I have to begin my conversion story by relating something of my family life. My father worked for the government as an air traffic controller. They transferred him wherever they wished even though he had a family. So, we moved from state to state when I was a little girl. My youngest brother and I were born in Minnesota, our home state. I was born in 1948 in Minnesota and baptized October 31 that same year in Selma, Alabama, which tells how often we moved. My other brother and sister were each born in a different Southern state. Because of our constant moving, establishing a stable spiritual home was quite difficult for us.
We were nominally Episcopalian, attending services sporadically. I remember going for Easter, and attending some Christmas services, but not much else until we moved back to Minnesota where my mother insisted we settle down. As she told my father, “The kids and I are staying here!” I was about ten years old.
We were renting a house on the east side of St. Paul close to where I was born. Though there was an Episcopal parish within walking distance, we weren’t attending there at that time. I went to a nearby non-denominational church’s vacation Bible school. I was enthralled by the services, learning Bible verses, and singing their children’s songs. I remember the Sunday School teacher telling us that Jesus would cover over our sins so we could go to heaven. I very much wanted to go to heaven — and very much didn’t want to go to hell — so I eagerly followed her in reciting the sinner’s prayer.
It’s strange, but even at that young age I thought there was something wrong with the idea that our sins would simply be covered over. Wouldn’t that mean they are still there? I asked myself. And if they’re still there, and only pure things can be in heaven, as our teacher had also said, why would God simply ignore my sins? Wouldn’t it be better if He got rid of them and made us holy? I never asked the teacher about it, though, thinking she must know better than I.
Eventually, my family returned to the Episcopal Church after a couple of members from the local non-denominational church came to visit my parents to convert them. This effort to convert my parents spurred our family to resume attending the local Episcopal Church. We moved once more, but this time we faithfully attended our new Episcopal church where I was confirmed at age twelve.
And then our world fell apart — my thirty-five-year-old father died of a coronary occlusion. My mom was left a widow with four children, no job, and a paltry ten thousand dollar life insurance policy to support us all. It was too much for her; she melted into grief. Our Episcopal priest helped my mom get a job as a nurse’s aide at the local Catholic hospital, so we survived, but she was never the same.
Coping in an Assembly of God
In her grief, the Episcopal Church didn’t seem to give my mother what she wanted anymore, which was certainty of salvation and emotional support. Then we got a new priest who, unfortunately, had a cold personality, which didn’t suit my mom. Dissatisfied, she turned to her Evangelical friends, who were glad to whisk her away into one of their churches.
After experimenting with going to a local Baptist church and several home Bible and prayer meetings, we ended up leaving the Episcopal Church for the Assemblies of God (AG). I didn’t like the AG services when we first started attending. Since my brothers and sister and I had not had been exposed to Pentecostalism, the Assemblies of God came as quite a shock to us after the sedate liturgy, hymns, and devotional practices of the Episcopal Church. The style of worship was alien to me; I thought it bizarre and irreverent. My first impulse was to run for the door. But, I had no choice. This was the church my mom had chosen, so it was the church to which I had to adapt.
The lively music had some appeal to my teenage taste and the sermons were rousing — nothing like the quiet homilies on loving our neighbor and being a good citizen that I had heard in the Episcopal Church. We were taught straight out of the Bible and were encouraged to read it for ourselves and pray on our own — another thing I hadn’t experienced before. I began to drink in Scripture like one dying from thirst in the desert. Soon I was speaking in tongues, prophesying, and singing with gusto just like everyone else.
By the time I entered high school I was a faithful member. More and more I embraced my new church’s mission, making it my primary concern. I became a little evangelist, accosting people on the bus, in school, and anywhere else I could to try to get them saved. This did not endear me to the popular set at school and I found myself, apart from the kids at my church, isolated from everyone my age. I took this hardship as the price I had to pay for being true to God. I saw everyone else as “lost” and in need of saving.
After graduating from high school in 1966, I worked for a year and then applied to our local Assemblies of God Bible college. I thought I ought to serve God in this way even though I had no clear idea what I would do with a Bible college education. Teaching positions in the AG were few and far between, but I majored in religious education — really hoping I would get married to a guy training to be a pastor, and thus help him in his ministry. That was certainly the path others saw laid out for me, and, having no other ideas of what to do with my life, I fell in line with it.
Here began my rather checkered college career. I could write a book about my Bible college experience, but in brief, it took me ten years to receive my B.A. in religious education, finally graduating 1978. During that time, I worked full time when not attending classes, got engaged to be married twice, and got involved in many and varied ministries ranging from Gospel singing groups to street preaching.
None of it satisfied me. As I studied and did ministries, I prayed, cried, and despaired of ever finding God’s real purpose for my life. By the time I finally graduated, I had no more of an idea of what to do with my Bible college degree than when I started classes ten years before!
Spiritual aridity was unheard of in the Assemblies of God (at least, it was never talked about). We were expected to maintain a perpetual attitude of cheerfulness and positivity. I remember college friends, worried about me, telling me that certain people thought I wasn’t “spiritual enough.” I was told they were praying for me — the buzzword for “you’re not acting like you should be.” And they were right — I wasn’t acting or feeling like everyone else.
I had become dissatisfied with the Assemblies of God, because there was no depth to the spirituality and no resources to grow in God, despite all their efforts to keep us “well fed on the word,” as they put it. In their well-used analogy, they said they wanted fat sheep that wouldn’t be tempted to wiggle under the fence into another church’s pasture. But, I hadn’t gotten “fat” on the Assemblies God’s diet of speaking in tongues and hearing the same Scripture passages preached again and again. I felt stuck. I had already invested so much of my life into it that I couldn’t see where else I could go.
The opening of my mind
A bright spot in my life were books by C. S. Lewis. I devoured Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, Surprised by Joy, and The Chronicles of Narnia. I will always bless Lewis, because reading him allowed me to return to the Episcopal Church of my childhood. The Episcopal Church had a charismatic prayer group, thus providing me (and my Assemblies of God friends) an excuse for my return.
Another author whose writing shook me to the core was J. R. R. Tolkien, especially his The Lord of the Rings series. I had read The Hobbit and saw some good spirituality in it, but then I went to see an animated version of The Lord of the Rings produced by Ralph Bakshi. Although the film was rather choppy, the story intrigued me, so I went straight from the theater to find a bookstore and bought a three-volume paperback set. I read the whole of Frodo’s story that weekend. After reading it, I recognized that my current religious view of life wasn’t good enough, but I couldn’t quite see why.
Through reading Lewis and Tolkien, I began to see Scripture with new eyes. Why, I wondered, did the AG gloss over or argue away passages that disagreed with its teachings? For instance, when I had read Jesus’ words in John 6 my heart would burn with fear and desire: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you….For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (Jn 6:53, 55).
I feared that I would not have eternal life, because, if our metaphorical interpretation was wrong, I would have to answer to God for not receiving Christ’s Body and Blood. It also made me desire a closer union with Christ — a union I did not have regardless of how hard I tried to follow the Assemblies of God’s teachings.
To Jesus…through Mary?
During this period I had a significant dream — one I’ll never forget. I don’t consider it a “revelation” from God, but rather a prompting in a direction I had not considered until then.
I dreamt I saw a man dressed in biblical-style clothing crawling on the ground, obviously hurt and unable to stand. I felt compelled to help him. I knelt down beside him and he looked at me. My world turned over. It was the Lord, as I had never pictured Him! I had heard the biblical descriptions of the Man of Sorrows and thought I had given Him the praise due Him for taking away my sins, but this image of Him told me I hadn’t understood or embraced Him as the Suffering Messiah who I was supposed to imitate in my own life.
He said, “Now you will live in the new millennium.” I felt a shift in the dream’s reality and began to doubt who I believed I was seeing and hearing — perhaps it came from my confusion over His statement. Or, it may be that He was so different from the resurrected, triumphant Lord who was the centerpiece of Assemblies of God spirituality that I just couldn’t accept it. In any case, I thought I would make sure I wasn’t talking to a demon in disguise, so, I challenged the man with a “shibboleth” (see: Jg 12:6). I said rather timidly, “May the Lord bless you.” He responded, “As Mary is our mother.”
I woke up with a start. For someone who had been anti-Catholic for nearly twenty years, His answer came like a bolt of lightning from a blue sky. The concept of Mary being “our” mother was totally foreign to me. Yes, I acknowledged that Mary had given Him birth, but that was all I gave her credit for. Devotion to her just was not a part of my religious understanding.
Indeed, the Assemblies of God taught that “God is no respecter of persons” (see: Acts 10:34). So, in the view of the AG, Mary had only been a vessel that God had used like He had used Sarah or Ruth or any of the other Old Testament women. Besides this, AG didn’t see Mary having any purpose, besides as a follower, in Christ’s life. We even thought of her as something of an interfering mother whom Jesus had had to rebuke (see: Jn 2:4; Lk 11:27-28). Mary as my mother — let alone having devotion to her — was the last thing I could accept or wanted at the time.
As a little girl, I had had a few Catholic influences in my life, but they had made no significant difference to me until this time. I had seen the Academy Award-winning, 1943 movie The Song of Bernadette and loved it. However, my mother dampened my ardor by explaining that the lady couldn’t have been Mary, because the dead can’t talk to us — it must have been an angel, if anything at all. I ascribe no fault to my mom. She was not a Catholic and simply didn’t want her daughter believing in such “fairy tales.”
I also remember wanting to buy a depiction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus I saw at the Minnesota State Fair, but again, my parents put the kibosh on it, directing my attention to a picture of a guardian angel, instead. My dad told me, “You don’t want that picture [the Sacred Heart]. It’s a Catholic picture.” As if that explained why I shouldn’t want it. I chuckle when I think of that incident now; both pictures are hanging on walls in my home.
Post-graduation I had moved into a studio apartment near the college, and was working at a minimum wage job because my degree opened no career opportunities for me. Feeling lost and purposeless, I begged God to show me what I should do, and if I should remain in the Assemblies of God.
Until then I had been fluctuating between attending the Episcopal Church and the Assemblies of God. In desperation, I told God that I would go to any church He wanted, even — gulp — the Catholic Church in order to follow Him in spirit and in truth. It was tantamount to saying I would follow Jesus into hell if necessary. I believed that God told me to “go home.” I took this to mean I should return to the Episcopal Church, and more, that I should move back to my hometown on the other side of the Twin Cities. So, I moved and began attending the Episcopal church of my childhood.
The Episcopal Church too, was in flux, introducing a modern translation of the liturgy and toying with the idea of women priests. However, the liturgy and the hymns, the stained glass windows, and the smell of burning candles all reassured me that I was at last in the right place.
My childhood parish now had a new priest, who was doing his best with a dwindling congregation. He eagerly welcomed me back. I had hoped my spiritual restlessness would abate, and for a time it felt as though I could relax and simply practice my faith in peace. But my heart was still unsettled.
I hated working my office job — not because there is anything wrong with office work, but I felt I was wasting my time at this job and not fulfilling my true potential. I thought, What career options are there for a single woman in the Episcopal Church who wants to serve God full time? Only one thing seemed to fit — being a nun.
I had been attending meetings of an Episcopal Lay Franciscan group and had been greatly impressed by them and their spirituality. I asked them about formation as an Episcopal Franciscan nun. My priest started my formation with a prayer to Mary, asking for her aid for women religious. I balked at this, but he reminded me that Episcopalians believe in the Communion of Saints and in asking for the intercession of saints.
I realized it was going to take me a while to pull my head out of my Assemblies of God teachings and return to a fuller expression of the faith. I had every intention of becoming an Episcopal nun, but it was not to be. Along with the prayers of my Evangelical mother (who had left the Assemblies of God for a more modified form of Protestantism), I met a young man who gently wooed me. In the end, I got married to my sweet and ever-so-patient husband in 1983.
Due to my husband’s work, we moved to a northern suburb of the Twin Cities where we attended another Episcopal parish. This one was larger and a bit more progressive. After attending for a year or so they asked me to run their religious education program. I thought I had finally found my niche — someplace where I could put my education to good use. The program went well enough, but I ran into an unexpected snag. I was told that the parents, above all else, wanted their children to have fun. I couldn’t believe my ears. Not that I acceded to this idea, although I did try to make the classes interesting and engaging. I doubt all Episcopal parents have this attitude, but I found it discouraging and symptomatic of that parish’s modernist ideas.
Again, I found myself spiritually restless. I had been on a Cursillo weekend at a Lutheran church. I read The Faith of Millions by Fr. John A. O’Brien, as well as the book, The Song of Bernadette, both of which allowed me to see the Catholic Church in a new light. Still, I had many questions about Mary’s place in God’s plan of salvation; I didn’t feel I could accept her the way in which Catholics did, but I had a new appreciation for her.
I could not get past Mary!
I had been arguing with myself over Mary — my Assemblies of God scruples coming to the fore. But, as I walked to work one day, I sensed that Mary spoke to me, “Let me help you in your walk with Christ.” I answered respectfully, “Please don’t ask me that. I belong to Jesus alone.”
Her response? She laughed good-naturedly at my Protestant reservations and said, “We’ll talk another time.” I smile when I think back on that encounter. She was so kind and patient with me, leaving it up to me to decide if or when I wanted her in my life.
After that, I became interested in Marian teachings and devotions. I could readily accept many of the Church’s teachings — after all, my Episcopal Church held many of the same beliefs, including receiving communion — but I could not get past praying to Mary, or (seemingly) putting her in the place of Jesus as an intercessor.
It occurred to me that if the Church was right about Mary, it had to be right about everything else. I can’t remember how I got copies of the booklets The Glories of Mary by St. Alphonsus Liguori or True Devotion to Mary by St. Louis de Montfort, but I read them both, taking in every word and digesting them theologically and spiritually. Many Protestants who have read these works have been put off by them, but they did just the opposite to me. The more I read, the more I understood. They were like rich food after drinking nothing but milk. Only by the grace of God could I have accepted ideas so radically different from my Assemblies of God (and most Protestant) teaching.
Hesitantly, I bought a rosary. I had bought one many years before at an Assemblies of God rummage sale. I would pray with it in my hands, although I didn’t know the prayers. I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit and Mary’s gentle love. But I became fearful that I was being sucked into something bad, and gave the beads away to the Catholic hospital my mom worked at.
I sat with the new rosary in my hands, feeling like a traitor to all I had been taught by the Assemblies of God. I began to pray the Hail Mary, taking a leap of faith that she wasn’t going to pull me away from Jesus, but help me as she had promised. I pictured her in my mind assisting me, like a mother holding her toddler’s hands as she takes her first steps. From then on, I was hers. It was true: the more I honored Mary, the closer to Jesus I came. God’s love flowed over me in a way I had never experienced before and I knew I had to go to Mass.
Pursuing the Catholic Church
My husband and I began attending a local Catholic parish, so I could see what it was like. My husband, in fact, had been raised Catholic but had left the Church for several years. In the fall, I entered the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). While I was in RCIA, I was invited to a baby shower for my former Assemblies of God Bible college roommate. Being with those women gave me a deeper perspective on my journey up until that point. I no longer felt the pull to be part of the AG “movement” as we had called it. For me, being in the Assemblies of God had been like being married to the wrong person for the wrong reasons. I know they thought I had strayed from the “Gospel truth” by exploring Catholicism, but I realized that, in becoming a Catholic, I was going from a dinner of desserts to a banquet of rich nourishment.
I wrote a letter to my Episcopal priest explaining why I was resigning as the parish’s religious education director. I simply didn’t have the strength of mind or heart to talk to him about everything I had experienced and wanted. A few days later a car screeched up to our house. One of the prominent ladies from the Episcopal parish ran up our walkway to our front door. Without preamble she demanded to know why I was quitting the parish. How could I explain what had taken me years to come to? I did my best, but she didn’t understand. I don’t blame her — it was a mystery to me, as well.
The first night of RCIA, I literally shook with fear on my way to the meeting. I cannot remember what I expected or even what I feared, but when I got there, I heard the priest say, “There’s no need to leave behind all you’ve known and loved in your faith journey to this point. You will not be abandoning it, you will be fulfilling it.” Not only was he right, his words calmed all my fears. I learned more in those few months than I had in all my years in Bible college. My perspective changed from “Jesus and me” to “the community of Faith.” The Church loomed down through the ages as the great protector of doctrine and reason instead of the corrupter of human souls, as I had been taught.
Resting in Christ’s Church
I was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil in 1987. My husband, who had returned to the Church, was my sponsor. I would have never guessed I would end up a Catholic, but God worked with me through all my difficulties, helping me understand what His Church truly is and accept its authority to speak for Christ on matters of faith and morals.
I found a dear Mother in Mary and friends in the saints. In the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, I found more spiritual benefit from one Mass than I had from any number of revival meetings. The Scriptures came alive for me and finally made sense. My prayer life became stable as I began to pray Morning and Evening Prayer, which lifted my soul to God instead of me trying to get to God through my own efforts. I have found all I had ever desired and more in Christ’s Church.
Kathleen Gavlas works at home as a homemaker, freelance writer, and a moderator for Catholic Answers Forum. She is a member of the Catholic Writers Guild and has authored books and articles. She and her husband celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary in October 2013. They are currently owned by four cats.