Every conversion is a miracle because it is a divine gift from God.
There are those who change their religious beliefs for reasons other than a wish to worship God in the best possible way: for example to please their spouse when they are getting married, or for political or selfish reasons. These conversions don’t always prove successful, because God did not make the decision. He has to call you. The best-known conversion of all time was that of Saul of Tarsus, known to all Christians as St. Paul. As a devout Jew, he felt it was his duty to persecute the members of the new sect and he did so mercilessly. Jesus needed this zeal for the young church and while Saul was on the way to Damascus to persecute the Christians there, He struck him down, blinded him with a strong light, and asked him “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me.” Saul replied, “who are you Lord?” and Jesus replied, “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you persecute.” Saul gave himself to Jesus then and became one of the greatest saints the church has ever known.
Another well-known conversion was that of St. Augustine, not from one faith to another but from a life of philandering to one of complete obedience to God. His mother, Saint Monica, prayed for twenty years for this to happen. Yes, prayer plays a big part in a conversion.
I am not — for one moment — comparing myself either to St. Paul or St. Augustine (I would not be so presumptuous), but sometimes what happens to ordinary people can be of help to others, as well. The story that follows is of my own conversion to the Catholic Faith.
Across the Pond
I grew up in Trinidad, in the West Indies, of British parentage. My parents were delightful people, loved by me and by everyone else who knew them. They were baptized Christians and lived as Christians should: helping others when necessary and sharing with those who needed it; but like many non-Catholics in those days, attending church regularly was not considered necessary. My two sisters and myself were baptized Anglicans, confirmed when we reached the proper age and as younger children were sent to Sunday school. Our parents attended church services on Easter Sunday, Christmas morning, and perhaps twice otherwise during the year. As we grew older, we stopped attending Sunday school, and only went to church when our parents did. We were believers but religion did not play an important role in our lives.
In Trinidad at that time, the children of British parents were sent to England to “finish” their schooling when they were about fourteen years old. Therefore, it was not a great surprise when our father announced one day that the two older girls would be going to England. What was a big surprise though was the fact that we were being sent to the Catholic Ursuline Convent in Westgate, England. This was a source of great consternation to us but our father felt that as we would be so far from home, the nuns would be the best people to care for us.
Although we had several Catholic friends, I don’t believe at the time that I had ever spoken to a priest or a nun. The only time we discussed religion with our friends was to ridicule them. I thought that they belonged to some secret sect who worshipped idols. Years afterwards, I realized that whenever I’d ridiculed them, they never retaliated.
It was therefore with a heavy heart that my sister and I sailed on a German boat for England, a convent, and we knew not what. I remember before leaving, a boy I knew said to me, “Joan you will become a Catholic and perhaps a nun.” How he knew that I do not know.
With youth on your side, problems vanish quickly and soon we were enjoying the sea voyage; but little did we know that while we were dancing nightly with the handsome German officers, Neville Chamberlain the British Prime Minister at that time, was in Germany pleading with Hitler not to start a war. Had war been declared, then we would have been taken to Germany and interned.
With God’s help we arrived at the convent and found to our amazement that nuns were not she-wolves but happy and contented individuals. Their one idea was to make us as happy as possible.
The nun who took special charge of the “Trinidadians,” as we were called, was someone very special. Mother Gabrielle was Irish, with all the humor and love of life, which we associate with the Irish. With her help we soon felt at home. We had arrived before the start of term, but soon the other girls joined us at the boarding school and life was very interesting as there were girls from India, Africa, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the West Indians, among others.
However, when we were told that we had to attend the daily Catholic Mass, my sister and I were very upset; but there was nothing we could do about it, rules had to be obeyed. It was not long before I realized that Catholics had something I wanted to know more about. As I mentioned before, religion had never played much of a part in my life. I believed God was in heaven, but I didn’t have much time for Him. I can’t remember now whether I even prayed. Perhaps when I needed something.
These Catholics, especially the nuns were full of a special joy and serenity that certainly set me thinking. The looks of pure joy on their faces as they returned from the Communion rail made me very envious.
But to tell me that a piece of bread and some wine from a bottle could be turned into “the Body and the Blood of Christ” was to me sheer madness and for quite sometime I lost interest in the whole affair.
Looking back I have to say that it was the Blessed Virgin who must have been tearing away at my defenses. She started me thinking about it again. I suppose as my mother was so far away I had turned to Mary to fill the gap. Now I realized that God wanted me to make some change in my life, but I fought Him tooth and nail. I wondered how He who had told me to “honor your Father and Mother” could be asking me to do something that would upset them a great deal. Although they were not religious people, I knew that they would not want their daughter to be Catholic. The morning Mass was not a chore any longer. I looked forward to it, even buying a daily missal and trying to follow as best I could. Still, I could not speak to anyone about my feelings.
The most interested person I had ever met
Once more God stepped in, in the guide of a very wonderful Jesuit priest, Father James Broderick. He wrote books, especially the lives of the Jesuit saints. He had had an operation and was sent to be chaplain at the convent to recuperate, Westgate being a seaside town.
He was the most interesting person I had ever met. He had a wealth of knowledge about every subject under the sun and he invited the senior girls to visit him each evening and discuss religion or whatever else we wished to ask him.
Night after night I played the part of the devil’s advocate, trying to pull down his defenses, which of course were impregnable. Over and over again I questioned him about the Blessed Sacrament, which I realized was the heart of the Catholic religion. I had to accept this momentous truth before I would decide to change my faith.
The knowledge came silently in the night. This was something I had to do. If I did not, I would never be completely happy.
When I told Father Broderick my decision, he was delighted and offered to give me instructions. The Reverend Mother couldn’t believe it and said that I was the last person she had expected to give her such news. She had thought my sister was showing interest, but not me. Actually, it was more than twenty years afterwards that my sister also joined the Catholic Church.
At this time we went to spend our holidays with some Belgian girls from the convent. We were having a very enjoyable time, when a cablegram arrived from our parents in Trinidad to tell us to return to England, as war was imminent. We left immediately and the day after we arrived back Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced that Britain had declared war on Germany. Had we remained any longer we may not have been able to get back at all. Once more we had escaped the Germans.
An unlikely incident
By this time I had finished my school–leaving exams and my father booked a passage for me to return home on a Dutch passenger boat, “The Simon Bolivar.” My sister would remain another year.
The boat was leaving from Amsterdam, so I had to take a smaller channel steamer to go to Holland to catch it. We travelled on the North Sea to do this. After two days in Holland, we sailed about ten o’clock one evening and had to use the same North Sea route, in reverse.
At about eleven a.m. the following morning, I was sitting in a deck chair when all of a sudden a terrific explosion split the air and the deck seemed to break up into splinters. Several people who had been walking there were killed instantly. I had been knocked out of the chair and was a bit stunned but soon realized that there was nothing wrong with me. I clung to the deck rail as the ship was lurching madly. Everyone was screaming and rushing around, and we soon realized that the boat was sinking.
There was no sign of any officers and no one knew what to do. We had not had time to have the customary boat drill. That had been scheduled for one o’clock. We later learned that all the officers had been on the bridge, as it was wartime and all had been killed.
Only two lifeboats were in use, the others were smashed, and these were soon filled. Very few people had life jackets as these were all in the cabins and no one wanted to go down to get them.
By this time the deck was almost on a level with the ocean and the boat was sinking fast. I shall never forget that scene as long as I live. People screaming, trying to find members of their families and no one knowing what to do.
I met a friend from Trinidad and together the two of us jumped into the water. Thankfully we could swim, as most people who lived in the islands leaned to swim at an early age.
We kept afloat by holding on to pieces of debris that were floating around. There was oil everywhere and we were covered in it. I suppose it must have helped to keep us warm.
My friend and I came across a man trying to hold a baby and cling to a plank at the same time. He told us he couldn’t swim. He also told us that he had watched his wife and second child drown before his eyes. He couldn’t save them. We knew we had to get as far away from the sinking boat as possible, so as not to be sucked down with her when she went to the bottom. It so happened she was on a sand bank and never really sank.
At this stage I was so frozen that nothing seemed to matter. The North Sea in November was not the warmest place to be. I noticed that there were several small boats around, and also men in rubber dinghies picking people out of the sea. I guess I was hallucinating, but I thought they must be Germans and we would be taken prisoner and sent to Germany, and so every time one came near me I swam away.
But after almost an hour of this I didn’t care who picked me up and I allowed them to put me in a dinghy. It had turned out that they were British fishermen who had been fishing on the banks when our accident occurred. Had they not been there, many more would have died. As it was, over ninety people were killed.
I still had the baby, who I thought to be dead, but after being on a fishing trawler for only half an hour, with dry clothes and warm blankets both the baby and I were fine. So much for youth. I have often wondered what became of that baby. I don’t even remember if it was a boy or girl.
We were taken to the English fishing port of Harwich and eventually to London. On arrival there, we were met by a battery of photographers, because, of course, this was the first time the dreaded Magnetic Mines had shown their ugly heads. Besides which, it had been a passenger ship and flying the neutral flag of Holland.
My parents had heard of the accident, but did not know whether I was alive or dead. These ghastly pictures of us, covered in oil and in borrowed seamen’s clothes, were soon in newspapers all over the world. They had their answer.
As soon as I was able I sent them a cablegram which read “quite safe stop Not a scratch stop Won’t try again until water is warmer stop.”
Working in mysterious ways
While swimming around in the water, I had promised Our Lady that if I was saved, I would definitely become a Catholic. I realized afterwards that I had returned home at that time, my new and very weak faith would probably not have withstood the pressure from my parents to change my mind. God does work in mysterious ways.
One year later my sister, two friends, and myself returned to Trinidad on an armed merchant cruiser, which was guarding a convoy to the West Indies. While on the voyage the “Battle of Britain” was taking place in England, and the war was really in full force.
Soon after settling back at home I was officially received into the Catholic Church and still think it was the greatest decision I ever made.
To anyone who may be contemplating such a change, I say pray about it, make sure it is what you want to do and I guarantee it will be worth any sacrifice you have to make. It will bring you great happiness.
“Thou are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church.”