Three generations of my family were deacons in the Reformed church back in the 1500’s, at the time of Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin. And my granddad had a hymn book that had been passed through the generations, actually signed by Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of my former denomination.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is the oldest continuous denomination that has its origin in the United States. This church broke off from the Presbyterian Church of Scotland in the early 1800s, with the hope of unifying the Protestant churches by going back to the perceived practices of the New Testament: believer’s baptism by immersion, taking communion every time a group gathered, and autonomous church government. This denomination grew out of the Enlightenment, so there was also a strong emphasis on practical thinking and reasoning. It also followed the westward movement of the pioneers, with their sense of independence, self-reliance, and simplicity. Sadly, the goals of the early founders were never lived out. To this day no denominations have completely merged due to the existence of the Christian Church (DOC). Instead, that denomination itself has split twice.
I had the ideal Disciples of Christ education, attending Bethany College in West Virginia, which was also founded by Alexander Campbell, then attending Lexington Theological Seminary, which is only a few miles from Cane Ridge, KY, where Barton Stone, the other founder of the Christian Church (DOC), had his ministry. Part way through my RCIA process, I was still a member of the Christian Church (DOC) in Ohio’s Regional Board and other committees, and I harbor no ill feelings against my roots.
In spite of this background, my family was not really very religious. My mom took us to worship most Sundays, but that was about it. My dad seldom attended church. I credit my maternal grandparents for much of my early faith development.
As a child I had a pretty typical faith understanding. A favorite book was a very old one that was full of Bible stories. The only story I remember is the calling of the boy Samuel. Samuel is illustrated wearing a white gown, kneeling in prayer. I thought he looked remarkably like me! In a sense I adopted his story as my own: three times God called the boy, and finally Samuel answered, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” I, too, was eager to listen to God from a very early age.
As a child, I attended the Independent Christian Church, one of the breakaway groups from the Disciples of Christ. There was no formal structure for educating its younger members. They practiced believer’s baptism by immersion. When I was 12 years old, my siblings and I all decided one Sunday to come forward and ask to be baptized. There had been several other baptisms in the weeks leading up to our decision, so it just seemed like the thing to do. That Sunday, during the altar call at the end of the worship service, we all came forward and repeated after the pastor: “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and I profess Him as my Lord and Savior.” The pastor came by our house later in the week with a list of Scripture passages to look up. I was the only one of the four of us who actually did that. The next Sunday, we were all baptized in the church’s baptistry. No fanfare and no classes afterward. We were given Bibles, though, and I still have mine.
After my baptism, I took my faith very seriously. I continued to pray every night, and I started reading through the Bible each year. By the time I was in high school, I was deeply involved in my church. I practically lived at the church. It got me out of my house and away from the dysfunction of my family, which was present, but I will not speak of that here. The high school youth group had become so large (over 100) that it would not fit inside the church, so every Sunday the church rented out a building at the local fair- ground. On Wednesday nights, there was also a large group Bible study. In addition, I attended the weekly prayer breakfast, was part of the youth choir and the puppet team. My best friend and I had a secret ministry, where every week we would pick someone to whom we would sneak a note. We signed the notes: “Your Koi- nonia Kristian Friends.” We always picked a person who needed uplifting or who had something to celebrate. My faith meant ev- erything to me even then, and I felt a deep desire to share it.
Within the Independent Christian Church, there were few career options open to me as a female. But my plan upon graduation from high school was to go to Bible college and to become a Christian school teacher. My uncle, however, pushed me to attend Bethany College in West Virginia. I thrived at this small liberal arts college. I joined a sorority, was part of the student government, helped found a student mentoring group and a psychology honors society, etc. It was here that I became a member of the DOC.
While in college, I was exposed to the Catholic Church for the first time. There were only two congregations in town: the Christian Church (DOC) and the Catholic parish. Bethany was a Christian Church (DOC)-related college, but there were twice as many Catholic students, so many of my friends were Catholic, and I attended Mass with them at times. Father Pat, the priest, was a delightful man who frequently interacted with the students.
I treasure the memories of the two congregations doing several joint services together. They helped me realize that the Catholic Church was not nearly as scary as I had been led to believe from my Evangelical upbringing.
After college, discerning to start seminary was not an easy process for me. I spent a lot of time in prayer, arguing with God much like Moses that I wasn’t a speaker. But at the same time I felt called to serve the church in some way.
As it turned out, I truly was in my own environment in seminary. I loved the deep theological conversations and being around those who loved to pray. My two best friends and I quickly started a morning prayer group that grew into morning worship services. My friends and I made retreats at the Catholic Sisters of Loretto Convent in Nerinx, KY and visited the Trappist monks’ Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani monastery, near Bardstown, KY.
My seminary had a special program for Catholic students at the time. My best friend, who was bridesmaid at my wedding, was considering becoming a nun. She is now indeed a nun with the Sisters of Charity in Nazareth, KY. The class I took on the Gospel of John was taught by a professor from St. Meinrad Benedictine Abbey in Indiana. I received my first spiritual direction from the Catholic theologian Michael Downey, who was a visiting professor. I wrote papers comparing the writings of Thomas Merton, a well-known Trappist monk, with those of the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, and about St. Francis and Ecology and the Small Group movement that was transforming the Catholic Church in Latin America. In hindsight, these areas of contact were nudging me towards the Catholic Faith.
In 1993, while I was in seminary, I met and married my husband, Roger. In 1994, we left the United States on a short-term mission trip, spending two weeks in Honduras. I wrote this about a profound experience I had while there:
Bare, gnarled feet came into view: Filthy and deformed in a manner that told me the owner must have spent most of her long life without shoes. However, I barely noticed this woman in my rush to enter the building. I had never had the opportunity to visit a cathedral before and was eager to go inside. I was not disappointed; the gilt and gold literally made the church glow. My eyes could not help but to be drawn to the magnificent crucifix of Jesus above the altar. I paused at the back, full of awe and reverence. Sitting in a pew, I bowed my head in prayer, a natural response to what was before me.
After a brief period of meditation, I stood up and walked out of the cathedral. There were those feet again. Only this time, I noticed the whole woman. She was nearly doubled over in agony and could not stand up straight. Her hands were cupped together, asking for alms. Many others were begging, as well, but none touched me as did this woman. She was the epitome of being weighed down by the struggles of life. She was unable to look up at the sky or even to look others in the eye to plead with them for a few coins. Christ had pity on such a woman in the Gospel, healing her with the words: “Woman you are set free” (Luke 13:11-12). Today, how are we called to minister to those bent over and weighed down by life? How can we offer hope that enables them to stand up straight and praise the Lord? (Gifts in Open Hands: More Worship Resources for the Global Community. Editors Maren Tribassi and Kathy Wonson Eddy. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2011, pp. 229-230, adapted.)
In part because of this experience, I chose Luke 13 to be the Scripture for my ordination on February 26, 1995. The phrases, “woman you are set free” and “she stood up straight and began praising God,” spoke to me personally. At the same time, this powerful experience certainly was a start for me recognizing the deep reverence for Christ within the Catholic Church.
During our trip to Honduras, my husband and I discerned a call to become long- term missionaries. We were in the first group of missionaries to go out under the joint umbrella of both the Christian Church (DOC) and the United Church of Christ in the summer of 1995. A month of our training was at Notre Dame University.
The three years spent living in Kenya, from 1995 to 1998, continue to have a profound impact on my life. Opening my heart to those who live in the Third World, deepening my understanding of Scripture and making me more open-minded to those different from myself.
The birth of my oldest daughter, Rachel Naima, brought me a significant insight. From the moment I knew she was coming, I was full of awe, wonder, and excitement. There was not the slightest doubt in my mind that she was a baby, not “mere tissue.” I was devastated when I almost lost her twice during the pregnancy, due to malaria and placenta previa. Prior to my pregnancy with her, I had been decidedly in favor of “the right to choose” to terminate a pregnancy. The Christian Church (DOC) and UCC churches are both liberal denominations, and it was simply accepted that I would follow such an attitude. It took me a number of years to admit, even to myself, that I was no longer comfortable with the idea that my pregnancy was merely a blob of cells there instead of a baby.
The next several years of my life quietly focused on balancing my calling as a minister with the needs of my expanding family. I had two more children, Nathanael and Abigail, all while serving in a variety of different ministries. I even served as a missionary again, only this time as a pastor in Appalachia. I loved what I was doing and treasure the fact that I have been blessed to be able to focus my whole life around my faith in a manner that few have the opportunity to do. Sadly, my husband and I separated in 2011 and eventually divorced.
It is a long-held belief of mine that if I quit learning and trying to grow in my faith, then I will be dead, at least spiritually. So, I have constantly sought out ways to deepen my faith. I have continued reading the Bible, devotional books, theologians, and other writings on faith matters. Over the years, I discovered that much of the training I was receiving was an adaptation of Catholic programs.
For example, I am trained as a Worship and Wonder Storyteller trainer, which is pretty much the same as the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. I also have been a pilgrim and an assistant spiritual director for the Walk to Emmaus, which is the Protestant version of Cursillo. Most of the spiritual direction that I have received has been under the guidance of various Catholic religious sisters. Slowly I became disquieted by the fact that I was always borrowing from the Catholic Faith and drawn towards the original source of what I was reading, teaching, and preaching.
The Sisters of the Congregation of St. Joseph in Wheeling, WV and Tipton, IN, with whom I practiced spiritual direction, considered me as one of their associates. In 2005, I was invited to join the Sisters in Wheeling on their retreat to discern whether they should join with other communities to become the Congregation of St. Joseph.
One of the coincidences in my life has been the repeated intersections with another Christian Church (DOC) clergywoman. Bonnie. When I was a college student she lived at Bethany. She was a professor at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She taught a Summer class on the Captivity Epistles of Paul that I took in seminary. When I returned to make a retreat in Wheeling, WV with the Congregation of St. Joseph in 2013, Bonnie was living on their grounds as a hermit. This was my first encounter of a person converting, and it was someone I viewed as a mentor.
The first two years after I moved to northwest Ohio in 2015, I started making annual retreats the Maria Stein Shrine and Retreat Center. I still go out there at times, when I feel I need an extra dose of prayer. While looking for a St. Andrew prayer card in their gift shop, I ran across a card for Mary, Untier of Knots. That image and its prayer resonated with me. After I arrived home, I ordered her statue. It sat on my prayer altar for two years before I considered becoming Catholic, but this concept of Mary started playing a significant role in my prayers and faith.
The next year, I returned to Maria Stein for another retreat. I ended up being there for the 100th anniversary Mass for Our Lady of Fatima. It was a Solemn Mass celebrated by the Archbishop of Cincinnati, with the Knights of Columbus, and a statue that came from the Vatican accompanied by three nuns who kept vigil, praying with her for a whole week before the Mass. The reverence and awe shown before and during this service left a very deep impression on me. During the service, I was told by two different people I did not know that I was going to become Catholic. Prophetic words!
Due to my interest in spiritual direction, I have read Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, The Cloud of Unknowing, The Rule of St. Benedict, etc. I also have read Thomas Merton, St. Teresa of Lisieux, Mother Teresa, etc. Gradually, I came to realize that I was reading more Catholic authors than Protestant ones, and the Catholic authors resonated with me more authentically in their presentation of the faith. As a spiritual director, I was especially drawn to the mystics. I sensed a depth to their prayer lives that was not in anything I found in Protestant circles.
I also started feeling that communion in my congregation was not being given the reverence it deserved. When I stood at the Table as a pastor and repeated the words, “this is my body broken for you,” I started feeling like it really should be treated as if it were really that. The Eucharist is central to my beliefs, and once I started viewing it as literally the Body and Blood of Christ, it became difficult to see others treat it so lightly.
I also saw that I agreed with Catholic social teaching more than I did with the haphazard view that I saw embraced within both the Christian Church (DOC) and the UCC. The Catholic Church has a much more consistent stance that all of life is sacred from conception to natural death. I was excited when Pope Francis was elected, choosing as his namesake St. Francis of Assisi, and then immediately washing the feet of the down and out, including a Muslim immigrant. As a former missionary, God’s preferential option for the poor speaks to me quite strongly. And I agree wholeheartedly with the just war theory of the Catholic Church.
All of these things led to me to contact Sr. Wanda, from Tipton, IN, to begin exploring becoming Catholic. I deliberately chose St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Lima, OH to be my parish home. I still lived in Wapakoneta, OH, where I had served my last church as a pastor. But going to St. Joseph Catholic Church in Wapakoneta was out of the question. I wanted to be anonymous for a while. I checked out St. Charles Borromeo Parish and fell in love with it. The first Sunday, after worship, I stayed for donuts and was made to feel right at home, being introduced to a number of people. When I met with the RCIA director, I realized that God had led me to the right congregation. Her story was much more similar to mine than I would have ever expected, with her turbulent childhood, divorce, religious education, and conversion. After our first meeting, she had me read Scott Hahn’s book, The Lamb’s Supper. I was blown away, because a few years before, I had led a Bible Study on Revelation and had come to many of his same conclusions on my own. That was one of the times I had been told I was too Catholic because, among other things, I admitted that the “woman clothed with the sun,” in chapter 12, probably referred to Mary.
As I journeyed through RCIA, I was intrigued by the ability to choose a Christian name and patron saint. The person I was drawn to isn’t yet a saint. When I asked my priest about it, he said he had been in a similar position when he was confirmed as a boy. And he said that I could use her name, since there were already other saint Dorothys, but that I could consider Dorothy Day as my patron nonetheless. Through the help of my sponsor, I was able to join the process of transcribing Dorothy Day’s diaries and letters to forward to the Vatican to help her cause for sainthood. I have been awed and humbled to help with this. After all, how often does someone get to help their patron saint become a saint? The reason Dorothy spoke so much to me was because she was a convert to Catholicism as well. She started the Catholic Worker Movement, which resonates with my desire to serve the Least of These (see Matt 25:40), as did her activism for issues like the antiwar movement. Her wild Bohemian background, before her conversion, made her a real person whom I could relate to. Another saint who really resonates with me is also new: Oscar Romero from El Salvador. And I would love to travel to Rwanda to see the site of Mary’s apparition at Kibeho.
Going through RCIA was still not an entirely easy process for me. Giving up being an ordained minister was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Letting go of the title, the prestige, the trappings of the vestments, the special sense of calling — ego things in the end, but still dear to me. I have spent my whole life trying to follow God’s lead, and I have no doubt that I am where I am supposed to be, but it wasn’t easy to give all this up.
A few weeks before Easter Vigil of 2019, when I officially became a Catholic, was the most difficult moment. It was an unlikely event that prompted it. I was listening to Christian music, and the song “Here I Am, Lord” came up, a favorite hymn of mine — favorite enough that I had the congregation learn it, just so it could be sung at my ordination. I called my RCIA sponsor and took all my vestments over to her house, just so I could, in a sense, release them. It fully hit me, at that moment, that as much as I loved presiding over the Lord’s Supper, that would never happen again. I also miss preaching and having the title of Reverend. Even writing these things brings tears to my eyes.
I have been blessed to serve as a part-time chaplain at Mercy Health – St. Rita’s Medical Center, so I am still able to do ministry. I was hired as a Protestant chaplain, and the director of the department knew I was in transition. He said it would be exciting to journey with me through the process.
I have treasured being exposed to a number of very devout Catholics on a daily basis. I have been able to participate in Masses at the hospital. As a Catholic chaplain, I became an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion in record time after I officially became Catholic. Through my time at the hospital, I have also gained a clearer understanding of the Catholic approach to health care. I am becoming ever more involved in the life of my parish as well, preparing to help teach two different Bible studies. I have joined a prayer group that meets on Zoom. I am also a lector at Mass and volunteer in a number of other ways as well.
When I told loved ones that I was becoming Catholic, I was surprised that many of the people responded that they had seen it coming. My mother was the one I most dreaded to tell about my decision, but the only person to react negatively was my oldest daughter. As a young woman who is seeking to empower herself, she must have felt I was letting womankind down by giving up my calling as a minister. She came to the Easter Vigil Mass when I was received into the Church, though, and has not said anything negative after that initial conversation. My son’s immediate response to my telling him I was becoming Catholic was to look puzzled, then ask me if, as a clergywoman, that would make me a nun. I just laughed and emphatically told him no. My younger daughter just shrugged and said, “whatever.” I don’t think my kids understand why I became Catholic.
I continue to try to follow the path God wills for my life. Right now, I still feel that I am in a period of transition. I eagerly desire to use my God- given gifts again. I know it will never look like my previous ministries, but my desire to serve the Lord will continue to direct my journey. Enough other people have asked me, since my son’s innocent question, if I plan on becoming a nun. At this point, I am not opposed to the idea, but although I am aware that my age would prohibit me from joining many of the orders, I am in no rush. God is the one in charge, and I will go wherever I am called.