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My Life with St. Joan and St. Thérèse - Chapter 2
How I met St. Thérèse of Lisieux
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1984 – Guymon, Oklahoma
Fr. Duane Mallon was an extremely welcoming priest with a good sense of humor. He was a large man, standing around six feet, four inches, with a fair amount of girth. His voice carried, though it was not overbearing. He was a newly ordained young man with one glass eye that remained motionless while his other moved back and forth. Fr. Duane would easily set off on a chuckle, politely acknowledging your own attempts at humor as you spoke to him. He was warm and inviting, and I liked him.
Fr. Duane was the new associate pastor at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Guymon. The primary pastor was Fr. Joseph Burger. In stark contrast to Fr. Duane, Fr. Burger was an older priest in his early sixties. He was average height, maybe 6 feet tall, and relatively thin. He had been a chaplain in the military and, with his short cut and grey hair, looked the role. Just like Fr. Duane, Fr. Burger was warm and inviting. Rather than chuckle, though, like the larger and much younger associate priest, Fr. Burger would often let out an infectious laugh that would have you smiling in no time.
The Church was new. I mean brand new. There were no pews or kneelers in the sanctuary, only row after row of folding chairs. This was the same St. Peter’s Church that formerly occupied the small Church building “off on a side street,” I mentioned previously. The parishioner base had grown from the time I visited in the 6th or 7th grade. Many years later, the new Church was large and sat on Quinn Street, a rather busy and well-known thoroughfare, rather than being tucked away. St. Peter’s was something that others in the community now noticed.
The rectory, the home next door to the Church where the priests lived and had their offices, was also brand new. I was standing in the rectory doorway. I was a Protestant, a Methodist from the United Methodist Church in town. Not a single member from either my immediate or extended family was Catholic as far as I knew. Becoming Catholic was never something that would even come up for conversation in our family. However, I stood in the rectory doorway to speak with the priests.
Only a month earlier, I had asked the young lady who today remains my wife to marry me. She said “Yes” to me; however, it was a conditional “Yes.” She told me she would marry me but was Catholic; she would always remain Catholic, and our children would have to be Catholic. I would have to attend the Catholic Church with her and the family. She would not put up with a divided family attending different churches. Other than that, she offered, I could be whatever religion I wanted to be. She looked at me. What she just decreed was not up for discussion. It was the way things were going to be. She looked at me to see whether or not I agreed. Well. I was in love. I never gave much thought to these religious things anyway. After all, I did hear the part where she said, “Yes,” even if the “however” part was still a little fuzzy. I agreed.
Now I was standing in the new rectory of St. Peter’s, introducing myself to two wonderful priests. They put me at ease in Fr. Duane’s office. I sat in a new, comfortable leather chair. This was all very exciting. We were going to be the first couple to be married in the new Church (we ended up being the second after another pair moved their date to be first!). I was from a relatively well-known family in town. My father was part owner of a local family business. Marrying a Catholic girl would be a first for us, as far as I knew.
Fr. Duane began discussing the “classes” I needed to take. He could see that I was uncomfortable. He then made a statement or, rather, offered me something to think over. Sitting behind his desk, Fr. Duane said, “You know. If you are going to spend the rest of your life with this woman, perhaps you should know something about her Church. You do not have to become Catholic to marry her, but perhaps a few RCIA classes would help you understand her faith.”
That proposition shook me. I fancied myself a rational, intellectual man. I was, after all, an Ivy League-educated fellow. After my post-high school graduation trip to France, I spent four years at Princeton, earning my bachelor's degree in economics. I left Princeton for a sales position in Atlanta with US Steel Corporation for two years. In the summer of 1983, my parents visited me in Georgia. My father asked me to join him in the family business in Guymon. I agreed and, after returning to my hometown, soon came across my future wife, whom I had known since High School.
Josey was originally from somewhere other than Guymon. She was living there when I first met her in high school. We flirted with each other from afar then; however, I was too shy to ask her out on a date. Not long after, I was off to France for the summer and then to college in New Jersey. While I was in college, she moved back to her childhood home in El Paso. We did not see or even contact each other for seven years. After leaving US Steel to join my father in the business, it just so happened that Josey returned to Guymon to visit relatives. Her brother was working in our company. One day, he came into my office to tell me that “Josey was in town.” I finally mustered enough courage to ask her out. Only a few months later, I proposed.
What Fr. Duane suggested made sense. It was a reasonable offer. I agreed with him. They put me on the roster for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, or RCIA, beginning a couple of weeks later in early September.
There I was. Sitting in RCIA. I had no intention of believing anything, joining anything, or anything. I was there because I wanted to marry the beautiful young woman who said, “Yes, however…” to me a month earlier.
It only took the first night for almighty God to touch my heart. Soaking it all in through most of the evening, I found that what they said was actually rational. Nothing really came up with which I disagreed. Nothing at this point threatened my existing belief system, even though that system was formed through a Protestant upbringing.
Then they taught us the prayer of the Hail Mary. This prayer really struck me. As hard as it might be to believe, I had never heard the Hail Mary before. It was beautiful. I was struck by two aspects of the prayer. First, I was quite touched that this prayer was to the Mother of God. I found it remarkable that one could pray to the Mother of God. Something about that seemed quite fitting, though I had never even considered such a thing. Secondly, they asked her to pray for “us sinners” now and at the hour of our death. “Us sinners”? I thought that when one became a Christian, one was “saved.” All we needed to do after that was to recruit others. However, these people asked the Mother of God to pray for them since they were sinners. That made sense to me. I knew I was a sinner.
The idea that I, as a sinner, could pray to the Mother of God stayed with me. “Can a sinner really pray to the Mother of God?” I would ask myself. My sense of sinfulness was cracking through my insecurity, typically masked over by my arrogance. I think I was asking, “Can a sinner really be saved?” My heart warmed to the idea that I, a sinner, could ask Mary to help me be saved. There was something about praying to her that gave me a sense of joy and, I suppose, hope.
Shortly after that, I was in class again. This time the topic was the Eucharist. It was enjoyable but uneventful. I did not know what to think about such notions as the Eucharist.
Again, I was in class. This time the topic was apostolic succession. Fr. Burger and the deacon running the course made the simple point that all the Bishops in the Catholic Church could trace their succession through ordination to the original apostles. I was thunderstruck. No one had ever told me that before. No one had ever told me that any church could make that claim. I did not know that something like that was even possible after all these centuries.
Two seconds later, it all came together. I sat there. I thought, “If what they say is true, then they have the authority. If they have the authority, then what they say about the Eucharist is true. The Eucharist truly is the Body and Blood of Christ!” It all happened in seconds. I came to believe instantly in the true presence of Jesus Christ in His Eucharist and in the authenticity of the Catholic Church’s claims about itself as the true Church founded by Jesus Christ.
After only a few meetings, my life was turned upside down.
It was a momentous night. It was the night of my conversion. It was October 1, 1984. It was the Feast Day of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
Though I had no idea who she was or the significance of the date at the time, the fire of the Holy Spirit united me with St. Thérèse on October 1, 1984. Without me knowing even who she was, St. Thérèse of Lisieux brought about my conversion through the blessing and heart of the Immaculate Mary. I became (though I did not yet know it) Thérèse’s brother in spiritual blood through the fire of the Holy Spirit, who arcs through time and space to work these miracles.
Though I could not know it then, St. Thérèse was about to become a permanent fixture in my spiritual life. Though I could not know it then, St. Thérèse would unite me with St. Joan of Arc. Though I had no way of knowing it then, the two of them would play THE central role in developing my love for this Mother of God to whom I recently had become so attached. Though I could not know it then, this Mother of God would lead me to her Son in His Real and Substantial Presence in the Eucharist.
Though I could not know it then, St. Joan and St. Thérèse would pull me from the fires of Hell.
Check out the Heroic Hearts podcast on Substack, Spotify, or Apple. Heroic Hearts is a podcast about healing, enchanting, and elevating our hearts through the stories and spirituality of St. Joan of Arc and St. Therese of Lisieux. Co-hosted with Amy Chase.