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From Cradle Catholic to Agnostic to the Priesthood

Fr. Larry Gearhart
October 12, 2023 No Comments

I’m what’s called a “revert.” Although I’m a cradle Catholic, I became an agnostic at the age of 18. Twenty years later, at the age of 38, I had a conversion experience that ultimately reordered my life. I returned to the Church five years later, at the age of 43. In the process of my reversion, I did a lot of soul searching and studying of what the Church actually teaches.

From Birth Through High School

I was born Lawrence Michael Alderson to George W. Alderson and Audrey Ann Alderson (née Morin). My mother was in nurse’s training at the beginning of 1948. In those days, the trainees were expected to train in every aspect of nursing, including the operating theater. This turned out to be too much for her to handle. She needed to get away from it all to take stock of her life. (Years later, however, she became an LPN.)

She and my father “went away” for a couple of weeks. When my grandfather found out about it, he insisted that they get married. His oldest daughter was a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and his oldest son was a Jesuit who had been a POW in a Japanese prison camp. Both were highly regarded in the community. The embarrassment my mother’s situation presented was more than he could handle.

They married in late January of that year. I was born a couple of weeks early, a breech birth, in late November of the same year. The doctor who assisted in the delivery was shocked to discover this. In those days, there were no instant anesthetics, which made for a tricky delivery.

My father, who had been born in 1925, was a former Marine, having served in World War II. I imagine the war experience was a bit much for him, because later he had difficulty holding down a job. In order to make ends meet, my mother also worked.

My brother, Robert, was born in late December of 1952. I have a memory of living with my paternal grandparents during the weeks that my mother was in recovery. There was one day, when I was alone with my brother, and I noticed that he needed his diaper changed. When my mother came home, she was shocked to discover the situation, because I had tried to handle the dilemma, but I was too young to do it correctly. I’m guessing this was the last straw for my overworked and unsupported mother, and my parents separated. Shortly after that incident, my mother, brother, and I moved in with my maternal grandparents.

I was enrolled in kindergarten at St. Eulalia in Maywood, Illinois. In the middle of my fifth year, my mother’s younger sister, Joan, separated from her husband. At that point, my mother and her sister decided (perhaps with some urging from my grandparents) to get an apartment together.

Growing up, I loved to investigate things. One year, around the 4th of July, I bought a road flare. Out of curiosity, I ignited it in the apartment. I wasn’t wise enough to figure out how to put it out in a safe manner, and I ended up burning a hole in the living room rug. The apartment owner was, of course, upset, and we found ourselves moving again.

I remember living in an apartment in Franklin Park, where we lived next door to my future cousins. They told my mother about Elmer John Gearhart, who was shy and unmarried. My mother took it to heart, and shortly after that, the two were married. In 1961, Elmer adopted Bob and me. This is how I came to have the last name of Gearhart. From that point on, we lived in his house in Elmwood Park. At first, I went to St. Cyprian School in River Grove. But after juggling expenses, I was transferred to Elmwood School in the middle of seventh grade. It was there that I began to show unusual ability in mathematics.

The July after our move, my brother John Elmer was born. Around that time, I took entrance exams for Holy Cross High School and Elmwood Park High School. In the latter, I tried to figure out the formula for the volume of a sphere. I ended up also doing well in English and science.

I joined the wrestling team in my freshman year, as well as the freshman boys’ chorus. In a school of about 900 students, I was only 5 feet 2 inches in height and third string in wrestling. In my sophomore year, my voice was changing, so I was not accepted into sophomore chorus. In place of that, I decided to take a typing class. I also set aside wrestling for chess club.

Around this time, my parents’ marriage was failing. My father had a drinking problem, and I was asked by my mother’s lawyer to testify in court. I said I could not say he was an alcoholic, which I understood to mean that he had an addiction. I couldn’t go so far as to say that. Anyway, they divorced in the middle of my junior year.

My mother, brothers, and I moved to Northlake, and I was transferred to Proviso West High School in Hillside, a larger school of about 3,600 students. Around that time, I experienced a growth spurt, and by my senior year I was 6 feet 2 inches tall.

While attending this new school, our college prep English class read Milton’s Paradise Lost. That book challenged me to think about free will. I had taken classes in chemistry and physics, and I could find no reason to believe that free will was a reality, since my understanding seemed to imply that all motion was either determined or random. Life so far seemed to concur, and I could not see how a soul would be an exception, much less a body-soul combination.

From Junior College to Ph.D. and Assistant Professorship

I attended Triton Jr. College, where I studied English Rhetoric, Hans Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations, Humanities, and Calculus. I financed it all by working summers at the National Tea Potato Packing Plant.

Meanwhile, I decided to stop attending Mass.

At the end of those two years at Triton, I was surprised to receive a tuition scholarship to study math education. I decided to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago (then referred to as the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle). In the last quarter of my senior year, I did student teaching. There, I became frustrated that I could not motivate seniors (who were afflicted with senioritis) to pay attention in calculus class. I was so upset that I didn’t bother to attend graduation ceremonies. I got my B.S. degree but did not apply for certification.

When I graduated, our country was at war. But I drew a high lottery number, and thus avoided being drafted into the Army. Instead, I got a job working for UPS while I tried to sort things out. I have a highly technical background and have had an abiding interest in physics, psychology, philosophy, major literature, and history ever since high school. Later in life, I developed a practical interest in biology, especially as it relates to human welfare, both physical and moral.

As a sort of “renaissance man,” I had developed a great interest in many things, including literature and philosophy. During this time, I became fascinated by Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and Why I Am Not a Christian.

Then, in 1971, I took the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) and scored in the 98th percentile in mathematics. In my first year, I was one of the top students. The following year, I became a teaching assistant in the math department, and thanks to that, I was able to finance the remainder of my education through the doctorate level.

I investigated several options for connecting with a thesis advisor, including inquiries about their areas of specialization. I finally settled on working with Prof. James Moeller. (Jim was a Lutheran who decided not to challenge my free-will theory. As it happens, he later happily wrote a letter of commendation to Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary, where I applied for entry in 1997.) While working with Jim, I was given the problem of determining the relationship of the spectrum of a unilateral shift operator (also referred to as a translation semigroup) of infinite multiplicity to that of its infinitesimal generator. I derived that result somewhat late in the academic year, yet earlier than had been anticipated, so that I was given a job as a visiting lecturer (the bottom rung of professional titles) at the University of Illinois at Chicago. During that year, I was able to use a theory of harmonic analysis of operators on Hilbert space to discover and prove an important version of what came to be called (at least initially) Gearhart’s spectral mapping theorem.

My first job elsewhere was as a visiting professor at Wright State University in Fairborn, Ohio. There, I was able to submit my first major publication to the Transactions of the American Mathematical Society. That paper has been cited more than 200 times in the mathematical and physical sciences (especially chemistry and physics) literature.

My Conversion Process

It was during that three-year period at Wright State University when I connected with Center Stage in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and participated in a few Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. In 1979, after my three-year term was up, I began working for defense industry contractors. My involvement with Center Stage continued. After one of these productions, I dated a fan who was a few months older than me, and with whom I had an affair lasting several months. She had a teenage son. I proposed marriage to her, but she declined it. After that rejection, I became seriously depressed and attempted to deal with it by using pornography.

Finally, in 1987, the year my maternal grandmother died, I had a major conversion experience one night while I slept. I believe my grandmother’s prayers played a major role in my being given that gift. In the dream, God showed me where my life was headed, the consequences to many souls who would have been adversely affected, and a taste of the result—my separation from God for all eternity. That experience shook me up so much that, when I woke up, I got down on my knees and begged God for forgiveness. The only consolation I got was that I was not yet damned, and recognized that I needed to change.

My first change was to get rid of all the pornography in my possession. I began thinking more responsibly about my life and my job. But I still didn’t have a sense of the truth of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

It was a confusing time, and I tried marriage—which ultimately ended after about seven months. My wife was from Illinois as well, so I applied to Bell Labs in Naperville, a job from which 2,000 engineers, including me, were eventually laid off.

In the months after this fiasco, I sought employment and connected with a lady who was a parishioner at a Catholic church in St. Charles, Illinois. She was in their choir, and I was interested in participating. I heard the pastor speak about the Christ Renews His Parish program (colloquially referred to as “CHiRP”), which was sponsoring a weekend retreat. I consulted him about joining that retreat, and he referred me to Fr. Steve, the pastor at Holy Cross in Batavia, where I lived. I talked to Fr. Steve, who was very busy, but I had an impulse to ask him to hear my confession anyway.

That weekend blew me away. Another retreatant that weekend was a guy my age, whom I knew, who had also attended St. Eulalia’s and lived on the same block as I did in Maywood back in the 50s. At that meeting, I spoke about my recent return to the sacraments, and my newfound conversion. (Another coincidence: I sat at the St. Paul table.) The guys there were all impressed, including one fellow at our table who was entering the seminary the next year. That retreat was an important part of my journey back to the Catholic Church, and ultimately to my vocation.

In the summer of 1992, I moved back to my old home in Elmwood Park and spent the next three years under spiritual direction. Thanks to some local contacts, I managed to find work as an adjunct professor at colleges in the area.

My mother insisted we go to St. Vincent Ferrer parish for Mass, even though we had been going to St. Cyprian years before. After a couple of months there, I heard that Fr. Benjamin Russell, the pastor, was available to provide spiritual direction. It was only later that I recognized the significance of consulting with a man whose first name was the same as that of my maternal grandfather and my Jesuit uncle, and whose last name was the same as my previous intellectual hero, Bertrand Russell.

Fr. Russell helped me to put things into perspective. I had some wild questions to ask him, like: “What if there is intelligent life on other planets?” More importantly, we explored the question of what God was calling me to do. I kept praying about this, and even met with a vocation director at the local priory. The night before I got the news that I wasn’t accepted, I had a dream that I was on a train. The conductor came to me and asked me for my tickets. I only had one. I simply had to figure out what vocation the “ticket” was for.

That three-year period of discernment ended in 1995. I was running out of options to support myself. Out of the blue, I got a call from an old employer in the Dayton area, asking if I was available for work.

Mary, Help of Even This Christian!

I moved back to Fairborn and discovered that I was within the Mary, Help of Christians parish boundaries. I registered as a parishioner and soon joined the Stephen Ministry, which works with people going through difficult times in their lives. I had some hard cases and learned a lot from the experience. When I inquired about whom I might seek as a spiritual director, I was sent to Fr. Joseph Goetz, the pastor of St. Paul Church in Yellow Springs. He suggested I begin to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. He was surprised how determined I was to keep praying the Liturgy of the Hours, as well as consistently receiving spiritual direction.

In my second year there, I served on the parish council. Management was never my strong suit, so I was not involved beyond that. I was, however, knowledgeable in psychology, and I was learning a lot of history and theology. Coming from the Chicago area, I had visited the Cathedral there a few times to pray, and I learned that Joseph Bernardin was the Cardinal Archbishop, and that he had previously been the Archbishop of Cincinnati. I volunteered to give a presentation on him, and when I completed it, the lady who directed the ministry asked me, “When are you going to become a priest?” She urged me to meet with the pastor, Fr. Joe Raudabaugh.

When I met with him, I said I was interested in becoming a deacon. He asked me, “Is there any reason you would not study to become a priest?” I had no answer. Was this the “one ticket” that God had for me?

I attended a ministry weekend at Mount St. Mary’s in Cincinnati. The rector at that time was Fr. Jerry Haemmerle. He found me gazing at a painting outside of the chapel. It’s a picture painted by Benjamin Robert Haydon, entitled “Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem.” Fr. Jerry explained that two of the figures in it were modeled on Isaac Newton (a mathematician and physicist) and Voltaire (an atheist). It seemed like I was being given a life-line by Sir Isaac Newton, mathematician: choose faith over no faith. That clinched my decision to enter the seminary in the fall of 1997.

When I told my brother, Bob, about my decision, he responded, “Whatever floats your boat!” I entered the seminary at Mt. St. Mary’s in Cincinnati in 1997 and was ordained as a priest in 2003.

I was 48 years old, the oldest in my seminary class. The next oldest was John Daniel Schuh (Dan). When people asked me how old I was, I would answer that I was two years older than Grandpa (a humorous reference to Dan). When we were ordained (May 24, 2003, the feast of Mary, Help of Christians), as we were leaving the Cathedral (now a minor basilica), one of his grandchildren spotted him and yelled out “Grandpa!” That’s how he got his nickname.

My mother, brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins attended the ordination. At the dinner following the ceremony, two of my uncles roasted each other. Everyone had a great time.

The next day, I celebrated Mass at Mary, Help of Christians. A week later, I said Mass at St. Eulalia’s in Maywood. Two ordinands a year ahead of me eventually went on further than I did. One is the current rector of the Seminary, Fr. Anthony Brausch, and the other now leads the diocese of Columbus, Bishop Earl Fernandez.

Prior to my serving as parochial vicar for the Springfield Deanery (beginning in July of 2017), I was the pastor of the four small Catholic parishes in Champaign County, Ohio: St. Michael in Mechanicsburg and Immaculate Conception in North Lewisburg (since July 1, 2006) and, more recently (since July 1, 2013), St. Mary in Urbana and Sacred Heart in St. Paris. St. Mary’s is small by U.S. Catholic standards, and each of the other three parishes is small enough to be considered “small faith communities” by biblical standards. Accordingly, they have been able to live something close to the ideal of small faith communities. Everyone knows everyone else and feels comfortable engaging in serious conversation.

Since November of 2020, I have been a priest living in retirement. Today, I am a retired priest in residence at St. Teresa of the Child Jesus parish in Springfield, Ohio. My duties include daily Mass, hearing confessions, responding to sick calls (anointings, hearing confessions and general pastoral care), and presiding at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. As previously, I remain a “circuit rider” in the sense that I may be called upon to substitute for a priest on vacation or some other form of leave. I have come to realize that God is more loving, forgiving, and (as Einstein said) subtle than I ever imagined. His grace is often like a soft flute, leading the soul onward. That subtlety certainly played out in surprising ways in my own journey home and into the priesthood. Indeed, it led me all the way back home, to where my vocation and Jesus Christ were waiting.

Fr. Larry Gearhart

Fr. Larry Gearhart was born Lawrence Michael Alderson on November 19, 1948.  Larry and his younger brother were cradle Catholics. Their parents separated shortly after the birth of another brother, Robert. In 1960, his mother remarried, and Elmer John Gearhart adopted Larry and Robert in 1961. In 1962, another brother, John Elmer, was born. At the age of 18, Larry became an agnostic. A year after receiving a Ph.D. in mathematics, he taught math at Wright State University. In 1987, he had a conversion experience that set him on a road back to the Church and to his vocation to the priesthood.

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