It was my senior year of public high school, in Cullman, AL, 1991. I remember clearly, walking the school sidewalk, on a sunny, warm afternoon, towards my favorite class of the day. Always a grand time, our Art teacher, allowed us to work at our own pace, socialize, and often joined in our discussions. This was an elective class, so all the students were generally in the same crowd, and friends outside of school. Suddenly, my best friend, since third grade ran upon my heels, exclaiming, “You will not BELIEVE the new guy in art class! He is a junior and he’s a SOCCER player!” She was always overly exuberant about boys; I generally was underwhelmed by her discoveries, so I just smiled, and continued walking with her, although her soccer comment admittedly intrigued me. Most of my male friends played soccer. They were sort of the anti jocks of the school, into cool music, books and sometimes colorfully dyed hair; we were a tight knit group, but the relationships were only friendships. Until this moment, I had no serious romantic interest in anyone. I was seventeen years old, when I saw my Chad, for the first time, and life was never the same.
The moment I opened the classroom door, I saw him. Seated only a few feet from where I stood was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen. He turned to look as we walked in. Curly blonde hair, hung down in his face, shaved short in the back. He was tall, and by tall I mean 6’2, lightning blue eyes nobody could ignore, and quickly spreading across his face, a crooked shy smile that absolutely stole my heart on the spot. I felt my friend nudge me, “That’s HIM.” “Yea, yea, I see him…” I could tell by that smile, he had noticed me, too.
We became quick friends, often we were separated by our very lenient art teacher, but we literally got nothing done when we were together, other than constantly talking and giggling like little smitten kids, but that’s exactly what we were. He would write cute little poems, and draw romantic pictures of flowers, and pass them to me, every day. I kept them all. I even kept the little high school play ticket, he first wrote his home phone number on, for me. We began spending time with each other outside of school, and became the best of friends with the biggest crushes on each other. Both of us way to shy to make the first move. As prom approached, I had no real interest in the event, itself, but I saw it as an opportunity to actually make our friendship into a dating relationship, so I gathered up all my nerve, and asked a junior to my senior prom, and without hesitation, he said YES!
Chad picked me up in his mother’s car, and showed up at the door with flowers and wearing a tuxedo. My mom was a little concerned upon seeing him. I think she saw why I was so crazy about him. We had a great night, arriving at prom, having our photo taken, then changing into jeans and Tshirts, and meeting our friends at the top of Larkwood Waterfall, where we spent the hours under the moonlight and stars, just enjoying being young and on top of the world. Chad got me home by curfew, and after that night, we became officially boyfriend and girlfriend, and were inseparable.
We were both raised in protestant denominations, but Chad didn’t go to church at all, anymore. He was dedicated to soccer, and he was good. Scholarships were being offered, Most Valuable Player, possibly National Team good, or better. He was with me, or he was on the field. I went dutifully to my youth group, church trips, and Sunday services, but less and less interest was focused on things religious. I had college coming up, and a boyfriend who encompassed my every thought and moment.
Because Chad played soccer, our high school team often played St. Bernard Preparatory School, in our hometown. Many Fall afternoons, I sat on a big fallen tree, and watched Chad play against their team. On the campus of St. Bernard (which was actually a college, at one time), is The Ave Maria Grotto, The Abbey Cemetary and Chapel, and the Abbey Church. The two of us became enamored with this beautiful place, and began spending time there, on the weekends, with our cameras. We knew little about Catholicism, but the peace of the place kept bringing us back. We spent entire afternoons, imagining what it must be like to attend school on such an amazing and beautiful campus, with monks and priests wandering about. We were spellbound. We also, on our long afternoons of just driving, discovered the Sacred Heart Of Jesus Monastery, or Convent as most called it. Again and again this was a stopping place for us. We should have listened to where our hearts were clearly being led, but we thought we had such important things to do, and soon, our worlds were going to go in directions we never could have imagined.
I naively thought Chad and I would stay together, through long distance relationship, in College, but things didn’t happen that way. We separated, and it was excruciating for me. I grieved for him. I packed my favorite picture of him; A black and white of him, sitting in my car, wearing the blue bandana he always wore during his soccer matches. It was a stunning picture, and had I thrown it away, I might have gotten over him. But, if you look at my old college dorm room photos, amongst the INXS, The Cure and Depeche Mode posters, and the MANY pictures from the constant parties and concerts I attended at University, you can see that photo of him, taped to the wall, peeking out amongst them. I never lost it. It is framed and by my bedside, today. We stayed in touch through letters and phone calls, but as it happened, he met someone else, and ended up with a baby on the way, and therefore, getting married. He gave up his scholarships to take care of his new family. Devastated beyond belief, as I was completely unprepared for this kind of news, I cut all contact. It was too painful, and, I knew it was wrong to attempt to continue a friendship, under these circumstances. I took his picture off the wall, and moved on.
I was attending school at the University Of Montevallo, in Alabama, and had easily made several new friends. We were busy with parties, and a little studying. I didn’t really date, though, I passed up one dating opportunity after another. I just was not interested or able to relate to anyone in that capacity. I quit going to church, much to the dismay of my parents, the minute I was away from their watch, and didn’t go back. It was more apathy than anything, after all, Sunday mornings were for sleeping in and recovering from late nights. I did not behave deplorably in college, but I was very irresponsible and careless at times, consumed more with the social aspects the liberal arts University had to offer, than academics, although I did manage to keep my grades at an acceptable level.
After a couple of years, I met a guy I really liked. I had transferred to a school in Tennessee. He was popular amongst the party crowd, into a lot of the same music I was into, and he pursued me in such a way, I decided not to ignore. This was far from the sweet relationship I had in high school, but I never expected I would find that again. I settled, and married him, in spite of an extremely tumultuous courtship. Interestingly, his stepfather was Catholic, but we only attended mass on special holiday occasions, out of familial obligation. I very much enjoyed going to mass, but I still had other priorities, and although my interest was stirred, I still did not return to church. I completed my degree, ultimately, at Middle Tennessee State University with a major in Equine Science. I worked with race horses, and three day event horses, with some really impressive and seasoned horse people. I was unhappily married, but I was riding some of the finest horses in the world and getting paid for it. I grew up showing and riding horses, so this was a dream come true, for me.
My then husband, who had always abused alcohol, had actually developed an addiction to IV drugs (opiates), before we married, unbeknownst to me. He was also a serial adulterer, and the seven years I stuck it out, were absolutely a nightmare. The marriage ended in an uncontested divorce and some very intense dramatics. It was difficult, awful and completely terrifying. We had no children. Chad, my high school boyfriend, had been enduring a strikingly similar situation, although I had no idea. I had completely lost touch with him. He had gained sole custody of his son, very early on, and was raising him on his own. He still played soccer, and coached AYSO soccer teams, locally. He ultimately found a great job, where he still works, He had made an effort to find me, after his divorce, but had been falsely told I had married a preacher, in Tennessee. How information so far off the mark reached him, I have no idea. In retrospect, considering the true circumstances, it is almost comical.
I moved back to Cullman, working with horses, still. I had two great dogs, a doberman and a border collie, who were my comfort and protection during this difficult time. I had decided to just be content with my work, and my dogs and forget romantic endeavors. About three years after my divorce, I very reluctantly created a myspace page, upon the urging of an old friend. One afternoon, while on my brother’s computer, I decided to look up Chad, assuming he was probably married, or had a girlfriend. I just wanted to see if he was still out there, and ok. He wasn’t on there, so I sent a message to a good mutual friend from the old days, who had played soccer with Chad, and spent lots of time with us, back in the day. If anyone had maintained friendship with Chad over the years, it would be him; He excitedly responded that Chad had been looking for me for YEARS! He had immediately contacted Chad upon receiving my message. My heart stopped, and tears welled up. This couldn’t be real. He was in the same town as me, single, and had been for the entire three years I had been back home. Our paths had certainly crossed many times, without our notice. Within a day, we were in touch, and spent six hours speaking on the phone. Hearing his voice, after all those years, was indescribable. We saw each other, the very next weekend. It was incredible, beyond description to see him again, after so many years. Beautiful, sweet and as perfect as the painful moment I last saw him.
We started spending every weekend together. We discovered we still had a passion for photography, and the FIRST place we went, was to the Ave Maria Grotto at St. Bernard Abbey. This time, we went in the gift shop, and he bought me a beautiful Miraculous Medal necklace, and some Mystic Monk Coffee. He bought a St. Michael medal for himself. We both already had rosary’s we had purchased at the Grotto, over the years we were apart. We now had more to say about religion, and the absence of it in our lives, but neither of us felt ready to join any specific church. But we were now back where we should have stayed, fifteen years ago, and this time, we were going to do things right.
Within one year, we married. A blissfully happy couple, we took nothing for granted after the difficult years we had been through, apart. We spent most weekends driving around taking photos, like we always had, and we continually hit the same haunts. The Abbey, the Prep School the Grotto and the Convent, took up weekends with our cameras in hand. One evening, after settling in from one of these beautiful days, Chad asked, out of the blue, “Would you be interested in converting to Catholicism?” That Monday, I was on the phone with Father Patrick, from Sacred Heart Church. We met with him, and began the process of conversion. Father asked me, specifically, why I wanted to convert. I told him there were many reasons, but it was mostly because of the Ave Maria Grotto. He smiled, knowingly, and said, “Yes. The spirit of Brother Joseph if very strong there.” Brother Joseph is the creator of this beautiful Jerusalem in miniature. Please, anyone who ever is near Cullman, AL, you MUST stop and visit this place. No Catholic or otherwise, should pass by it without stopping. It is a religious experience, and I believe it must be responsible for many conversions. Photos do not do it justice. We began attending Mass and RCIA. My stepson even attending with us, on occasion.
Five months after we married, we drove out to the Shrine Of The Most Blessed Sacrament, a new Catholic pilgrimage site, in Hanceville, AL. We walked around in awe of this fantastic and beautiful place. I was 37 years old, and I badly wanted a child. I assumed I would never have one, at my age, I just had a feeling I couldn’t, and wasn’t I too old, anyway? We walked into the tiny chapel, with an almost life size nativity scene, behind glass. I lit a candle, and Chad may not even know this, but my prayer was for a baby. Unbeknownst to us, at the moment I lit that candle, I was already several weeks pregnant, with our first child, Ian. Six months after I gave birth to Ian, we found we were going to have another baby, Michael. Both of our children were baptized at Sacred Heart Church, by Father Patrick, surrounded by our families. My family had some difficulty with our conversion, but that all seems to be smoothed over now. My parents have always been wonderful support for me, and I’m ever grateful for the love they have always shown me, and for being models of Christianity in my life. I owe them a great deal.
My Aunt Ruth, whole-heartedly supports our conversion to Catholicism. She tells me she came very close to converting to Catholicism and becoming a nun, after an encounter with some sisters at St. Bernard Abbey College, who encouraged her to do so. She never went through with it, but has a great affection for the Catholic Church. She told me the story of her brother, now deceased, who worked, after his military career, on the St Bernard Campus, during the time it was a College, instead of a Preparatory school. He did odd jobs cleaning and property maintenance. Over the years, he found three Catholic medals, students or pilgrims had dropped, here and there. He kept them and gave them to my aunt. Recently, she gave them to me. One is of Mary and the Christ Child; the other is a Dove, representing the Holy Spirit, and it is the most beautiful; the third is the serenity prayer, engraved on a medal. She kept them for over FIFTY years, tucked away in a drawer. I believe they each must have a unique and wonderful story behind them and I feel there is some reason they have ended up in my hands, at this time of my life. I regard them as some of my most priceless possessions, although probably not worth more than three dollars, for all of them.
Several years have gone by, and we are in love with the Catholic faith. Learning all we can, to pass on to our beautiful little boys. Father Patrick offers adult Catechesis Classes, and we attend those as often as possible. We have much to learn. We read diligently about the saints, and their lives, and about the vast and marvelous history of the Church. I have a deep and growing devotion to the Rosary. As a protestant, I never knew Mary, not as a Mother. She was mentioned at Christmas, and that is all. I think often of the comfort she would have been to me, during the most difficult times in my life, when my first husband was deep in the throes of drug addiction, and I could tell no one, not even my own mother. It’s not that I didn’t trust my mother, but I didn’t want her to worry. She knew things were bad, I didn’t see the point in letting her know just how bad. When I was so afraid, alone and angry, I wasn’t willing to approach God, I might have reached out to Her. “What a joy to remember that she (Mary) is our Mother! Since she loves us and knows our weaknesses, what have we to fear?” A quote from Saint Therese of Liseux. Words I wish I had known my whole life. Think how it felt for me, after thirty seven years of strictly protestant teaching, to read about Our Lady Of Guadalupe, Fatima, Lourdes, Zeitoun. How had I never even heard of these occurrences before? I was and am still, in awe. I am wholly mesmerized by the things I am now learning. Now, when I go to the Ave Maria Grotto, and see a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, I fully understand why I have always been so moved, so overcome with comfort and peace when I looked at Her.
Recently, Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, celebrated it’s bicentennial event. At one of these events, parishioners displayed family heirlooms, old rosaries, paintings, wedding photographs, and so on. Imagine my surprise, when I came across a watercolor painting of the Church’s rose windows, with our dear high school art teacher’s name signed on it, alongside the painting were some of her rosaries. All those years, I had not known she was Catholic. I’m sure she told us, but we hadn’t paid attention. She is only recently deceased, and what I wouldn’t give to be able to let her know that Chad and I made it, after all. She was so fond of us, together, I think it would have made her very happy. Especially to know we and our children and are raising them in the Catholic Church.
We were feeling something strong, something spiritual, as young kids, at those beautiful Catholic landmarks we frequented. But we walked away. We made huge mistakes, but in spite of them, God gave us another chance, to our lives as they should be lived. Chad says to me, on occasion, “God gave you back to me.” Such a rare opportunity, we never ever take for granted. I am a stay at home mother, now. I take my boys to local playgrounds many days, but very often, we take an entire day, and spend it at the Shrine or the Abbey, The Convent,The Ave Maria Grotto. They are sacred places with a living spirit, which I believe , helped shape and guide the lives of my husband and myself. A spirit which brought us back together and led us head long into the Catholic faith, and gave us two beautiful baby boys, Ian Asa and Michael Sebastian, to pass it on to, and hopefully, someday, our grandchildren. This was God’s plan for us. In spite of all the wrong decisions we made, we made it back to where we started. It’s hard to believe, sometimes, it isn’t just a dream. To look at my sons, and see their big blue eyes, and that sweet, shy crooked smile of their father; and to see them kick a soccer ball across a field like they’ve been doing it for centuries. God designed this miracle, and until the end of the earth and time, and for eternity, I will thank Him for it. – Ginger