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My Conversion Story

Dr. Anita G. Gorman
December 18, 2012 4 Comments

My parents were born in Sweden and immigrated to the United States as young adults. Nominal Lutherans, baptized and confirmed in the Church of Sweden, they were not strong churchgoers. Our next-door neighbors, on the other hand, were fervent Baptists who attended a Swedish Baptist church in Manhattan. That was to become my first church.

I remember taking the bus on Queens Boulevard, through Elmhurst and Long Island City, over the Queensboro Bridge, and then walking a few blocks to the church. During one or two summers I attended Vacation Bible School, and I can still see in my mind’s eye a workbook with lots of pictures to cut out, including drawings of two hands. We children had to cut out these hands and assemble and color a strip of illustrations for each hand; the strip was folded accordion style and when we pulled on the strip we could see good activities—going to church, reading the Bible—and evil activities, which included going to the movies, drinking, smoking, and playing cards. My parents would drink on occasion, smoke frequently, and passionately played cards with their friends. In addition, they went to the movies and sometimes took me along. I loved my parents and knew they were good people; how could activities that they liked be bad? Though too young to drink or smoke, I was already aware of the delights of playing cards (Old Maid, Authors, Go Fish, War) and of watching glamorous and exciting stories on the silver screen.

I do have one fond memory of my Baptist church: its junior choir. I recall practicing seemingly difficult music and singing with great enthusiasm, even though I could not reach the highest notes in our anthems. For the most part, however, I was restless during the service and the long sermon.

When I was nine or ten, church leaders began urging my parents to prepare for my baptism by immersion. My younger brother and I had both been baptized by Lutheran ministers, and immersion seemed foreign to my parents, so they began looking for a Swedish Lutheran church and found one in the borough of Queens, a short ride by car but a cumbersome trip by public transportation involving two buses and a bit of a walk. I spent two years riding the buses after school (my family did not own a car) to attend our weekly Confirmation class.

In Confirmation class we went through Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, literally a small book, perhaps four by six inches, with a blue cover. I still have it. On the first page I recall reading, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” By the spring of 1952, I was ready for Confirmation, along with three other children.

Early Memories of Things Catholic

I have one clear pre-school memory of things Catholic, the day I attended a Catholic funeral in New Jersey with my mother. My mother’s cousin had died of tuberculosis. She could not have been very old. At the funeral home she lay in her coffin wearing a dark blue and red outfit; it seems to me now that it could have been a Swedish folk costume. I remember the church as a large building, but I was so small that any building was large; it was also mysterious, beautiful, and strange, fragrant with what I would later recognize as the scent of beeswax candles and incense. After the funeral I saw the coffin being lowered into the ground, and we threw flowers into the gaping hole. I found the experience disturbing, and when I was older I learned that the funeral had taken place in a Catholic church. How could that have been? My mother’s cousin, it turns out, was a Catholic convert. My mother had grown up in an anti-Catholic environment in Sweden, yet she went to her cousin’s funeral. I can still picture my dead relative, her brown hair pulled back from her face. I still wonder about her and I have tried, so far in vain, to find out more about her. May she rest in peace.

At the time I did not realize it, but now as I look back over the years, I recognize that the Catholic Church was a presence, albeit a small one, in my young life and a larger presence in our neighborhood in Queens during the 1940s and 1950s. On Sundays and holy days, I could sit in our enclosed porch and watch our neighbors stroll up the street on their way to the local parish, only one block away. Home movies from about 1948 taken with my father’s Bell & Howell 8mm. camera show our neighbors walking to church, the proof, as it were, that Catholics lived on our street. One who went to church more frequently than the others was my piano teacher, the church’s organist.

This parish would be more of a presence to me when I became old enough to walk by myself to visit a friend. A small church with a statue of Mary standing in a garden to its side, the building had a stucco exterior and windows, shaped like small arches, of translucent golden glass. On summer evenings, I would sometimes walk by and see through the open windows people kneeling and praying; I did not know what they were doing, but now I think they were attending a novena or a Benediction service. Sometimes priests wearing their black cassocks would stand outside the church talking to parishioners. They would always give me a warm greeting as I walked by.

One summer day when I was very young, perhaps six or seven, I spent the morning at this Catholic parish. One of my friends had a Catholic friend, so I suppose that was how I ended up sitting in a pew in a Catholic church on that sunny July day listening to a priest talk about the Faith. I remember the votive candles glowing in their dark red holders. I remember sitting to the right of the main altar, so we must have been in front of St. Joseph’s altar. I remember nothing of what the priest said, but I recall that morning as a pleasant time followed by lunch in the parish hall. I ate a hardboiled egg; of that I am sure. When I walked the short block back to our home, I told my mother of the morning’s adventure and she told me that I was not allowed to return to that church. I was disappointed, but obedient.

As a student at our local public school, just steps from my home, I learned my lessons and eventually began to realize that there were Catholics and Protestants and Jews in the world, and I was a Protestant. On Wednesday afternoons, the Catholic children in our class would walk the short walk to the Catholic parish to learn their catechism. I, as well as the other Protestants plus one or two Jewish boys, would have an hour for doing essentially nothing from 2 to 3 p.m. I recall liking this hour of freedom each week, and I also recall feeling smug and superior to those Catholic students who were learning the ways of the Church of Rome.

Militant Catholics also appeared in my life. I was a happy member of the Girl Scouts from the age of nine and a half until I finished junior high school at thirteen. Still, one day two Scouts reminded me of the chasm between Protestants and Catholics when they told me that “Only Catholics will go to heaven.” Outraged, and rightly so, I fumed and fussed and wondered who those Catholics thought they were to say such a thing!

What I did not know at the time was what the Catholic Church really taught. The Baltimore Catechism, the official authority in those days, and today’s Catechism of the Catholic Church reaffirm the same position, that those who “do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation” (CCC 847). If Jesus Christ has redeemed us by His blood, then He is The Way to salvation, the path to heaven. If the fullness of Christ’s teaching is in the Catholic Church, then that Church is the way to salvation, but the Church is not as narrow-minded as my poorly taught friends, nor was She in 1950.

While I was in high school, our Lutheran ministers decided to reach out to the community and invite various non-Swedes, i.e., Hispanics and African Americans, to worship with us. Many of the Swedish parishioners were outraged, meetings took place, and the ministers did what they could to convince their congregation that reaching out to others was the right thing to do, that Saint Paul had set the example so many centuries ago when he wrote to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Somehow the Swedes transferred their congregation to another part of Queens, but our family never made the move. As I look back, I admire the courage of our ministers. Those men were doing the right thing, as I thought then and as I think now. Still, over the years I developed some empathy for the Swedes, immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants, who wanted to preserve their culture. Nonetheless, the incident contributed to my disillusionment with Christianity.

Another epiphany happened one Easter Sunday. One friend of my parents regularly drove us to the Lutheran church. That Easter he and his family came to our house for a splendid Easter dinner. I was excited by Easter, the baskets, the candy, the festivity, and, most of all, by the knowledge that Christ had risen indeed. At the end of dinner, worn out from worship and fun and overeating, I sat listening to the adults. Suddenly our “chauffeur” announced, “I don’t care what they tell you in church—when you’re dead, you’re dead.”

I was shocked. I had never until that moment heard anyone deny any aspect of our Christian faith, and our friend, the man who dutifully drove us to church each Sunday, this good, hardworking, and pleasant Swede, this devoted husband and father, had just denied the central tenet of Christianity, that Christ had risen from the dead, that we too would share in His Resurrection. Why did he take us to church if it was a sham? It made no sense to me, though it makes some sense now. Going to church was part of what one did, it was part of our heritage, and it was a way to help insure that we, the children, would behave ourselves by following the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule.

More Catholic Influences

In junior high school I learned to love the Spanish language and absorbed some knowledge about the Church from my brush with Spanish culture. In high school, I continued to study Spanish and added Latin, a language I have never regretted studying. I did not at the time know that it was and is the official language of the Catholic Church, not a dead language but an eternal one, as some Latin professors like to say. Latin also gave me information about ancient Rome that later would enhance my appreciation for Catholicism. Still, I made no connection between Latin and the Catholic Church when I was studying that ancient language at the age of thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen. Yet at some point I heard Gregorian chant, probably on WQXR, the classical station run by the New York Times. I bought myself a Decca Archives recording of chant and was able to understand at least part of what I was listening to on my “hi-fi” record player that could play 78, 331/3, and 45 rpm LPs. I found chant profoundly mysterious and beautiful.

The Secret Catholic Hymn 

My high-school friends were all Protestant or Jewish. I shied away from the Catholics, and I assumed I knew everything about the Catholic Church. What did I know? I “knew” that Catholics believed in concepts not stated in the Bible, though I am not sure I knew what those concepts were. I “knew” they worshipped statues. Catholics were Irish and Italian and Polish, but not—with the puzzling exception of my mother’s cousin—Swedish. I knew that the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” was our Lutheran battle cry. Yet, one Catholic hymn made a great impact on me in high school and remains my favorite hymn to this day.

Once a week we would gather in our high school’s auditorium and watch student monitors wheel down the aisles carts heavy with blue songbooks. Our principal would ask us to turn to page 18, and we would sing “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” Before high school, I had sung hymns from the American Baptist hymnal and the Augustana Lutheran hymnal, but “Holy God” appeared in neither book. I loved this new hymn, its stirring melody and lyrics, yet I had no idea until years later that it was a Catholic song. I cannot play or sing it now without remembering those blue books and the beauty of those young voices raised in song:

Holy God, we praise Thy Name;
Lord of all, we bow before Thee!
All on earth Thy scepter claim,
All in Heaven above adore Thee;
Infinite Thy vast domain,
Everlasting is Thy reign.

During my high-school years, I still went with a friend to a Lutheran church from time to time, though my parents no longer had a formal connection with any congregation. I did not doubt my Lutheran faith, although I do remember being puzzled by the attitude of a friend who was a Missouri Synod Lutheran. Her synod, it turned out, looked down on other Lutherans, and I wondered how a church based in a state I had never visited somewhere in the middle of the United States could possibly be the center of the “one holy catholic apostolic Church” mentioned in the Nicene Creed.

Beyond that, it seemed strange to me that Lutherans—the ones who began the Protestant Reformation—were themselves divided, along ethnic lines but also according to degrees of orthodoxy. It did not seem right, in the end. If I believed in “one holy catholic apostolic Church,” was it my little synod or someone else’s little synod, or some other body, existent for 2000 years, a Church that I had not yet considered?

A Freshman Loses Her Faith

I entered college when I was sixteen years old. Somehow during my first semester there, I lost my faith in Christianity. I cannot remember precisely how this happened, yet it certainly had something to do with the intellectual rigor of my courses, with the realization that the world was probably not created in seven days, that evolution seemed to negate creation by God, that I could no longer believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Suddenly, I was different, and the world was different. I found a friend—her name escapes me now—and together we began at our college the Comparative Religions Study Group, or something to that effect. We invited speakers to our campus, but we invited only people from marginal groups, no one from a mainstream religion. A man from the Theosophical Society came to speak and told our tiny group about Madame Blavatsky, a name that still conveys mystery to me.

It never occurred to us to ask a Catholic to speak—or a Methodist or an Episcopalian. It did occur to us to ask a Unitarian minister to join us, and one did, the minister of a Unitarian church in Manhattan where I found a home for a short while. By this time I knew I believed in God, but I was skeptical about literal readings of the Bible, the sort of Biblical interpretation I had been taught or that I thought I had been taught. I had already discovered Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and had learned about the Unitarianism of New England. I had visited Boston and delighted in the historical houses and the streets of Concord, Massachusetts; I had made a pilgrimage to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, containing the dust of Emerson, Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, and Hawthorne. Unitarianism seemed a religion I could live with, a religion that did not ask me for “blind faith” but asked me instead to use my intellect. (Up to this point I had no idea of the profound intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church.)

So I went off by myself to the Unitarian church in Manhattan, dressed in my Sunday best, and sang unfamiliar hymns in that sparse but elegant building reminiscent of the architecture of colonial New England. I remember attending lectures on non-Christian religions during Lenten evenings, ironic as that now seems. I liked this church, but I never felt at home there. I was probably the youngest person to show up who had no family connection to the church. Perhaps they did not know what to do with me. Perhaps they did not care. Perhaps they were as welcoming as could be expected.

Catholic parishes are often accused of being unfriendly, yet I have never felt unwelcome in a Catholic church, perhaps because once I began attending I sensed that I was part of the Body of Christ and the Communion of Saints. I learned—eventually—that the Catholic Church contained working-class worshippers, as well as rich entrepreneurs, royalty, and the poorest of the poor. Somehow we were all united, even if we would never know each other’s names.

Meeting a Catholic Convert

At the end of my sophomore year I was eighteen years old, and I found a summer job at a camp for underprivileged children in Rockland County, New York. There I met Seth (I have changed his name). He was Jewish and a graduate student at a prestigious university. I found him pleasant, and he seemed to find me pleasant as well, so we became a couple during the first half of the summer. We had no torrid romance, just an easygoing boy-girl friendship, but it ended abruptly. Suddenly Seth did not want to be with me, and for the rest of the summer I hung out with Seth’s junior counselor two years younger than I. It was a pleasant time, even though I had been dumped.

I went back to college, to my lonely existence and my rigorous classes. One day in the fall I received a letter from Seth. He wanted to explain himself. He said that during the summer he thought I was a “sweet girl” but, unfortunately, I was not Jewish so he had decided it was best to cancel our relationship. Now, however, he was about to become a Catholic, so my non-Jewish identity was no longer a problem, but an asset. He wanted to see me again!

I was totally astounded. Seth was pursuing a doctorate. He was obviously intelligent. The Catholic Church was, so I had been led to believe, for uneducated, superstitious, poor people. How could this educated and brilliant young man fall for Catholicism?

Although I was perplexed, nonplused, and bemused over Seth’s conversion, I also liked him and liked the idea of going on a date, since I was in my usual dateless and lonely state. In a way it’s odd that he thought a Protestant would be a legitimate date for a potential Catholic, but perhaps he did not know any Catholic girls at the time.

I did not throw away his letter, nor did I attempt to refute Seth with logical intricacies and Church history. How could I? He was a smart guy, and I respected his intellect, and it occurred to me that perhaps I did not, in fact, know everything about the Catholic Church, as I had previously assumed. So I walked to our local public library, began to browse in the religion section, and found a book that seemed to deal with my concerns; it was The Belief of Catholics by Ronald Knox. I had never heard of Msgr. Knox or his book, but I took it home and began reading.

I now own a copy of that book, a gift a few years ago from an English friend, also a Catholic convert. I browse once again through its pages, looking for the reasons why I found the book so compelling, so scary, so devastating, over fifty years ago. Once again I am impressed with Monsignor Knox’s erudition, his intellect, and his writing. Most of all, however, I am struck by words such as these:

Historically, Protestantism is committed to the notion that the act of faith is the mere surrender of a personality to a Personality, without parley, without deliberation, without logical motive. The true representative of Protestantism in the modern word is the Salvationist who stands up at a street corner and cries out ‘I am saved.’ It is Catholicism which insists that, ideally at least, it is the intellect which must be satisfied first, the heart afterwards.

I became scared, and the more I read of Ronald Knox, the more terrified I became. He made too much sense.

Moving Closer to the Church

Once I had read Msgr. Knox’s book, I was ready for some discussion, and one of my college classmates became my partner in dialogue. After class we would often meet for coffee and discuss Church teaching. Connie (not her real name), so it seemed, knew the answers. At least she knew more than I did. One Sunday afternoon Connie and I were in Manhattan, ostensibly to go to a museum or a movie. What we did instead at 4 p.m. was to attend Vespers at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Up to this point I had not been going to Mass. My pursuit of things Catholic was largely intellectual, and I was reading F.J. Sheed, Knox, the Baltimore Catechism, and any number of Image books, paperbacks of Catholic classics published by Doubleday. Yes, I did have some emotional connection with the Church as I studied art or listened to Gregorian chant, but I had not yet attended any sort of Catholic service.

The vesper service was in Latin, with two priests resplendent in white and gold robes chanting the prayers for the day. I was in a great Gothic cathedral built by American immigrants. The ceiling was high, the side altars contained statues of saints, and the lights from votive candles flickered everywhere. I sensed then that this cathedral was a living place of worship, and at every other visit there over the years I have had the same impression. Yes, tourists would constantly wander through this cathedral, gawking and talking and oblivious to the people praying in the pews. And yes, people were praying: hatless men and women with hats or mantillas or even handkerchiefs on their heads. Others were lighting candles at the side altars and then kneeling to utter their petitions. On that Sunday in 1957 I felt overwhelmed by beauty: by the cathedral, by the chant, by the vestments, by the beauty of prayer. It would soon be time for me to attend Mass regularly.

At some other point, my piano teacher invited me to play for a Benediction service at our neighborhood parish. How and why this happened remains a mystery. I could not play the organ pedals, but I certainly could play the keyboard. I practiced the two hymns, “O Salutaris” and “Tantum Ergo.”  I remember sitting at the organ bench and being cued by Mrs. Tarrant. I recall the smell of incense and burning beeswax candles. I recall at the end of the service being introduced to the pastor, a tall, elderly, kind priest who asked me which parish I went to. I told him I had no parish, and he invited me to come and see him soon. I did just that.

Why would my piano teacher invite me to play the parish organ at a time when I was already thinking more favorably about the Catholic Church? I was no longer taking piano lessons, since I was already in college and very busy with my classes. My meeting with the pastor was crucial to my conversion, so I now think that Providence placed me at the organ that evening.

Before too long I was sneaking around the corner to the rectory, ringing the bell, and hoping that the pastor was not too busy to see me. He gave me books to read, answered my questions, and inspired me. It was he who gave me a copy of the Baltimore Catechism, which I devoured from its lovely beginning to its end.

What is that lovely beginning? I have searched the Internet and found different editions of the Baltimore Catechism with variations in wording. This is what I remember from over fifty years ago:


1. Q. Who made the world?
A. God made the world.

2. Q. Who is God?
A. God is the Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things.

3. Q. What is man?
A. Man is a creature composed of body and soul, and made to the image and likeness of God.

6. Q. Why did God make you?
A. God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.

Imagine: God created us for fun, so to speak. He created us so that we would know Him, the Creator of the universe, and be happy with Him forever and ever. What are the key words of the opening of the Baltimore Catechism? Know, love, believe, hope, worship, charity, heart, serve. The word joy does not appear, but the passage resonates with joy.

I was falling in love with God, with Christ, with the Holy Spirit and the Catholic Church.  By the time I finished college, I was almost Catholic. In graduate school, I finally made my decision. It had been a journey of a little more than two years. I now had a new mentor, a priest who was working on a doctorate in the history of science. I entered the church on a cold winter day. Connie, who had joined me at the same graduate school, was my sponsor.

I entered the Church shortly before Vatican II, and the years since then have been turbulent for the Church and for the world in so many ways. Yet the Holy Spirit guides this Church, and God nourishes us with His Word and the Eucharist.  Some of those who helped me along the way are no longer Catholic, and I pray that they will find their way back. We are all on a journey, and the journey continues.

Dr. Anita G. Gorman

Dr. Anita G. Gorman, a retired English professor, is the director of music at her parish. She is a mother of two adult children and a grandmother. She resides in Ohio with her husband. 

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