Conversion StoriesSecular

Faith is a Gift

Vera Petrovic
December 16, 2019 No Comments

In order to explain my journey, I have to explain those of my parents, because that is where it all began. My mother was from Czechoslovakia. My grandmother was the daughter of a gypsy and a farmer and raised in a Protestant family. To understand the significance of that, you have to understand the political, cultural, and religious lines drawn in European countries during the early part of the twentieth century. A gypsy was considered the lowest rung of society, and farmers only a step higher, even if they were wealthy. My grandmother left home at nineteen, in 1913, and became engaged. She became pregnant, and her fiancé left her with child. My aunt was born in 1919. So now, my grandmother, in addition to her background, was an unwed Protestant mother in a predominantly Catholic country. She faced every adversity with the strength and will that was instilled in her while she was growing up.

In 1924, she met my grandfather in a department store where he worked. He was a devout Catholic man from a devout Catholic family that was moderately wealthy and owned properties around Prague. They fell in love. Somehow my wealthy, devout, Catholic grandfather was able to marry my unwed, Protestant grandmother, with what was considered a low background at the time, in the Catholic Church and adopt her daughter with the blessing of the bishop. Wow — nothing is impossible with God!

My grandparents wanted lots of children, but my grandmother had five miscarriages over the following years. They finally had a little girl, but she died in her crib suddenly, when she was eight months old. By the time my mom was born, she was their last chance, because they were becoming too old to have children. She was born in 1929, when my grandmother was thirty-five. My mom had the best of everything, but her father was a strict religious man, and she was educated in a prominent convent school in Prague.

Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia when my mother was two years old, and all lived in fear, but somehow, she still had a bright childhood, until the war broke out. There were non-stop bombings, living in bomb shelters, watching friends die. Everyone clung to their faith, especially my mom. My grandfather made sure my mother took English as a second language in school, because he had plans to send her to Canada to work for a friend in Toronto. This was never realized, because he passed away. My mom escaped Communist Czechoslovakia and made her way to a refugee camp in Luxembourg run by the religious sisters.

My dad’s story is very different. His mother had twins, him and my uncle, in 1924, possibly in Croatia or Bosnia-Herzegovina. She too was a devout Catholic. The only thing he remembers is that she had red hair. Hitler was rising to power in Germany, and she and my grandfather (who is unknown to me) became worried for their safety. They sent him and my uncle to live with family in Slovenia. My dad’s second most cherished memory, besides the memory of her hair, was that she sent him a handsome white suit for his first Communion. Sadly, my dad was badly abused by his relatives. It was so bad that he walked to the Austrian border and stopped in a little town called Brezje. Brezje is the current location of the “Our Lady of Brezje” painting, fully accepted by Rome in the 1850’s as a miraculous painting, and visited by St. John Paul II in the 1980’s. My dad picked up a picture, kissed Mary, and walked out of Slovenia in bare feet.

During the war, he was hunted, worked for the resistance and on farms and saw a lot of death. After the war, he was one of 20,000,000 displaced persons. He changed his name and made his way up to Luxembourg so he could leave Europe. He was on the men’s side of the same refugee camp my mom was in on the women’s side. They met over the bushes.

Both my mom and dad left Europe with nothing, having to leave everyone and everything behind and not look back, although my mom was still in contact with her mother. They were both very broken people. My mom held on to her faith and remained a devout Catholic, while my dad kept his denial to himself, if indeed he ever had faith or even believed in God.

My dad acquired a mining job in the Northwest Territories, then moved to Northern Ontario, where my brother and sister were born in different towns. My mother sent them to a Catholic school, and they were raised in the Faith. Later in their lives, though, they left it.

I was born in a small mining town in Northern Ontario, the youngest of three. At the time, it was a cozy little town where everyone knew everyone else and all were bound together, because they worked at the mine together. I had one brother, thirteen years older, and a sister, seven years older. My parents were good people. When there were layoffs at the mine, they would pack groceries and leave them on the back porches of laid-off mining families. By the time I was born, however, my mom had developed a mental illness and had lost all sense of reality. This was at a time when psychiatry was still Freudian, and there were no medications to treat her. All that could be done was to hospitalize her until she was stable, then discharge her and do it again six months later. I was not baptized or brought to the Faith, because my mom was separated from her hers by psychosis, and separated from me for the same reason. When I was much older, though, she would have periods of clarity, and in those periods, she prayed to the Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus of Prague non-stop. My dad continued to avoid anything to do with God. He especially stayed away from the Catholic Church.

Then, my brother’s high school teacher, a devout Catholic, started to help my brother out emotionally, because of the strain with my mom, who was ill, and my dad, who was angry at the world. He seemed to babysit me a lot and take me to doctor’s appointments. I really loved him; I felt safe around him. One day, he put me on the sofa for a nap and played a big 1960’s tape recorder with “Kumbaya My Lord.” I was two years old, but completely fixated on the song. I fell asleep. I’m sure he must have talked to me about God, even Jesus, maybe Mary, but I only remember God. From that moment on, I fell in love with God. At age two through five, God was the old man in the sky, sitting on a chair. But as I got older, that concept changed from a God I could see to One I couldn’t. It didn’t bother me though. God kept me strong through all the stress and tragedy in my life. When the teacher retired from teaching, he became a mission priest in Australia for a German community.

When I was five, life took a drastic turn. My dad left mining and we moved to a large city in Central Ontario. I no longer had the teacher to feel safe with. My mom was more ill, my dad angrier, and my brother and sister were lost in their own pain. Something else happened, too. My dad had made friends with a man who moved in with us, and the man started to abuse me. I was five and very confused.

No matter what, though, I still had God. Then something else happened. The Blessed Mother, Mary, started following me. By that, I mean she would turn up at various points in my childhood, in very unassuming ways. They were at times when I needed something, but didn’t know what, and they had a maximum impact on me. Allow me to explain. Regardless of my mother and father’s pain, they both loved the Blessed Mother. Other people they were friends with loved her too. Everyone had statues and pictures. I knew of her but I didn’t understand her significance. Then two things happened to me.

The first time I experienced the Blessed Mother was when I watched a Christmas show in 1971. I was six. The show was “The Little Drummer Boy.” When it came to the part where “Mary nodded,” the cartoon character turned her head and nodded. I felt as if I had been struck by a thunderbolt. I couldn’t take my eyes off the character. It felt as if she was my mother. Then the boy played the song. It was the most beautiful song I’d ever heard. To this day I go searching on YouTube for more and more beautiful versions of this song — which now has been translated into over nineteen languages. This incident never happened again, but it left a lasting impression about the Blessed Mother on me, even though I still didn’t understand who she was. It still does today, even though I have been a Catholic since I was eighteen.

The second time was when I was with a Catholic friend from a Catholic family who lived on a farm. One day, she gave me a pendant with a woman in blue standing with her arms opened wide. It had gold trim and the picture was behind a plastic cover. I was totally transfixed on that pendant. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I cherished it. Again, it felt as if she was my mother. We didn’t have much money, so I wore it around my neck with sewing thread and hid it under my shirt. My sister saw it one day and tried to take it away. I was terrified. I put it in my window because I felt the Lady was protecting me. When we moved, I forgot it and ran upstairs to get it, but it was gone. I was devastated.

After that, I never had contact with the Lady again, other than hearing my mom pray, and I didn’t understand who she was praying to. The abuse by the family “friend” got worse. It went on night after night for years. I never told anyone because he psychologically threatened me in very subtle ways, making me believe that if I said anything he would leave and my dad would lose his business and go bankrupt and we’d have to move and my mom would get sick, etc. He held me on a “leash.” He wouldn’t let me have friends and would make me feel guilty if I tried to. He made me dress in boy’s clothes so no one would look at me and he tried to keep me from reading. I was a very smart kid and I remember the very first book I ever read, “Fire Cat.” It took me out of the world I was in and into a much better one. From that time on, I devoured books. Even he couldn’t drive reading out of me. He was also very mentally abusive of my mom, who couldn’t defend herself, when she began to suspect something was wrong. I found out many years later, when she was able to take medication and talk to me, that it had happened to her too by a relative, when she was a child. The man didn’t put my dad down, because he didn’t suspect a thing. If he had known, he probably would have killed the man outright.

Because of the way I looked and acted, and because I didn’t have any friends, I was endlessly bullied. From grade six to eleven I suffered. I tried to defend myself, I tried to make friends. Finally, in grade eleven, when people become more mature, it stopped. The abuse continued, though. When you have been abused, it becomes a way of life. You have a very low opinion of yourself and begin to hate yourself.

In spite of all this, I never once let go of God. I would test my strength psychologically, physically, and in every other respect, by making myself carry extra logs for the fire in winter. I would do various things to get stronger, because I felt some day I would need that strength to survive. I prayed to God for strength and got it. The Lady never returned. I knew nothing of her or her Son, or even that she had a Son. I didn’t know of Jesus, who He was, or even that there was a Jesus. I was completely devoid of religion or knowledge of it. I had no idea of anything religious other than the fact of God. I didn’t know what my relationship with Him was, only that I loved Him, and I didn’t know why.

In grade eleven, I was given a reprieve from my abuse situation. An elderly lady who had had a stroke needed someone to be with her in the evenings, from Monday to Thursday. I went there after school, stayed there and studied there. I went home on the weekends. I was still being abused, but in being away, I was beginning to understand that this was not a normal way of life. The man became more and more agitated and tried to get me to quit the job. He used every psychological manipulation he could, but by this time I could not be fooled. I became stronger and more resistant. By the time I got to the job, however, I was in a deep depression. School was difficult. My moods were so black that I didn’t even have God any more. I only had pain, day in and day out.

Then an amazing thing happened. One of my high school friends took me to his church. At that time, we lived in a small town of eight thousand people, and church doors were still left open. It was beautiful, and also new. You could smell the solid oak of the pews. The ceilings were high, and there were pictures on the walls all around the church. There was a table at the front and behind it a man rising off of a structure with two cross bars. There were large candles off to the side — and then I saw it. A statue of the Lady. My eyes fixed on it. What was it doing here? My friend must have thought I was crazy. Then he said this is a Catholic church. I didn’t know what that was, but I really liked it. The thing I remembered most about it when I left it was the smell of the wood. It had a calm purity about it.

Soon afterwards, another high school friend invited me to her church, which was the United Church next door to the Catholic one, for her choir practice. After my experience in the Catholic Church, I was really open to the idea. Her church smelled just as good, but it was aged wood. The church was 150 years old. I sat at the back, at the very top of the church and watched the practice. After five minutes of listening to the beauty of the choir singing, I was hit with a wave of such power that I could hardly sit in my seat. It flooded over me like an electrical river. I tingled all over. I was so fixed in my seat that I stopped hearing the music, and the walls of the church completely faded into light. The feeling gripped me so tightly that I was light headed and couldn’t breathe. I wish I could describe the feeling but there are no words to describe it. I was speechless. At that time, a complete certainty fell on me like rain. I was going to become Catholic — I must become Catholic. There were no ifs, ands, or buts. I knew nothing about religion or the Church or anything else, but I was going to be Catholic. It just suddenly made sense, like it was the right thing to do. Never in my life, from then until now, have I ever been so certain about anything. It was a wonderful feeling.

The next day, I went to the parish priest and told him I wanted to be baptized, because I didn’t want to “die dirty.” He told me to get that idea right out of my head.

Allow me to explain. When I was seventeen, I had a dream. This was before I knew anything about religion, other than God. I also knew about heaven. I died and went to heaven. When I got there, I told the angels I had to go back. They looked at me and said that I couldn’t go back because I was dead. But I told them I had to keep a promise to people on earth and couldn’t break that promise. So, I was sent back. I did not tell the priest any of this, but he could sense urgency in my voice. He said I had to take courses and they had already started. My pleading must have got to him because he eventually agreed and turned me over to the younger priest in the parish, who set it up, and I went into RCIA. I was eighteen and baptized, confirmed and received First Communion all at the same time. I don’t remember when, but I know it wasn’t Easter.

I found a new peace. I continued working and studying. I still suffered from depression, but became an Ontario Scholar and was accepted into college. I needed to get a diploma, which would help me gain a job. This was so I could save for my first plan, medical school. The man who was abusing me was becoming more and more frantic. I left home and went to live in the city to go to college. Then it happened.

When I was walking home from the library one evening, not even late, I was kidnapped and assaulted in a motel room. Then the next day, the man wanted to get rid of the evidence, so he drove out to an isolated place in order to end it for me. I survived all day. My psychological and physical self “training”  helped me. But way more than that, God and Our Lady helped me. Not because I didn’t want to turn to Jesus, but because my head was so beaten in that the only prayers my injured brain could remember were the Our Father and Hail Mary, and I said them over and over again to keep myself alive. Finally, I was left on a snowbank. I saw a dark figure in the distance and said “I know who you are, but you won’t get me.” He didn’t come any closer. Then I heard a voice and it said, “You can come with Me, or stay here,” and I knew it was God. I answered, “I choose to stay. Too many people love me.” Indeed, my parents would have been destroyed if their nineteen-year-old daughter died this way.

At that, I saw a light in the distance and started walking. The middle of February, no shoes, broken hands and literally a smashed-in head. I said the Our Father and Hail Mary over and over again until I got to a gas station. I was rushed to a hospital, where I required three hours of surgery and was not expected to live the night. I did, though, and received many cards from all over, some saying that I had changed their lives. I was in the hospital for two and a half months. I lost my year in college, but was able to move into a boarding house run by the Sisters of Joan of Arc, and there finally became free of my abuser. He moved out of my parents’ place shortly thereafter.

It was a long road to recovery, I had to learn to think again, recovering from brain damage. I also required psychiatric therapy for three years. But six years later, I was able to go to university to get my degree, in order to study medicine. It took six years of study, but I finished and got into medical school and finished that. I then completed six years of psychiatry and worked for another seven. Now I have retired.

During my ordeal and afterwards, I never stopped believing in God or Jesus, and I was always a member of the Church. People would ask me how I could still believe in God after all that had happened to me. I would laugh and tell them that God did not do any of these things to me. Two people did. I cannot blame God for what people did, and in fact, it was God that kept me alive and sane.

Not long after, in 1989 I met my husband — or so I called him. Really, we just lived together. He didn’t believe in anything. He wasn’t an atheist or an agnostic, he just couldn’t be bothered believing in anything. He never stopped me or made fun of me, he just didn’t believe. I would go to confession, because I knew I shouldn’t be living with him. But I loved him and got tired of confessing it, so I just stopped going to church. I was away from the Church for ten years. It was the long dark night of the soul. I was devoid of any sense of the Faith. I was going to medical school with no support, either from him, or (as I believed) from God. He was gone; I had no sense of Him at all. I never, in my heart, stopped loving Him or being Catholic, but I had no sense of connection and didn’t go to church. Almost every day I would stop in the hospital chapel and read the twenty-third psalm, then go home empty. It was awful.

I finished medical school and got into a residency program. In 2002, the lady I rented my apartment from became good friends with me. She is a devout Catholic and just started talking to me, and I started to feel my faith come alive again. I talked to her about all the things I didn’t understand. She also helped me realize that not being married was wrong. I didn’t remember my catechesis, and she helped me with that. I realized that my faith, from the beginning, even though I loved it, always felt forced. I couldn’t seem to change that. By 2004, I was completely back. My live-in and I got married in the Church, and I was understanding more. He, however, never changed. He remained a non-believer.

I finished my residency and moved back home, getting a job in a hospital. We bought a holiday condo in ski country in 2009 and went there often. Some time earlier, though, our relationship became strained. Eventually, in 2011, we separated, then divorced. He went with someone else. I remained alone, and still am single. I am not interested in any relationships; I am focused on my Faith.

On December 16, 2012 at 10:50 AM, something happened to me before the 11:00 Mass. I had no idea what, but I became a very different person. On January 6, 2013 I had an epiphany on the Solemnity of the Epiphany. I was no longer watching Mass, but had become part of Mass. I wasn’t taking Communion, but taking in Communion. What followed were two years of confusion. It wasn’t a bad or unpleasant confusion, but still a confusion. I went to talk to a priest and he thought I’d gone off the deep end. Finally, in 2016, I came to a rest. I have a deep devotion to the Holy Trinity, the Blessed Mother and the Communion of Saints. I am able to go to Mass three times a week at this time, but go more if I can. My faith means more to me than anything, and it is deeply satisfying. It’s like taking a deep, deep drink. I will never be thirsty again.

In 2005, my parents went into long-term care. My mom, who had been through two car accidents in her life, was bedridden. But she was also happy. Medications were better, and her mind was clear. I asked her if she wanted to come back into communion with the Church. She agreed, so I called a priest. She made her confession and received Communion every week. Thank goodness for those who bring Communion to people when people cannot come to Mass. In 2011, my mom passed away and had a beautiful funeral Mass. Eight months later, my dad passed away. They had been together for 63 years. He didn’t have a Mass, but the priest came to speak. At that time, the Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion from the home surprised me by coming. He said that, in his last days, my dad, without my knowing, came back into full communion with the Church and received Communion once a week. I broke down into tears.

So ends my journey, or rather, continues to begin. That is what our journeys are every time we wake up, the beginning of a new day with God. 


Vera Petrovic

Vera was born in a small mining town in Northern Ontario in 1965. From the age of two, she was introduced to God by a family friend. Vera’s mother, a devout Catholic, became mentally ill, so Vera was not baptized or raised in the Faith. Eventually, when she was eighteen, Vera had a profound experience mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically while at her friend’s choir practice in the United Church, realizing then and there that the Catholic Faith is the true Faith and she needed to become part of it. Vera was baptized, confirmed and received First Communion when she was eighteen. She later studied medicine and became a psychiatrist. She retired from psychiatry in July of 2017 to found a company named St. Helena Press.