified," she recalls.

For the first time in her life, McGowan turn to a priest for emotional help. She admitted to him she had drifted away from God and had forgotten how to pray for help. With his assistance, she says she learned how to make contact with God again through spontaneous prayer.

McGowan describes her "rebirth" this way: "It felt like a ball of fire had been burning in my heart.

Suddenly, it was gone. Jesus came in and took its place. I experienced fruit of the spirit, love and joy. I immediately felt at peace again."

After the operation, doctors told her there was no trace of cancer, and they couldn't give her a good explanation as to how that had occurred. In McGowan's opinion, prayer was the healer.

"The physical healing was just the icing on the cake. It was the spiritual healing that made the greatest impact on me," she says.

Two years ago, through prayers, McGowan says she experienced an "inner healing" that made her understand why she had left the Catholic church as a college student. It had been a disappointment over what a priest had told her in confession.

With that revealed to her, McGowan made a reconciliation and returned to the church. Since then, her husband, William, a lawyer in Tampa, and their two children have converted to Catholicism.

"It seems fitting that we all came to our separate decisions, and we're all together now," she says.