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From Communes to Catholicism

Sheila Stephanis
July 28, 2022 No Comments

I’ve always said that God has a great sense of humor. I left the Church while attending a Catholic college and came back while living in an atheistic commune!

Fragile Faith, a Difficult Life

I was born on August 29, 1948, at Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Lancaster, PA. My parents were both Catholic. They were married in 1947, after my dad was discharged from the Army. My mom wanted 16 kids; she had 8. I was the first, followed by seven brothers. My father built the family a house next to his father’s house in Bainbridge, PA.

My dad stopped going to church when I was little. My mother kept taking us to Mass and sent us to the newly established Saint Peter’s School in Elizabethtown, PA, beginning when I was in 5th grade. She sent me to a Catholic boarding school for high school. I had earned a good scholarship to Manhattanville, a Catholic College in Westchester County, outside New York City. I was still going to Mass when I was in my first year at Manhattanville. Toward the end of my first year, my father left my mother to marry my best friend’s mother, whose husband had died. We were crushed. My second year at Manhattanville, I took some philosophy courses and was exposed to existentialism. My faith became more fragile as my life became more difficult. Existentialism was very intriguing to me, encouraging me to question everything. I stopped going to church and decided that I didn’t need God to be a good person. Some of my friends were smoking pot, and I was happy to join them. Marijuana was everywhere, it seemed.

After my second year at Manhattanville, I was able to win a scholarship to Cooper Union, which is an old and very good art school in New York City. It broke my mother’s heart. She wanted me to be protected, and I was jumping from a private all-girl Catholic college to an art school in the East Village. She knew that I was a very impressionable young girl, totally unprepared for living on my own in the big city.

Cooper Union had no dorms, so my mom found me a room in a safe neighborhood in the upper west side of the city with an older couple, where it would take two subway rides to get to school. But my new friends were near the school, so after the first semester, I joined a friend in a seedy apartment on East 5th Street. There were psychedelic head shops everywhere. Hippies were smoking dope and panhandling on the street. I quickly threw out whatever was left of my moral anchors.

My second year at Cooper Union, I met a man named Chuck, who had many hippie friends. We decided to live together. I left Cooper Union halfway through my second year there and followed Chuck from one commune to another. Within a year I was pregnant.

I had our son, whom we named Ifa Masai, in February of 1971. My mother had moved to upstate New York after she lost her job teaching French at Lancaster Catholic High School. She had lost her faith. No one in the family was going to church any more. She found another teaching job, but all the stresses of her life finally broke her. She became schizophrenic and had to give up her children, who had been her whole life. My three oldest brothers went on their own, the fourth one moved in with a family of friends in Pennsylvania where he finished high school, and two of the youngest moved in with our father, while the third of them moved in with an older brother, Chris.

Chuck and I moved to a house near another commune in upstate New York, in the “snow belt” near Lake Ontario, but life became more difficult together. I left him in the middle of a blizzard, hitchhiking to Pennsylvania with my one-year-old son, my dog, and a duffel bag full of clothes. My mother was a broken woman, often admitted to the psych ward at the hospital. My father had not spoken to me in years. My brothers were trying to piece together their own lives. So with no place to go, I moved in with a friend in New York City. My son and I lived there for about a year, until conflicts arose, and I again had to find another place to live. A friend from New York State learned that I needed a place. He was living at another commune in West Virginia and said, “You have family in West Virginia. Come and live with us.” I gathered up my things and my son and hitchhiked down to West Virginia.

Mother and Son

The new commune felt like family. There was a big house, a small house, some out-buildings, and a teepee. We had no electricity and no running water. We had a wood heat stove, a wood cook stove, and a root cellar with kerosene lamps. There was a hand pump not far from the kitchen door for water. In winter, if we forgot to leave water in the house to prime the pump, we got some from a nearby creek. We all worked together, sang together, shared in caring for the kids and the kitchen. When it was time for meals, the person who was in charge of the kitchen for that day would blow on a big conch shell to call us all in for dinner. I originally was given a corner of one of the two upstairs rooms in the big house, where I put my blanket roll and a small piece of foam next to me, where Ifa slept.

The singing was the best part, and the best time for singing was in the evening, after chores. Several people had guitars, and we all sang. I had learned to sing harmony at my boarding school and loved to make up harmonies to the songs. I would sit on the steps to the second floor with Ifa on my lap and sing my heart out. Every couple of weeks, there would be a “sing” in a nearby building, and musicians would come from all around to make music.

On my first birthday at the West Virginia commune, a friend walked me to the top of a mountain, turned me around, and said “Happy Birthday!” It was glorious! It had been a few years since I had believed in anything at all, but at that moment I felt as if the whole panorama was singing to me. The energy was coming to me in waves. It really shook me to my core. I came down from the mountain changed. God really had to lead me by baby steps. I was not close to believing in God, but this was a start.

I had always wanted to build my own place. The commune’s little house had an enclosed back room that was in very bad shape. My friends did not object, so I set to work to make a space for Ifa and me. I spent my second summer working on that room. I built a wooden platform for my bed, made a skylight, and put in windows. Ifa had seen another child on a swinging bed, so I hung a platform for his foam mat. He loved it.

A local farmer told us that if we tore down his barn, we could use the wood for various projects. I decided to walk alone along the small river to the barn. While I was walking, I was thinking about all the relationships at the commune. There were several kids, but none of them was living with both parents. It started me thinking about my new belief in energy.

While I was walking, I saw a sort of vision of a solar system, with the energy represented by the sun, and all of creation as planets in its orbit, in a smooth progression, each creature in its own place, and all in harmony and peace. Then I saw some of the planets separating themselves from the gravity of the sun, which then went spinning out into empty space, unable to rejoin the orbit. I saw these “planets” as people who wanted to use the energy for their own purposes rather than the intended one. It occurred to me that this was what happened when people used the energy of sex as recreation or for self-gratification, thwarting the natural result of it, which is new life — children. In using the energy in unnatural ways, using birth control pills or devices, we were separating ourselves from the great and powerful dance of creation. Although I did not yet believe in God, I now believed that birth control was wrong.

Along a Hippie Road

My friends at the commune thought I was crazy. I had an IUD, a birth control device. I went to a local doctor and had him remove it. He seemed annoyed. To him, I was a dirty hippie. He ripped it out roughly, hurting me badly, and saying, “You’ll be back.”

I may have found a hippie road, but that road was taking me closer to truth.

Strangers from other communities often stopped by the commune. We were not by the side of the road, but down a mile-long lane, part of which wound through a creek before it emerged back to the dirt lane. One day, a young man stopped by. He had long robes and beads. We struck up a conversation. I was anxious to discuss my new beliefs with someone, and when I described my belief in energy, he pointed out that energy had to have a Source, and many people called that source God. He said he was trying to unite himself with God by meditation and a simple life. He described some techniques, and I started to try to contact his God, but without any real result.

Not long after that encounter, my brother Mick decided to get married. I hitchhiked back to Pennsylvania with my son, and we attended the wedding. It was good to see my family again. My mother was feeling well enough to have my younger brother Pete live with her, while she worked at a local nursing home as a nurse’s aide. She looked well. After the wedding, I discussed my new beliefs and frustrations with my brother Bob, who had become a “Jesus Freak.” He was very interested, and he said “You’re really close, but when we separate ourselves from God, we don’t have the power to unite ourselves with Him again. That’s why He sent Jesus, to bring us back and teach us about God.”

I was not convinced. But after he left, I thought about it more. I knew my life had been a series of left turns, and I was not really in control of it. I was driven by needs and wants. I longed for stability for myself and for my little son. Gradually, what I needed became clear to me. I turned to Jesus and said, “I’ve been driving this vehicle for a long time now, and I’ve made a mess of things. I’m getting in the back seat. You drive.”

Those words changed my life. I felt more at peace than I had ever felt before. I called Bob, and he was ecstatic. I went to church with him that Sunday and started reading the Bible again. He had sent me a Bible earlier, and I had read the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. It had impressed me. In time, I wanted to read more from that Bible.

The Bible Leading Me Home Again

As I read, I kept finding passages that pointed to the Catholic Church. I hadn’t expected that. I didn’t want to go back to the Catholic Church, but apparently God had other ideas. I knew how several people, hearing the same words, could understand very different things from them. Then I read, “…and I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18–19).

It made sense to me that Jesus would have given us someone in authority who could clarify the true meaning of passages that might be unclear. And that authority would not be needed only for Peter’s lifetime, so an apostolic lineage or succession also made sense. There were now many different Protestant churches, all basing their beliefs on the same Bible. I knew that God is one, and that Jesus had prayed that all may be one (John 17:20–23). Where was the unity among Protestants?

I had been to my brother’s church, and to some other Protestant churches. Something was always missing. I had experienced the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist as a child, and I could feel that He was not present in that way in those churches. The preaching was sometimes wonderful. The enthusiasm of the young “Jesus Freaks” was contagious. The music was sometimes enough to make me cry. But I couldn’t get away from the empty feeling.

I kept reading the Bible, and I read how Jesus had told his disciples that His flesh was food indeed, and his blood was drink indeed (John 6:55). Many of his disciples were shocked and stopped following Him. If He was only speaking figuratively, He could easily have called them back and explained. But He didn’t. He even turned to his chosen twelve Apostles and asked if they would leave Him too. Peter spoke for the group, asking where they should go if they left Him, since He had the words of eternal life (John 6:67–69). I had not appreciated the Eucharist before I left the Church, but now I was beginning to long for it, to have the true Body of Jesus as my real spiritual food.

I knew from my Catholic education that, if I wanted to be in full communion with the Catholic Church and able to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, I would have to go to confession (the Sacrament of Penance) and be reconciled with Him first. Jesus commissioned the Apostles, and their successors, all the priests throughout history, to act in His place to forgive our sins, including my sin of walking away (John 20:21–23). It was time for me to find a Catholic parish and make my confession.

Catholic churches are very scarce in West Virginia, and not many people even know where they are. I had to take my son to the large city of Morgantown, since he was having trouble with his hearing, and there was an ENT there who was friendly with the people in our commune. The doctor promised to test Ifa’s hearing for free. While I was there, I found a Catholic church and went to confession. It was a little scary. I had done a lot of sinning in the six years since I had left the Church. As I started telling the priest all the things I had done, he said, “Those things are really wrong!”

I told him, “I know they’re wrong. That’s why I’m here in Confession.” He gave me absolution, and I left the confessional feeling as if I had just dropped a load of rocks that I had been carrying around with me for a long time. It felt amazing.

The next day, I attended Mass and was able to receive our Lord in the Eucharist after six years without Him. That moment was deeply humbling and exciting at the same time. I was overwhelmed. My little boy, Ifa, was with me, and I did what my mother used to do when I was too little to receive communion: I told him what was happening and had him lean against my chest so he could be close to Jesus. It must have impressed him, because soon afterwards, when I took him to a First Communion Mass, he was not old enough for his own First Communion, but when the young people went up to the altar rail to receive Jesus for the first time, Ifa jumped up and started clapping.

Morgantown was 125 miles from our commune, so I had to find a closer Catholic parish. I finally found Holy Redeemer Church in Spencer, West Virginia. That was only 40 miles away. But it was hard to get there, because there were not many vehicles in the commune, and they were not always in working order. Nevertheless, I was able to borrow a car for Midnight Mass at Christmas. It was wonderful! The priest, Father David Glockner, was a Glenmary Missionary. He gathered a bunch of us for a party after Mass. I really felt I had come home. I wrote to my grandparents, and they agreed to be the godparents for Ifa. I had two parishioners stand in for my grandparents for the baptism. My son was now God’s little boy.

Help From the Son and His Mother

The commune was no longer the best place for us, but I had no other place to go until I got a letter from my brother, Alan. He had been living with my mother and my younger brother, Pete, but he wanted to move to West Virginia, farther south than my commune. My mother was again having troubles with schizophrenia and wanted to move back to Massachusetts with her brother, our uncle Robert. Alan was asking if anyone else in the family could make a home for Pete, who was still in high school. I was happy to accept the invitation.

I packed up our things into one of the commune cars and drove back to Pennsylvania. I made a home for Pete until he graduated from high school. I found a job and was able to support my son on my own. He was able to start school at Saint Peter’s in Elizabethtown, where I myself had attended. I had his name legally changed to a Christian name, Jean Pierre, and had his last name changed from his father’s last name to mine, to avoid embarrassing questions from his friends.

All of this happened over 45 years ago. When my son was 12 years old, I met a wonderful man. I don’t deserve him. I was so grateful when I found out that he had never been married or divorced. I was 35 and he was 40 years old when we were married in 1983. I had my second son, George, in 1984. I wanted more children, but my husband was worried that I was getting older and might have troubles, so we used Natural Family Planning. The Church allows Catholics to use NFP. It respects our fertility and works within our bodies’ natural cycles.

NFP turned our marriage into a honeymoon each month. It was difficult but very rewarding. I had secretly hoped that maybe it wouldn’t work well, so I could have more children, but in fact it worked very well. My husband sent me back to college, and I became a middle school math teacher. We lived in Marietta, PA, and I attended the Church where I was baptized. I became the choir director, teaching harmony to a small choir, and I started teaching Sunday school, which reinforced my faith.

Both of my sons grew up, married, and had their own children. I now have three grandchildren and a great-grandson. They are the lights of my life, my therapy when life becomes tough. But having them has made me keenly aware of the craziness of today’s world. I have spent many anguished nights struggling to trust our Lord that my dear ones will be able to make sense of it all. I know that if God could save me from myself, he can save anyone. But He has given each of us a free will, without which there can be no real love.

My Calling, My Place

I felt pulled for years to do something to help children. Not just my kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, but all kids, everywhere. I can’t be so blind that I can pray only for those that I know and love. There are many kids in the world who don’t know anyone who prays. I wanted to pray for the whole world. I felt completely inadequate for the task, but the tug on my heart finally became too strong.

I had been diagnosed with cancer in 2007, but it was small, and the surgeon said he got it all. It stayed in remission for almost 10 years, but just weeks after the 50th reunion of my boarding school class, I felt a lump in my abdomen about the size of a grapefruit. My fight now intensified, and I was afraid maybe I had waited too long to follow God’s promptings. After several surgeries and four cycles of chemo, I started attending a Protestant group called “Moms in Prayer.” They were great people, and very faithful and earnest, but their prayers were for specific kids and intentions each week. I wanted to start my own group, one which would widen our prayers to encompass all children.

I prayed hard to the Holy Spirit to help me write prayers for a new prayer group, and I thought hard about what to name our group. The name that came to me was “God’s Joyful Army.” I didn’t really love the name, but I thought it fit. We are to be joyful, and we are the Church Militant, so we are to be soldiers! I made a list of as many saints as I could who had a special connection with kids. I put announcements in our church bulletin. I was able to get a handful of wonderful people to join me. We met at church in front of the Blessed Sacrament on Saturday afternoons, so we could go to confession afterwards if we wanted. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, the church was closed over the spring and summer, but our priest placed a small tabernacle in a window of the education wing, so we were still able to join our Lord in the Eucharist each week. We brought our folding chairs and met in the parking lot, close to that window. It was wonderful.

After almost two years of contacting our bishop and our local Catholic radio station, WHYF, I happened to hear some of the God’s Joyful Army prayers on the car radio. I called all my “soldiers.” I was almost crying. The station manager, Joe Nebistinsky, asked if I would be willing to join him for an interview on the “Central PA Voices” program, which he hosts. I was delighted, and the interview went very well.

Praying for kids is one of the most important ministries in the world. It is a blessing to know that God has called me back and given me a task to accomplish that, in turn, blesses the children of the world.

Sheila Stephanis

Sheila Stephanis had a long and winding road to reversion in the Catholic Church, from Catholic schools and college to hippie communes in the 1960s and 70s, then back to the Church by God’s grace. She is now a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother and very concerned about the confusion kids are dealing with in schools and even in their homes. She started a prayer group especially for the world’s children, called “God’s Joyful Army.” You can find the group’s prayer sheet and a companion PowerPoint presentation here.

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