I was born in 1956 in Minneapolis, MN and raised Catholic. Mom took us to Mass every week, we said grace before meals, and Mom had a sacred picture, which I think was of the Last Supper, on her bedroom wall. Dad had no visible faith. I heard later that his dad had run away from home because of his parents’ strict faith. I don’t know what denomination it was; they lived in Manhattan, Kansas, which is a largely Mennonite area. Dad never talked about his background and passed away many years ago, so I will never know what happened.
Holy Name Catholic Church and school was kitty-corner from our house. I don’t remember much from Catholic grade school other than that we had to go to Mass once a week in the adjacent church. If we girls forgot our chapel veils, we had to bobby pin a Kleenex to our hair. After Vatican II, I missed the old Latin Mass with its chanting. But one of our teachers, a nun who wore the new short habit, played the guitar and taught us the new folk hymns: “Joy is Like the Rain” and “Sons of God.”
At age 13, not long after Confirmation, I decided that God did not exist. At least there was no way to prove He exists, so I guess that made me an agnostic. I was sick of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and also felt women were unfairly treated. I decided, however, to give God one last chance. So I walked across the street to the church and knelt down in one of the pews. “OK, God, if you’re there, give me a sign!” There was no sign. (The assistant priest walked in and asked me if there was anything he could do for me, but that wasn’t the kind of sign I was looking for!)
I stopped going to church, which broke my mother’s heart. I also wanted to transfer to the local public schools, but my parents wouldn’t let me. They thought the public schools in our neighborhood were too dangerous. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this decision on my parents’ part was the beginning of God’s stratagem that would eventually bring me home to Him.
In the meantime, two of our neighbors, Helen and Mary, who were Catholic, told me they were praying for me. They knew my mother was suffering because of my defection. I forgot about them for years — until quite recently, in fact. But now I know that their faithful prayers fueled my return home to the Church.
I went to the Academy of the Holy Angels from 9th-12th grade. It turned out I loved the school. But I resisted the religion classes. First of all, the principal, a priest, promised me I wouldn’t have to take religion classes. But when I arrived on the first day of school, there was “religion” on my schedule! I stormed into his office to complain, but he just said, “Everybody has to take religion classes.” So much for my opinion of priests!
My big rebellion took the form of sloughing off the true-false tests they gave us. I would just go down the left-hand column and write T, F, T, F, etc., without reading the questions. The teachers took me aside and said that if I failed religion, my GPA would be affected and I wouldn’t be able to get into college. So I started reading the questions on the tests — but I didn’t study.
I did get into college, anyway. The one that offered the best financial aid was the College of St. Catherine, across the river in St. Paul. So Holly the agnostic continued to be surrounded by Catholics! I could choose to take either religion or philosophy, so I plumped for philosophy. That was fun! I never went to Mass on campus. I majored in music (piano) and sang in a wonderful group called the Chamber Singers. That group gave me some of the best memories of my life: sitting around the fireplace in someone’s living room singing folk songs with guitar, travelling to Europe to sing in cathedrals, and even getting the chance to conduct the group from time to time. God was still working: in a late- night argument about God, two of my friends said, “Some day, Holly, you are going to believe in God more than the rest of us!”
After college graduation in 1978, I joined the Peace Corps. I was assigned to teach music at a girls’ high school at Kaimosi, Kenya. I’m pretty sure my Catholic school background was the reason they assigned me to a former mission compound. The mission was about three miles from the Equator, but also a mile above sea-level, so it was not intolerably hot.
Though the mission was Quaker, I guess any religion would have sufficed in the eyes of the Peace Corps. (God no doubt had a hand in this, too!) The compound comprised a primary school, high school, teacher training college, Bible school, and hospital. Though most of the institutions were now government-run, there were several Quakers still on staff. I learned that there are two kinds of Quaker: the “silent” ones and the evangelistic ones. I made friends with the “silent” ones, since one didn’t seem to have to espouse any particular creed in order to participate. I attended silent meetings on Sundays. It was a good time just to ponder and meditate. This may seem strange to most Christians, but it was the best religion I knew at the time.
When I returned home to Minnesota in 1980, I entered a promiscuous stage in my life. I became pregnant out of wedlock. The father was not good marriage material. I moved to Arizona to live with some friends of a friend, in order to sort out my life. Abortion never entered my mind. My quandary was either to keep the baby or to put her up for adoption. When I was about five months pregnant and felt the baby move, I knew I had to keep her and love her.
Near the beginning of my pregnancy, I attended a meeting for unwed mothers run by Catholic nuns. Practically the first thing out of their mouths was that we had sinned. Well, in my eyes, sex outside of marriage was not sinning. I never went back.
Eventually, as with many young parents, I saw the need to bring up my daughter in some type of faith. There was a Unitarian church near me, which was acceptable to me because one didn’t really need to believe anything in particular. (This has been a repeated theme for me!) I joined the choir and taught my daughter’s Sunday school class. It was interesting to listen to the pastor’s sermons, since over time he became more and more interested in God. That, of course, was not required of a Unitar- ian preacher.
It was in this church that two seminal moments happened. First, I was up in the choir loft one Sunday during Christmas season while the children were putting on a pageant. (There was a procession with Mary and Joseph, but no baby — and, officially, no God.) At any rate, as I was looking down on the procession, a question came into my mind: “what if it’s all true?” I never forgot that question in subsequent years.
The second moment involved music. I was in church singing a folk song by Carolyn McDade. As I sang this very moving song, the thought came to me: “This is what I should be doing with my life.” Again, I never forgot that moment.
Because my voice was not developed enough for me to enter a graduate program in voice, I enrolled in the Master of Music program in choral conducting at the University of Minnesota. Here, we were exposed to much of the great church choral music. Again, God placed His hand on me in a way I was not aware of. The head of our department encouraged us to look for church jobs and be willing to move in order to take a job.
After graduation, my daughter and I moved to Wisconsin for me to take a part-time choir director job at a local junior col- lege. While there, I met an excellent clarinet player, who was the wife of the local Presbyterian pastor. She invited me to her church, and soon my daughter was enrolled there in Sunday school. I liked the church because — once again — one didn’t really need to believe anything in particular to attend. But my new friends encouraged me to join. The pastor said that in order to join, I would have to affirm that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior. I didn’t believe that, so I told him I couldn’t say it. Then he went into a long rigamarole about how it could mean many things to many people, so I agreed. With that, I was accepted into membership!
God was at work again. Not long after joining, I was invited to accept the position of Director of Christian Education at that Presbyterian church. All this on the strength of my having taught kindergarten Sunday school at a Unitarian church. I shudder to think of the way I filled this position. I didn’t know the Bible and I didn’t see why it had to be the backbone of our curriculum. Once I told the junior high teacher, who was teaching the journeys of Paul at the time, that I thought Paul’s journeys were boring! He was astonished, and I’m sure, dismayed.
But God led me over time to delve more and more into the Bible and to cultivate a relationship with Jesus. I became a full- time employee at the church: Director of Music and Christian Education. I count these among the happiest years of my life. My daughter and I attended a yearly church camp in northern Wisconsin called Moon Beach that has contributed to many happy memories for us.
Unfortunately, the good times ended in 1994 when there was a scandal in the church. I was the whistle-blower, which brought two years of misery. During this time of trial, I joined a “spirituality” group that exposed me to spiritual disciplines and brought me closer to Christ. It was probably the only thing that kept me going through the crisis.
As these two years progressed, some members of the church and also the pastor planted seeds in my mind of becoming a pastor. I considered it, but didn’t move on it until I had a dramatic conversion experience. About a year into the church crisis, I met and started “dating” (meaning “sleeping with”) a man who I thought would eventually become my husband and a father to my daughter. He was a wonderful guy. It never occurred to me that this was ungodly behavior. We belonged to a singles group which invited a nearby Presbyterian pastor to talk about the ethics of sexual behavior. He said that as long as there was true love involved, we were mature adults and could make the decision to have sex.
Then the church crisis came to a head. I was asked to attend a Session (church council) meeting. At the meeting, I was told that I was fired for spreading rumors about the people involved in the crisis. The meeting took place on a Sunday evening. I had to clear out all my belongings on Monday morning. I was devastated.
Wednesday was Valentine’s Day. My boyfriend dumped me that day. So in one week, I had lost my whole future: a rewarding career in church and a future husband.
That night, February 14, 1996, I threw myself face-down on the floor and cried out to Jesus. I had lost everything but Him. I told Him I was His and would do whatever He desired. I gave myself to Him completely. In the night I had a vivid dream. In it, Mary Rentmeester, owner of a local variety store, offered me a job in her offices. I’m sure that dream would mean nothing to most people, but it was the first of my “Marian” dreams — dreams in which someone in my life named Mary appears to offer me help or guidance or reassurance. This first Mary was offering me a job in her “offices,” which I believed meant the church. To my mind it was also significant that “Rentmeester” is the Dutch word for “land agent” or “steward.” (Coincidentally, the Presbyterian church hired me back a week later, when some elders who knew the truth of the situation but who had been out of town during the meeting, came back and exonerated me.) At this point, I decided to pursue a course leading to ordination. I researched Presbyterian seminaries and chose Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Another move for my poor daughter.
Seminary was wonderful, even though I was reeling from my recent rejections. Being academically minded, I thrived on the- ology and Bible study. My professors encouraged me to continue for my Ph.D. with the aim of coming back to teach in seminary. I thought, however, a person shouldn’t teach in a seminary with- out having practical experience as a pastor first.
After graduation, I had trouble finding a “call” to a congregation. I was a conservative woman, so I didn’t fit into either liberal or conservative churches. I ended up serving in two churches within two years. It was a disaster. I just was not strong enough to stand up for my ideals on issues which were tearing the denomination apart at the time. Near the end of my time at the second church, I kept getting the spiritual message: “leave now!” I didn’t understand it, but the thought came into my mind that I was to leave before the next eucharist was to be celebrated. At the time, I didn’t know why that was, but now I wonder if it was because as a woman, I should not be celebrating the eucharist.
After crashing and burning as a pastor, I joined a wonderful, large Episcopal church and stayed there for eight years. I was not in any leadership position; that was an essential aspect of my healing. I learned during this time that I am bipolar, or manic depressive. I could write a whole paper about how that condition is a disease mixed with a blessing. Among other things, I believe that the condition has led to my composing many songs to, for, and about God. On the other hand, I am firmly convinced that manic depressives should not be pastors.
I eventually felt confident enough to leave the Episcopal church and take a choir conducting job. There was also a period of visiting many different denominations: conservative Baptist, liberal Mennonite, Black Pentecostal, and a Hebrew Roots house church.
But God was not finished with me and kept sending me Mary dreams! In one, the Episcopal church I was attending made a decision to sell their Mary chapel. If Mary is so important in my life, I thought, why was I being involved with churches that do not pay attention to her? The only place I could think of finding her again was either the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches. But I had had some bad experiences with a Catholic parish regarding my mother’s final illness. Her pastor would not give her last rites and did not conduct her funeral. (One good thing, though: while Mother was dying, I told her all about Jesus, and you should have seen the gleam in her eyes! Thank you again, long-ago neighbors Helen and Mary for your prayers.)
In about 2017, I wandered into the library in my Jewish neighborhood looking for books on religion. It certainly was not the first place I would look for Catholic literature, but what did I find on the shelf but a book about Mary entitled Hail, Holy Queen! Reading it cracked open a door to a wonderful world.
After moving to Saxonburg, PA to take up a position at the Lutheran church (2018), I continued reading and then began watching EWTN’s Journey Home program.
In 2020, I made an appointment to meet with Father Ward Stakem at the nearest Catholic church, St. Joseph in Cabot, PA. He listened carefully to my story and turned me over to the Adult Formation Coordinator, Angie. Angie has a doctorate in theology from Duquesne University. She was the ideal person to do RCIA with me, as I kept shooting her all sorts of questions. At one point, she said she felt like she was back in oral defense of her dissertation! I was won over to the Catholic Church completely.
In this process, though, I did struggle with some various teachings of the Catholic Faith. One of the issues I had a difficult time with was papal authority. By nature, I am fiercely independent and don’t like to have to answer to authority figures. But as a pastor, I struggled with issues of authority. I had asked a seminary professor once, “How do you get authority”? His answer, I believe, was something like, “experience.” Which was good as far as it went. But later, I discovered a small book by Watchman Nee titled Spiritual Authority. It was a revelation to me. Like the centurion in Matthew 8:9, Nee emphasized that we must be under authority in order to effectively exercise authority.
As a pastor in the PCUSA, whom was I under? Jesus Christ, of course. But what earthly authority? It took me years to realize (and not until RCIA) that Jesus gave Peter and Peter only the keys of the Kingdom, and that is where the line of earthly authority begins.
The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was another teaching I had to come to accept. I had never actually paid much attention to the meaning of the Eucharist. In seminary, we were taught that Jesus is spiritually present in the elements, but not physically. As I went through RCIA, Angie introduced me to a helpful instructional video on the Eucharist. It made so much sense to me. Then, I attended my first Mass in years and found myself bursting into tears as the people went up to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. My belief that Jesus is truly bodily present in the Eucharist was cemented when I read Peter Kreeft’s Symbol or Substance, where he explores what C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham, and J.R.R. Tolkien would have discussed about the Eucharist. My favorite was Tolkien — the Catholic!
As I mentioned above, Mary has been present in my dream life. Reading Hail, Holy Queen made me fall in love with Mary. After reading the book, I wrote a song about Mary as the woman in Revelation 12. It is a good song, but the ending is ambivalent because at the time I had no conception of Mary’s Assumption. One of the arguments for the Assumption is that no relics of Mary’s body have been found. To me, that is a convincing argument, since there are relics of most saints and surely hers would have been the most popular if her body was still on earth.
I have been pro-life since my pregnancy in 1982 and I realized that the Catholic Church is the only Church that has been consistently pro-life through all the abortion debate. I have also come to believe in the Church’s stance on contraception. The Bible is clear that sex is meant not only for pleasure but also to bring about children. I once heard a doctor defending birth control pills as a remedy for bad menstrual cramps. As she spoke about how women now have control over their bodies instead of being baby factories, the thought dropped into my mind: “this is witchcraft.”
Divorce and remarriage is another area where I believe the Catholic Church has the most consistent views. During seminary, I researched sexuality, divorce, and remarriage extensively. I was convinced that Scripture is clear: God hates divorce and remarriage is adultery. The Church takes these truths seriously while maintaining a compassionate and merciful attitude.
After exploring all these areas and more, I made my confession in the summer of 2020. It was such a freeing experience! I felt the burdens just roll off my back. What joy! I then was welcomed back into the Catholic Church and received my first communion in 50 years! Praise God!
But how do I view my role in the Church given my background as a Presbyterian pastor? First of all, I have an admission to make: subconsciously, I never wanted to be a pastor; I wanted to be a pastor’s wife! I wanted to serve as musician and Sunday school teacher, as I did when I worked in Wisconsin. Though I did not go to seminary to search for a husband, as I truly love scholarship and devoted myself to studies, it was at the back of my mind all the time. I don’t claim that all women have this desire, but it was mine. I have no desire to be a pastor again.
I am currently music director at the Lutheran church and piano teacher at a music studio in an area north of Pittsburgh. The Lutheran pastor and I agreed that it would be permissible for me to continue in music, but I should not teach, as I have accepted new doctrine. However, I long to be free to celebrate at St. Joseph’s on Sundays and holy days. I attend the 5:30 pm Saturday Mass, but I prefer the larger congregation on Sunday mornings. I would love to sing in the choir and hopefully to cantor. I trust that God will eventually make a way for me to participate more fully in His Church — probably in some way I have never guessed. My daughter is grown and has lost interest in the Church, which is a great grief to me. But I remember my relationship with my own mother and I have hope that the Holy Spirit will eventually bring my daughter back home.
Meanwhile, God has given me the gift of song-writing. I am living out my dream of sharing with the Lutheran congregation the songs that God has sent me. I believe they are being used by God to lift and lighten people’s hearts. I am also working on a CD that I hope to have finished soon. So God is using me, which is all I can ask.