Sula waits for someone to open the door to the garden. Photo by Nick Lovejoy
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A cancer-surviving cat and a woman who lived through melanoma had a special interaction at Old Mission San Juan Bautista a few years ago that helped the parishioner think differently about her own scars.
Sula is a gray and white feline living at the mission, where she regularly surprises church members and school children on field trips. The cat is particularly well known for her uncanny ability to identify those in distress and lend a helping paw.
“It was a cold, cold night and I went with a lady from a retirement home and we went to mass together,” said Loryn Kehoe-Ross, 59. “And Sula was in the back and she came and sat in my lap, which she has never done before and she has never done since then.”
In this particular case, the parishioner believes the cat had a “premonition” of what was to come and gave her a little extra love, she explained.
After the mass, Kehoe-Ross—who was left with deep scars on her face after doctors cut away cancerous tissue—went to a dinner party where an attendee commented on her appearance. The person asked why Kehoe-Ross didn’t get a better doctor and added World War II pilots had gotten better reconstruction than she did, the parishioner said.
Sula, a cat without ears, knows something about cancer. She also is a survivor of a sun-caused cancer—the kitty equivalent of melanoma—which attacked her ears, one of the few parts of a cat aggressively exposed to the elements.
“You’re just so grateful to be alive,” Kehoe-Ross said. “So I feel like Sula and I, we’re lucky we made it. I mean, yes, we’re scarred but we made it.”
No one seems to know exactly how Sula, going on 10 years old, made her way to the mission. Gift shop employees guessed she might have been left at the historic site—or perhaps she was traveling with a person, they got separated and she stayed, said Ana Silva, the gift shop’s manager. A quick check with a veterinarian revealed she was about a year old and was already fixed, Silva said. Clearly, she had been someone’s pet.
Someone said her markings—color on the head and tail with a white body—made her a Turkish Van cat, a breed of feline famous for this distinctive pattern and native to Southeast Turkey, Silva said. That’s how the gift shop employees at the time arrived at her exotic name: Sula.
It didn’t take the kitty long to discover the gift shop she had adopted was near a mission, which is no stranger to felines. The adobe sanctuary has at least two to three visible cat doors, which are now sealed, Silva explained.
Sula’s favorite spots at the historic site include lounging on her red velvet cushion in the gift shop, soaking up the sun in the olive grove and claiming a person’s lap during mass. Parishioners have also reported seeing her curled up on the Día de Los Muertos altar and sleeping in the straw next to baby Jesus in the days when the church placed its nativity figurines in a miniature barn.
When Sula was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, her Mission City community came together to get their kitty the medical care she needed. An announcement in the church’s bulletin brought a flood of donations worth $600 in just one week, which covered cost of the surgery, “so she was able to go right away,” Silva said. Sula’s ears were clipped, but when the cancer returned in 2014, they were completely removed to prevent it from spreading, the gift shop manager explained. In a check-up earlier this month, the cat was cancer free, Silva said.
Curled up on a red velvet cushion, on the desk across from Silva, Sula occasionally wiggled her toes in her sleep but did not open her eyes. Silva paused as she looked for words to describe her friend.
“I’d say that she was like all cats. She wants attention when she wants,” Silva said. “But she seems to kind of know when you might need attention.”
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