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Back to My Roots

Lucille Malaney
February 2, 2023 No Comments

We lived in the house in Vermont that my parents and extended family built for the number of children they had at the time — three — with two and a half bedrooms and one bathroom. They wound up having eight children! They were Catholic, after all. As a child I would frequently walk the four blocks to our parish church, St. Anthony’s, to talk with Jesus. I remember kneeling at the communion rail, my chin barely reaching the top of it, and just staring at the Tabernacle, feeling such a sense of peace.

In the Palm of His Hand

At other times, when things were a bit chaotic at home, I would go to church, pretend to be sitting up on the altar, right next to the Tabernacle, and talk quietly with Jesus, so no one else could hear. It was so real to me. I looked forward to making my First Holy Communion, which I did on May 8, 1949.

Other times, whenever the atmosphere at home got hectic, I would run upstairs, jump in bed, cover my head with the blanket, curl up in a fetal position and silently implore the Holy Name of Jesus until I calmed down and fell asleep. JESUS JESUS JESUS JESUS, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jeszz.… ZzzzzZZzzZZZzz.z.z. Upon awakening, I remember thinking, “Why can’t I be loved no matter what — no matter what I did or didn’t do? Why must I always have to earn love, prove myself in order to be loved?” Then I became aware that God was curled up with me, and He always loves me — no matter what.

From kindergarten through 8th grade, I attended St. Anthony’s parochial school, taught by the French-Canadian Sisters of the Presentation of Mary. I enjoyed singing and was in the children’s choir and the annual parish minstrel shows. I started kindergarten at age four and was taught French every year. My high school was the all-girls Mt. St. Mary’s Academy for the first three years; then I transferred to and graduated from the brand-new regional Rice Memorial High School in June 1960. While at Mt. St. Mary’s, we rehearsed Gregorian Chant. Latin and French were required subjects, and the school was run by the Sisters of Mercy.

I started training at Jeanne Mance School of Nursing at DeGoesbriand Memorial Hospital in September 1960, but I only lasted a few months before I entered the semi-cloistered convent of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph in Montreal. I figured I would be OK with being among only French-speaking individuals since I had studied the language for roughly 12 years. Was I in for a surprise! I couldn’t understand a word they said for the first six months. It wasn’t the French I had studied from textbooks. Then, suddenly, one day I got it! I didn’t need an interpreter anymore. I eventually started dreaming in French.

I completed my postulancy, and on August 22, 1961, I took the habit and became a novice.

About 18 months after becoming temporarily professed, I started questioning if I had really made the right decision in entering the convent. Initially, the doubt frightened me. I thought that this was surely where God wanted me to be; after all, it had given me tremendous peace. I took temporary vows for one year and renewed them twice more before leaving the convent where I had lived for a total of five years. This was during Vatican Council II, when many changes were being made and many were starting to leave the religious life.

After about a month at home with my parents and siblings, I felt terribly out of place. I’d go to Mass at our parish and hear sermons that I couldn’t wrap my head around. When I heard how the children must obey their parents, and parents be kind to their children, I felt as though there wasn’t any spiritual food for me. I distanced myself from God to some degree and got into spiritual warfare and sin.

I’ll Take Over, God

I enlisted in the military as an airman, doing my basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, followed by tech training at Sheppard AFB in Amarillo, Texas, before being stationed at Travis AFB in Fairfield, California. I worked as a medical assistant in the x-ray department of their David Grant Memorial Hospital, where the wounded soldiers returning from the war in Vietnam were treated.

I received my overseas orders to the Philippines on a Wednesday, but the following Sunday, my father died suddenly of a heart attack. Instead of going overseas, I obtained an honorary hardship discharge and went back to Vermont. There were still three young siblings in school, and Mom needed help. Eighteen months later, I decided to return to California.

Mom came with me for the ride before she returned home. On our way west, we stopped at the Grand Canyon. As we got out of the car and approached the south rim, the view was so magnificent, so hugely expansive that it literally took my breath away. I had never experienced God in this way and found it difficult to breathe. I couldn’t speak, but just stood there in awe and thanksgiving for such indescribable beauty.

Once in California, I spent 12 years doing my own thing with what some people referred to as “tomb” friends. My life had become a spiritual wasteland. I turned my back on God and shunned the Catholic Church.

One day I heard a knock on the door of my studio apartment. Upon opening it, there stood a priest! I was sure he had the wrong address. He asked, “Are you Lucille Malaney?” Then I thought something bad had happened back home. He said, “I’m Fr. Roger Charbonneau, the pastor at your home parish, St. Anthony’s. When your mom learned I was coming out here to visit friends, she asked me to look you up.” I gasped, and thought, “OK, you looked me up, now goodbye.” I don’t even remember if I invited him in, but it was a seed planted.

My sister Paulette visited me. We had a good time together and sometimes got into mischief. We used to comb the beaches to search for pretty shells. Once she found an abalone shell that she treasured. I told her I knew where we could get more — piles of them. Later that night, we and some other friends drove to a construction site that had them, but they were all fenced off. We climbed over the six-foot fence and started stashing them in a bag, when suddenly we were drenched in bright white and flashing red lights. It was the police, and we all spent the night in jail. I was panic-stricken; Paulette laughed. The police sternly (but tongue in cheek) advised us to never do something like that again and let us go at 4:00 a.m.!

In Over My Head

About this time, I realized my life was beginning to unravel; I found myself on the psychiatrist’s couch. I had already tried to kill myself by taking an overdose of my medications, and by the grace of God, I had enough sense to call for help and was rushed to the hospital where a “drill sergeant” of a nurse forced me to drink horrible stuff that cleansed my stomach of the poison. It was so disgusting, I vowed I’d never try that again. There had to be a better way to get my head unscrambled.

Six months after private therapy, the doctor told me I was ready to join his group therapy. I still had a lot of psychological issues, and he said that talking about them with others who had similar issues would be part of the healing process.

One year in the late ’70s, while on vacation, I drove to Sacramento to visit my best friend, Rosie. On the way, in the middle of the week, and in broad daylight, I stopped at a public beach near Oxnard and went for a swim in the ocean. While drying off, a man (a total stranger) ran up behind me, tackled me to the ground, then raped me as I fought him and kept screaming “NO! STOP! NO!”

He was soon captured, but I had to testify during two trials. The first one ended in a hung jury. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to an institution for the criminally insane for an undetermined length of time. Through it all, though, I became more and more aware that God was carrying me in the palm of His hand, and I slowly became a stronger person because of it.

One Sunday in 1981, after twelve years of mayhem, I awoke and lay there thinking, What mischief can I get into today? I’ve done so much lately. I had led many people into sin and allowed them to do the same to me. Then the thought came to mind, Oh, hell, when all else fails, go to church. But which church? I’ve tried them all. Just get up, get dressed, and go to church. Then came the reply: “JUST GET UP” OK, ok. — Oh, yeah, there’s this great Universalist church not far from here. They have a terrific singles club, I remembered.

Finally, I decided to call a priest to ask for an appointment. He said, “Sure — will this be for confession?” Silence on my end, then I said, let’s just start with life in general. When I got to the rectory, a young boy answered the door. He was dressed in jeans, a tee shirt, white socks, and no shoes. I figured he was in high school doing some volunteer work for the church. I said I had an appointment with Fr. Jim. He said, “Oh, yeah, hi — I’m Fr. Jim. Come on in.”

At the time, I was in my late 30s, and I’d had many dreadful experiences. I angrily asked him, “What in hell do you know about life?” So he got serious, and for almost an hour, he gave me the time and attention I needed to spit out my bile, fury, and frustration with how my life was crumbling — and how so many people had hurt me, and how I had hurt so many others as well. He waited until he could see I had finished, then tenderly said, “For all those people who in whatever way have ever hurt you, I apologize to you for them, and I invite you back to the Church.”

I was totally dumbfounded and had nothing left to say — had no smart aleck comeback. Then he invited me to come up to the mountains in San Bernardino, where he would be giving a weekend retreat to a group of people my age, many of whom were also searching. I told him I’d think about it and left. Afterwards, my thoughts turned around in my head for some time. I found myself driving up the mountain on that particular Friday after work. I was just going to get out of the city and enjoy the fresh mountain air, like he said I could do, instead of going to his talks.

The next day, Fr. Jim posted a piece of paper with 20-minute increments and a dash next to each. If anyone wanted that time slot to talk with him privately, he had only to mark an X to indicate that time had been taken. I marked the second slot. When I met with him, I was only going to talk about how my life was going — like a continuation of our previous meeting. We chit-chatted for a few minutes, then he said to me, “So, do you want to make this your confession now?” Again, without much thinking about how to respond, I opened my mouth and said, “Well, I think I’m ready.” WHAM! — I got hit by a 2 by 4 of tender love, mercy, and acceptance from the Holy Spirit — and all I’d said was “I think I am ready.”

Slowly, I had allowed the Lord back into my life, and He kept pursuing, like the Hound of Heaven. I like to say He went fly fishing that day and flung out the line with a hook that caught me in the tiniest nook of my heart. And He just slowly reeled me back home. It was so powerful that I continue to celebrate that day in a special way, every October 10th. I was returning to my faith home.

I refreshed the priest’s memory about all I had previously told him and said, “I didn’t kill anyone and never robbed a bank, but I’m guilty of just about everything else.” At length, I said my Act of Contrition. He then asked me what I thought my penance should be. I said, “Scrub the church floor with a toothbrush for a month?” He rejected that idea and gave me the penance of having fun that evening with the others on the retreat.

Then he rose, came over to me, gently placed his hands on my head and said the prayers of absolution. At that very moment, something indescribable happened to me. It was as if an electric current soothingly ran from the top of my head all the way through my body and out my feet. I froze with peace, light, and joy. A ton of weight lifted from my shoulders.

I thanked him, left the cabin, and walked further up the mountain path, found a large tree, and sobbed and wept and moaned on it for almost 30 minutes. I had nothing to wipe my tears and nose with except my sleeve. Then I started to laugh; I found a big, felled tree that overlooked a large clearing where the sun was shining down through the trees, climbed up on it, and heaven and I had a party! There was laughing, singing, dancing, and happy shouting. I was aware of Jesus, Blessed Mother Mary, St. Anthony (my favorite saint friend), other saints and angels, and even my dad. We had a great time! I lost track of all time and missed lunch. But I was enjoying true food for my soul.

Return to the Church of My Youth

The Monday after this retreat, when I returned to work, I was still smiling. My co-workers asked me how my weekend went, noticed my smile, and said, “Aha, you fell in love again, didn’t you?” I replied, “More than you can ever know.” Soon after this, I found the closest parish, which was within walking distance from my apartment. The following Sunday, I went to Mass there. It was celebrated by the pastor, Fr. Larry Dunphy. After Mass, I figured I should introduce myself as a new parishioner. He was still in his liturgical vestments. When I told him I had just returned to the Sacraments after snubbing God for 12 years, he opened his arms wide, embraced me, and said, “Welcome Home.” My knees nearly buckled.

Fr. Larry was so kind. He asked me to call the secretary and make an appointment with him so he could get to know me better. Frankly, I was stunned. Then as we sat and talked about why I came from Vermont to California and now to St. Matthew’s Parish, he cautioned me that Satan would not give me up so easily, that he was going to try very hard to get me back into his den of thieves. Father then gave me his personal phone number, saying, “I don’t care if it’s 2:00 in the morning — if you are being tempted severely and need to talk, you will call me!” I promised him I would not take advantage of his generosity. But he was right: for a while, I felt like a wishbone, with one foot in Satan’s den and the other in God’s embrace.

I started attending daily Mass, mainly because I was thirsty and hungry for the Eucharist. I was on a honeymoon with the Lord. One weekday before Mass, Fr. Larry asked me if I would do the readings that day. I stammered and hemmed and hawed, until I finally said, “Oh no, I can’t do that.” He asked why. I said, “I’m not worthy.” His reply: “Well, guess what? I’m not worthy to be a priest either, but it’s what God has called me to do.” So, with knees knocking and shaky voice, I proclaimed the reading, realizing it was a gift God had given me, and I needed to improve on it. From that day forward, I was a lector. Over the next 18 months, God led me to understand that He had a special plan for me, and in 1982 He led me to the Lay Mission-Helpers (LMH).

After a nine-month LMH training period with eight others, I was assigned to the newly created Diocese of Kumbo in northwest Cameroon, which is in west central Africa, to assist the newly ordained Cameroonian Bishop Cornelius Esua to set up the chancery. I was sent with another LMH-er named Connie Patten, who taught math at the high school compound where we lived.

However, before going overseas, I contacted the District Attorney and asked to meet. Once in the DA’s office, I said I’d like to meet with the man who had raped me, to let him know that I forgave him and wanted him to cooperate with the help he was being given, so that he could move on with his life and become a productive and honest member of society. Could he arrange for that meeting?

The look on his face was one of confusion and stark incredulity. He said, “Why?” I told him I didn’t want to go overseas without letting him know that I forgave him because I had been forgiven so much in my life and figured I had to try to let him know that I didn’t have any bitterness toward him anymore. Two weeks later, I was back in his office, and he told me that the young man wanted nothing more to do with me, but that his lawyer did convey my message. Then the DA told me to let it go — that someone else would help him through his rehab, and that I was to go to Africa with peace in my heart. That was some district attorney! I thanked him and closed that chapter.

Connie (Patten) Harrington and I arrived in Kumbo in August of 1983, right in the middle of their dry season. Their weather consisted of six months of dry, dusty air, and six months of rain and mud. There were no paved roads, and during the dry season, there always seemed to be a shortage of water, even though there was a huge water tank set up on the school grounds where we lived. We had to boil and filter water for consumption. One of the students’ chores was to trek about a mile down the mountain to the center of the village where there were water spigots. Each filled three pails of water, then they carried them back up to the school compound for the students, teachers, and the bishop’s house. They would carry one in each hand, plus one on their head.

I remember late one evening, after going several days with no water, I sat on our stoop, looked up at the stars and said to God, “OK, God, you know my suitcase is stashed under my bed, right? Well, it wouldn’t take much for me to get it out, pack it up, and go back home if we don’t get water soon.” We had left the taps in our house open just in case water did start to trickle in, then we’d rush to fill every pot, pan, and bowl we could find with the liquid gold. By 11:10 p.m., we started to hear this odd sound. “Connie! Is that water?” We frantically scrambled to confirm, laughing, and crying, and thanking God for his bounty.

We had three-hour lunch breaks! I asked the bishop what he wanted me to do during the three hours. He said, “Do as we do, take a nap!” Being very near the equator, the days and nights were evenly divided — the sun came up at 6:30 a.m. and went down at 6:30 p.m. — every day, 365 days a year. So there were no long summer evenings — just the same timing day in and day out. Yet when the moon was full, you could sit on the stoop and almost read a book from the brightness of its light.

God was doing something with my soul in Cameroon. Sometimes during our siestas, I’d go to the school chapel, sit and just stare at the Tabernacle. The pews were arranged in a tiered semi-circle. One day, as I was sitting up in the last row, my peripheral vision caught something crawling on the floor in front of the altar. On closer inspection, I noticed it was a big, hairy tarantula, just moseying across the floor and out the side door!

One day, I asked God, “Why did you call me to this god-forsaken place!” The reply went something like this: “First of all, I have NOT forsaken this place. I am here long before you were born. And second, it’s the only way I could get your undivided attention; so use these three hours wisely.”

One morning, when we were having tea, I told the bishop rather sadly that I was still learning how to be a missionary. He replied, “Don’t worry, I’m still learning how to be a bishop.” He had been ordained a bishop only six months before I arrived.

A Little Child Shall Lead

Whenever we saw really young children in the marketplace with their moms, and then caught their eye, they’d scream, “why-man, why-man” and hide behind their moms’ long wraps. I finally had to ask one of the moms what ‘why-man’ meant, and she said they saw us as ‘white men’ because English was not their primary language, and everyone to them was a man.

My younger sister, JoAnn, came to Cameroon and visited with me for a month. The village people and the bishop got to know and like her. She left the country to return home to Vermont on July 4, 1985, and four months later, she committed suicide. I flew home for the funeral. We were just sick that we did not have a hint of her plans.

When I returned to Cameroon, the villagers and the bishop gathered us in their prayers and concerns. The locals even performed one of their rituals for us, called a “cry-die,” where families would arrive at our house with food, then pray with us, sing for us, and offer their condolences. Some even cried with us. It was very moving. When one of their relatives dies, they perform this ritual at that time and again after one month, then a year later. It becomes an event where memories and funny stories are told. After five years, then 10 years, they conclude their “cry-die,” assuming their loved one is now at rest.

I returned from Cameroon having received abundantly more than what I had given. My eyes had been opened to how the poor and marginalized live, and for the first time in my life, I experienced what it was like to be classified a minority. To this day, I still subconsciously make decisions based on my life in Africa.

Next, I attended Franciscan University of Steubenville (FUS). My time there left me with mixed emotions. I was recuperating from two major surgeries I’d had in Cameroon and was still grieving the death of JoAnn. FUS is a faith-filled college, with an emphasis on the charisms of St. Francis of Assisi — and more importantly, on the celebration of daily Mass which was always well attended by both students and professors. It was a good place for me as I tried to get back into living in the United States. One Saturday, I went with a busload of students, lay professors, Fr. Michael Scanlan TOR, the President of the University, and a few of his fellow Franciscan priests, along with the Bishop of Steubenville, to Youngstown for a sit-in at an abortion clinic. All 49 of us were eventually arrested, but because the only place they had that could contain us was their armory, that’s where we were incarcerated for eight days. Cots were set up for us, so we all slept in the middle of the huge room. I remember our dear six-foot, six-inch bishop with his feet hanging over the end of his cot. Catholics in the surrounding area brought in food for us and attended daily Mass with us — right there in the armory. After a week, the judge decided to let us go, and everyone’s charges were expunged. Upon returning to the Franciscan University, we became known as the “Youngstown 49ers.”

After a couple of years at the university, I again felt the tug to give my life entirely to God in consecrated life. During a month-long Christmas break, I traveled northeast of Toronto to a place called the Madonna House, founded by the late Catherine Doherty, of Russian nobility. I fell in love with the simplicity, the quiet, bi-ritual (Byzantine and Roman) Catholic spirituality of a hard-working and meditative life, so I decided to leave school and stay there. It took only a couple of weeks before I became violently ill and was rushed to a large hospital for another emergency major surgery. I ended up spending ten days there, walking up and down the aisles of the small chapel, dragging the IV pole next to me and interiorly yelling at God, like St. Teresa of Avila, “If this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you don’t have many.” It took several months of recuperation before I found myself back in Ohio at Franciscan University.

I picked up my studies where I had left off and began working for the university. It was good to be back in an atmosphere of worship, work, and study. There were students of different backgrounds and cultures from just about every state in America and several countries — lay, priests, sisters, home-again missionaries, and a few seminarians.

About a year after I returned, a couple of religious sisters from the Midwest, who were living on campus, formed a new community, starting with a handful of students. They wore habits and veils, and I became fascinated by them. Once again, I asked for admittance and was accepted. There were 20 of us living together in an old house, with a strict, poverty-marked lifestyle. It was cramped, but the ones who were still at the university continued to go to class, and I continued to work there. Eventually, the group fell apart and our foundress left.

Three times I’d tried religious life! That’s when I started negotiating with God, saying, “So could you please find me a man to marry, one who will let me help him get to heaven and who will help me get there too? I don’t want to be alone in life. I want to love and be loved.” Silly me!

I had been through so many highs and lows in my spiritual journey, I was tired of the struggle. Then I remembered how God spoke to me when I was in Cameroon: “It’s the only way I could get your attention.” I then contacted the Lay Mission-Helpers in Los Angeles and asked for another mission assignment. This time, they sent me to South Africa.

It was different from my experience in Cameroon. I lived in a proper city with infrastructure and familiar amenities. I arrived shortly after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and I left right before he was elected as their president.

I worked in the bishop’s office. During the two years there, I experienced political turmoil and some tense moments of popular unrest. Shortly after I returned to the States, I learned that one of the bishop’s sisters had been murdered.

The Sizanani Home in South Africa was founded by a Catholic priest, Fr. Charles Kuppelweiser, primarily as a residential facility for children and young adults with moderate to profound intellectual and physical disabilities. On weekends, in my spare time, I had volunteered there. On one occasion, as I arrived, I heard a small child crying a hurtful cry at the other end of the large room. I went to see the reason for his distress. There he was, in bed, a very thin little boy, on his side and facing the wall a few feet away. My heart sank.

As I gently picked up the lad in fetal position, I could feel his cold body. I cradled him in my arms, wrapping his blanket around him and turning him to face the center of the room, where all the activity was taking place.

I began to sing to him quietly, softly, and soothingly while my fingers gently stroked his fists, enticing him to open them. Slowly his muscles relaxed. Soon, he was fast asleep with the most adorable smile on his face. We remained this way for some time, as I contemplated the birth of Jesus. Then, as I began to stir, he awoke and just lay there, looking up at me with bright, beautiful eyes, and gave me a huge grin.

The other local assistants asked how I got him to stop crying, since he had been doing that since he was brought there hours earlier. I explained to them that he just wanted to know he was accepted and welcomed to their world. I returned him to his bed — this time with his head at the foot of the bed — and laid him on his side facing the other children and the center of the room. He was then a happy child. This is divine wisdom, because this is how God treats us. How often have we just needed to be accepted and welcomed, repositioned to look at the good in the world? Had this not been the theme of my own journey with Christ?

After 15 years in Florida, I recently packed up my belongings and drove back to my roots in Vermont, with my cat, Lucy. Everything has come full circle. Geographically and spiritually, I have come back. I can almost feel that little girl inside of me, the one who imagined what it was like to sit by the Tabernacle and put my arms around Jesus. There is peace in knowing God wants me right here.

Lucille Malaney

Lucille Malaney enjoys receiving the sacraments and sharing her faith. She recently participated in a Coming Home Network retreat and is discerning what the Lord has for her in this phase of life. She has contributed to the Shepherd’s Fund and supports the apostolate with her prayers.

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