How It Began
In early August 2016, my life suddenly changed — irrevocably and forever. It began on the night I picked up a rosary and a “How to Pray the Rosary” pamphlet, sat in the candlelight on my front porch, and prayed it for the first time. From the first prayer, tears began to roll down my cheeks. As I stumbled over — then embraced — the sentence, “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” I felt a distinct motherly presence next to me. Unseen, yet comforting, consoling, inviting. I remember saying, “Mary, if you’re there, I could sure use a mother.” And a response came, “I chose you.”
Since 2004, I had pastored My Father’s House, an Evangelical church in Ellenton, and later Parrish, Florida. I am also an attorney and a licensed member of the Florida Bar. I had never given Catholicism even a passing thought. But I had a number of rosaries in my house, thanks to my dear friend, Gloria Martinez, who had worked for me for 10 years. Gloria was a devoted Catholic woman who truly lived her faith. Over the years, she obligingly provided me with rosaries. First I asked her for a red rosary to hang in my red car. Then a blue one to hang on a blue stained glass mirror. Then rosaries for friends who saw mine and wanted one. Of course, they were only for decoration, since I absolutely did not believe Mary was anything more than Jesus’ earthly mother.
Like most evangelicals, I believed Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus through the Holy Spirit. But I also believed Mary had at least seven other children with Joseph after Jesus was born (Matthew 13:55–56). I felt the title “Mother of God” bordered on blasphemy.
Now, sitting on my porch, speaking to the warm presence I felt near me, I was immediately able to put all my prior concepts about Mary aside. They simply didn’t matter any more. What mattered was that she had apparently entered my life, and I decided to let her show me who she was.
I had discovered the EWTN Catholic television network, and had begun watching the programs. Soon I ordered a painting from their Catalogue, one of Mary holding the infant Jesus and a lamb in her arms, entitled Innocence. I also ordered two books by Mother Angelica. I put the painting on my bedroom wall, where any parishioners entering my home would not see it.
One night, as I sat on the bed, reading one of Mother Angelica’s books, I looked up at the painting, and it seemed as if I saw one of Mary’s hands move. I kept watching, and it did move! So did her head, as she bent down toward the baby. Then her mouth opened as if she were speaking to the child. (However, I heard no sounds.) Following this, it seemed His head turned up to look at her. Finally, she appeared to sway back and forth as if rocking the baby and the lamb, with her dress clearly blowing in the wind!
What?! I was so startled that I took off my glasses and put them on again. Surely this was some sort of optical illusion. But no, the painting began to move again. Now I was frightened! Was there something evil about this painting? Was this woman about to step out of the painting into my bedroom? Was God displeased that I had been talking to Mary? That I had hung the painting? I prayed to God that it would stop moving. It sort of did, but I felt there was still an entity in my room, and it scared me.
The next day, I tried to contact Gloria, to ask her about it, but I couldn’t get in touch with her. That night, the painting moved again. This time, the lamb also opened its mouth, as if it were bleating, and the baby’s face turned red, as if he had been awakened and was about to cry. The third night, too, the painting moved as if it were a living scene, and rays of light shone out from the painting into the room. Absolutely shocking!
I decided, then and there, that I either needed a psychiatrist or a priest! The following day, I visited a local Catholic church, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini in Parrish, FL. My husband, Bob, and I had been there before to visit their thrift store. Afterwards, on one or two occasions, we entered the empty sanctuary to see the artwork and statuary. I’d even given a donation to light a candle for prayer requests.
On the day after the third evening of seeing the painting of Mary come alive, Bob accompanied me to St. Frances’ thrift store, and I asked one of the workers how I could learn more about the Catholic Church. The thrift store lady kindly informed me that RCIA classes were beginning the following week, and if I was interested, I should visit the office. She explained these were classes for adults inquiring about the Roman Catholic Faith, and that taking the classes did not mean I had to become Catholic.
We went to the church office. Bob is a retired Lutheran Pastor, now pastoring a Community Church part time. He loves to “talk shop” with other clergy, and asked to see the priest. The retired priest in residence, Father David, graciously made time for him, and the two of them went to a conference room. I spoke with the secretary, meanwhile, asking her about the RCIA classes. She immediately recognized me from my photo in the Bradenton Herald, for which I wrote an occasional article for the Pastors’ “Faith Matters” section. “You want to know about the classes for yourself?” she asked incredulously.
Next, I spoke with the woman in charge of parish education, and cried when I related my experience with the Rosary. When I told her of the moving picture of Mary, she didn’t react adversely, but explained what an “apparition of Mary” was. It was if I were being propelled quickly in this new direction. I didn’t know it then, but Mary had taken me firmly by the hand and was leading me step by step to her Son in the Eucharist.
I was assigned a wonderful RCIA teacher, Georgia, who agreed to teach me privately, so as to not expose me to folk in the community who might know who I was. (“To prevent scandal,” she said.) My husband was nonplussed, having decided I was going through some sort of “phase” that would pass. He even agreed to attend a morning Mass or two with me.
Georgia suggested she attend daily Mass twice a week with me, to answer any questions, and afterwards, we could meet for class. The second Mass Bob and I attended was on a Tuesday. For the Eucharist, Georgia explained that I could go forward, cross my arms when I got to the priest, and receive a blessing. I happily did so. After Father spoke the blessing over me, I felt like an anointing had been poured on me. I could physically feel a warm, weighty substance on the top of my head. When I got back to my seat, I said to Georgia, “I felt something. I can’t move.” She replied, “God is pouring out His graces on you.” I knew right then that there had to be something profoundly different about the Catholic Communion and began intensely desiring to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist.
The Mass ended with a novena to the Virgin Mary. Bob could barely tolerate listening to it and later reiterated the Protestant view on what he termed “Catholic heresies.” I didn’t care. Something had happened to me, and I wasn’t going to fight it. I knew that God was sending me in this direction and that I would become Catholic. Not because of the Church’s great theology, or because the Fathers of the Church were convincing, or because I had thoroughly analyzed my experiences in light of scientific evidence, or because I understood anything intellectually. Simply put, I had met Mary. She had made herself known to me, crept into my heart, and I was already prepared to follow her anywhere she led me.
For the next eight and a half months, I attended two morning Masses each week, followed by my RCIA classes, as well as the Saturday afternoon Mass. I joined the parish, received my own envelopes, and began contributing weekly.
I read the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the first month of my journey, then numerous books on Mary, the Fathers of the Church, and testimonies of other Protestants who had found the truth of the Catholic Church — all this while still pastoring my little flock at My Father’s House. I had asked the Lord early on, “Do you want me to leave my church?” to which He replied, “I don’t want you to leave, I want you to lead.”
So I began teaching many of the principles I was learning in RCIA to my church, even transcribing some of the homilies (sermons) that I heard on EWTN and preaching them to my congregation. At St. Frances’ thrift store, I purchased rosaries, and with their parents’ permission, gave them out to the youth group in My Father’s House. The church pew Bibles were replaced with NAB Catholic Bibles, and each child was presented with an NAB Youth Bible to keep. I now wore a crucifix around my neck, together with a hidden Miraculous Medal of Mary. I wrote my last article as the Rev. Anne Barber for the Bradenton Herald, published on September 17, 2016, entitled “Protestants Should Try Reading Missing Old Testament Books.”
Meantime, at the Catholic church, I experienced profound joy, love, and the same wonder and excitement I had experienced when I met Christ for the first time 40 years prior. Now I was meeting Him anew through Mary. What happiness I felt! No one on the outside could discourage me. The more I attended Mass, and the more people I met, at some point I lost my fear of being recognized as a local pastor, and just let myself become a member of the St. Frances congregation. Within months I knew 25 people by their names.
Then, in November of 2016, tragedy struck at St. Frances, with the accidental death of Father David. I had been in his office the Thursday before, then attended his last Mass on the Saturday prior to his death. We had talked for an hour, during which I shared with him my experience of Mary. He agreed to come and preach at My Father’s House in January of 2017. I felt a real kinship with this elderly priest.
In his Saturday homily, two days after that conversation, Father David spoke of Christ being crucified between two thieves. He walked back and forth across the sanctuary (altar area) as he spoke, and as I watched him intently, I saw a pink-rimmed aura appear all around him. As he walked, the aura remained with him. The last words of his homily were, “Today you shall be with Me in paradise!” And he gestured broadly to the large crucifix on the wall behind him. When Father David consecrated the Eucharist, I remarked to Georgia, seated next to me, that I felt there was something extremely holy about him that afternoon. When he held up the host, still surrounded by a pink aura, I wished I could take a photograph so that I could try painting it later. Four days after that Mass, our beloved Father David died in a freak accident.
I attended his viewing, the vigil, the funeral, and the interment of his ashes. This was now my church, my priest, my sorrowing church family, and I cried with the rest of them. The funeral was unlike any I had ever attended: The Knights of Columbus led the casket down the aisle, and every priest in the diocese who could come was dressed in white, standing in the sanctuary. The bishop looked entirely regal, walking down the center aisle with his crosier (shepherd’s staff) in hand. The shared testimonies from the priests and family members brought both laughter and tears. Finally, it was time to go forward for the Eucharist. I was in the line for the Bishop and was thrilled to receive his blessing.
The memory of that funeral stayed with me for weeks. I had never experienced anything like it. There really is nothing quite like the beauty and kindred spirit of the Catholic family. I truly felt that I belonged. I was eagerly looking forward to the evening of the Saturday before Easter, when new converts are received into the Church, and I too could experience my Savior in the Eucharist.
Meanwhile, back at My Father’s House, I was busily trying to put things in order so that I could step back from the pulpit. With the church located in a chapel on our farm, it wasn’t easy to find a replacement who would be content to preach in a semi-hidden location down a semi-paved road. Additionally, I was bringing a new perspective to my sermons that I knew the next pastor probably wouldn’t bring.
Around this same time, I bought a concrete statue of Mary as a Christmas present for my friend Gloria, bemoaning the fact that I couldn’t have one for myself, as my congregation probably wouldn’t tolerate it. But at the statue store that day I encountered a four-foot stone statue of Mary, Our Lady of Grace, at a greatly reduced price. My husband encouraged me to go ahead and get her. After she was delivered, I put her in the back of the carport so I could paint her without anyone seeing her. I had never painted on concrete before, and it was quite a challenge. But after two months, she was perfect: the snake was an awesome rattlesnake with a nasty green eye, and Mary was painted in gold, brown, and white, with a crown of 12 stars on her head and a rosary in her hand.
Even my husband liked the statue and built a concrete platform to install her in the garden area in front of our home, just to the left of the chapel. In December, three of us struggled to move the 500 pound Mary statue to her new home. I put a solar light in front to illuminate her at night. I was so pleased with how she looked. But my happiness was short-lived.
The Honeymoon’s Over!
On Christmas day 2016, after the morning service, our worship leader pulled me aside to let me know that he was very unhappy with the new statue of Mary. I already had angel statues surrounding the chapel, but Mary was just too much for him.
He asked, “What kind of church are we?” “We’re non-denominational evangelical,” I replied. “But are we Catholic now? If I thought this was a Catholic church, I never would have come here. I’ll give you two weeks’ notice to find another music leader if we leave.” Wow! I never saw this coming.
His wife was waiting in their car, and I went to speak to her. She was fuming. I’d never seen her angry before. Through the open car window, she went into a full-on rant: “I was Catholic for many years, but I never prayed the Rosary! Then I got saved and took off all my jewelry, and I’m free! I’m free!” (She was yelling now.) “That’s why I don’t let any of my children wear jewelry!”
“You’re not free,” I replied, “You’re in Pentecostal legalism.” The meaning was completely lost on her, but her husband smiled and nodded. What shocked me most was that this lady was one of the parents who had provided permission to give her children rosaries. And she had asked me for an NAB Bible for herself when I handed them out to the youth. Now, suddenly, rosaries were evil and the statue of Mary a forbidden idol.
After they drove off, I went into the house, called my prior worship leader, and he was available and happy to come back and take over. The following Sunday was New Year’s day 2017, and our prior worship leader was leading the music. And just like that, five people who had been with the church for nine years (the parents and three kids) were gone. My youth leader was devastated, as she was very attached to all of the children.
Shortly after that confrontation, I spoke with another long-term faithful parishioner on the pathway by the Mary statue. “So, do you like the Mary statue,” I asked. “No, Pastor Anne, I don’t,” she replied emphatically. “But that was my two-month art project,” I smiled. “Why don’t you like it?”
“I was Catholic as a child, and even wanted to become a nun. But my priest said I should go to college.” “But what happened to you that caused you to leave the Catholic Church?” I asked. “It’s a long story,” she said. But I never got to hear it; within months, she, her husband and their three children left the church. Between these two families, a fifth of our tiny congregation was gone — over my beautiful Mary statue.
Several people suggested I move it, or hide it on Sunday morning under a bag. But I reasoned, “It’s in front of the house, not the chapel. If the parishioners use the walkway that goes directly to the chapel, they wouldn’t even see her.” Yet the suggestions continued, and the youth leader (also an ex-Catholic) admonished that I should have submitted the rosaries, NAB Bibles and statue of Mary to the church council for a vote before implementing them.
Finally I asked Father Jim to come and bless the Mary statue so the negativity would stop. And it eventually did. After pretty much all the congregation left.
I completed my RCIA classes. I had finally procured a new pastor for My Father’s House. But when the Easter Vigil was a week away, I was still waiting for an annulment of the marriage to my first husband, whom I had divorced 40 years prior. I received on Monday the call saying that it was granted, and I fully expected to enter the church that Saturday night. However, Father Jim (who was serving in his first pastorate), didn’t quite know what to do with me, since he was waiting for the bishop’s instruction. There was an unresolved question of whether, as the former pastor of an Evangelical church, I needed to completely disassociate myself from that congregation — whose church building is located on the small farm where I live. Since no answer was forthcoming, I was sorely disappointed not to be permitted to enter the Catholic Church at the 2017 Easter Vigil.
It was then that I contacted the Coming Home Network, asking for assistance. Jim Anderson, a pastoral care coordinator, reviewed my situation and said he believed that, as long as the congregation knew I was no longer the pastor, and I refrained from participating in the communion there, he knew of no rule against a former pastor continuing to attend his or her prior church, especially if the ex-pastor’s spouse still attended there. I then wrote a letter to the bishop, stating my cause, and asking him to please allow Father Jim to bring me into the Church. But there was no response.
Time passed, and I grew despondent, feeling rejected and crushed. Never had I wanted anything more in my life, and I felt the blessing was torn from me at the last minute. I stopped attending Mass. After two months, I contacted Jim Anderson again, and he suggested that I see another priest for a second opinion.
Finally I am Catholic!
At the end of August, I met with Father Bernie at Holy Cross Catholic parish in Palmetto, FL. He was a seasoned priest and agreed with Jim Anderson’s assessment. He was happy to baptize me (as I had no certificates, photos, or other first-hand proof of my baptism as a baby), and on October 6, 2017, at the Mass of Our Lady of the Rosary, I was baptized into the Catholic Church and received the Eucharist for the first time. I was content to wait for the 2018 Easter Vigil to be confirmed. I regard both events as the two most important days of my life. Unfortunately, my husband, by now quite upset that I continued to be serious about entering the Catholic Church, refused to be present at either event.
I spent a year at Holy Cross, where I joined the Legion of Mary and played the flute at the Saturday Mass. Additionally, since the first statue I painted had turned out beautifully, I continued to paint concrete statues of Mary, and gave them away to different people in both parishes. (To date, I have painted 13 statues of Mary and eight statues of different saints.)
On October 6, 2018, again on the day of Our Lady of the Rosary, I returned to my initial Catholic parish, St. Frances Cabrini in Parrish, FL, and the first priest I had ever met, Father Jim. That is where I currently attend.
My journey is ongoing, and not without heartache, family upheaval, and occasionally wavering faith. But my Catholic family continually upholds me in prayer. Some of my sisters in the Legion of Mary have been my strongest lifeline in the face of unexpected and emotionally painful trials, which threatened to derail me from following my new Catholic Faith.
But there is absolutely no turning back. When Jesus calls — or sends Mary to bring someone to where He wants that person to be — truly, how can we refuse to go?
Peter began to say to him, “We have given up everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come. But many that are first will be last and the last will be first.” – Mark 10:29-31 NAB