Parishioner Anne Wasielewski has generously agreed to share some of her faith experiences with us today. If you read yesterday’s post from parishioner Don Wilson, you will note that they have the shared experience of being in the REC prison ministry. This essay, as does Don’s work, certainly reminds me of who gets changed when we serve others. We are grateful to Anne, and to Don – and to all who offer their words on these pages. (Interested, please let us know!)
My journey of faith is a long one. I started to question my faith in the seventh grade. Though my father was a devoted Catholic, and could debate theology, it seemed he was always working, and was never home. The formation of my Catholic Christian faith was left to my teachers at my parochial grade school I attended and my mother. I loved my mother very much. The only problem was that my mother seriously doubted her faith in God. These doubts were conveyed onto me, and reinforced by my circle of friends who, like me, were trying to find their way. This was all occurring during the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, when there was a lot of changes occurring in society at that time.
By the time I entered the 9th grade at a Catholic High School, which my father worked even longer hours in order to afford the tuition, I was not attending Mass. I did not even attend Mass on Christmas or Easter. God and Church never entered my mind or world.
When I was 20, I remember vividly a dream in which Jesus appeared to me and said, “You will be okay.” I awoke the next morning thinking this was very strange. I never thought of Jesus, so why would I dream of Him? I knew, for some reason, I had to share this dream with my father. I remember my father gently saying God works in mysterious ways. My father went on to say that being a Catholic can be very difficult, and that I would have to leave my present lifestyle and embrace a life centered on God and faith. I remember thinking, like St. Augustine, that I was not ready or willing to give my lifestyle.
I happily continued on, never really thinking about God. I graduated from a Catholic college, and much to my mother’s happiness and relief, I married and settled into suburbia. Despite deliberately shutting God out of my life, God blessed me with a wonderful husband and two beautiful children.
I dutifully had my children baptized in the Catholic Church, and made sure that they received all of the required sacraments. I was taking my motherhood ministry very seriously. I thought I was truly content with my life. Yet something was missing. I asked myself, “What could it be? I have a beautiful family, a beautiful home, and a good job. Why then, do I feel that I am not complete?”
I started to attend Mass at St. Edward’s on a more regular basis. Yet, I still felt that something was missing. In the late summer of 2007, after Mass at St. Edward’s, I picked up the bulletin. This time I actually read it. I noticed an informational meeting on Small Faith Groups was going to be held one evening in the chapel at St. Edward’s. The presenter was going to be Sue Karpovich. I thought, just maybe, I will go and hear Sue talk about this faith sharing group. As I really did not know anyone, I mustered up the courage to attend Sue’s presentation. Immediately, I was drawn to Sue’s warmth. I guess Sue sensed that I did not belong to any Faith Sharing Group, and invited me to be part of her group. In addition to meeting Sue, I met two other wonderful women – Karen DiPalma and Fran Rossi Szpyclzyn. In hindsight, God brought these three women from St. Edward’s into my life, as they were the ones who gave me the courage to truly start my faith journey back to God.
My daughter, Lauren, and I also became involved with the Youth Ministry at St. Edward’s as Sister Rose would not take no for an answer. I was beginning to feel a sense of God’s community. Lauren and I also became involved in the Emmaus Project through St. Edward’s and the United Church of Cohoes. Through this last ministry, God blessed me once again by bringing Kathy Masucci into my life. At the time, I had no realization of the importance of Kathy’s role in my faith transformation.
By now, I am attending Mass every weekend, and am thanking God for all of His blessings. Last January, I was reading the bulletin, and there was information about the REC (Residents Encounter Christ) Ministry. The contact person was Kathy Masucci. I knew I would be seeing Kathy the following Saturday at the United Church of Cohoes. That Saturday afternoon, I asked Kathy about the REC Ministry. It was as if Kathy knew I would be asking her at REC. She just happened to have the paperwork for me to complete for this ministry. Everything was done. I was all set. I inquired as to where the REC retreat will be held at? Kathy responded the retreat will be at Coxsackie, which is a maximum security prison for men in Greene County. Really? I thought, okay, I made the commitment to attend. I will only be participating for a few hours, and then I am done.
To be honest, I did not know what to expect. I cautiously told a few close colleagues, and my family. Their responses were unanimous. Everyone thought I was crazy. One attorney I work closely with, and I consider to be liberal, told me that ”I will never change these men.” I replied that I was not going to Coxsackie to change anyone. I prayed to the Holy Spirit to guide me on my next faith journey.
The day of the retreat arrived. I remember being very calm and at peace that morning. I arrived at Coxsackie. To say Coxsackie is a large, imposing facility, would be an understatement. The facility is surrounded by steel fences with electric barb wire on the top of the steel fence. A correction officer, with a high powered rifle, is standing guard in the tower situated by the electric barb wire fence. Yet, for some unknown reason, I felt drawn to enter a place I have never dreamed of entering. A calm, confidence came over me. Our group entered the facility, and heard a slam of heavy steel gates behind us. Not once, did I have any second thoughts. I knew, “I would be okay.”
After walking through the magnetometers, our group was led down a long, dark hallway. Was I apprehensive? No. I was feeling a sense of joy! Our group was ushered into a large gymnasium, which served as the dining hall for the retreat.
I don’t think I can articulate the transformation that took place as I entered the gymnasium. The room was filled with both the REC Ministry team and inmates. To witness these men praising God through music, song and their personal witness testimonies, was a life changing event. I felt the genuine presence of Christ that day at Coxsackie. To witness these men’s genuine faith (many who are serving life sentences with no parole) is truly a testimony of God’s forgiveness, not only for these men, but for forgiveness for me.
I always said I never could be a disciple and spread the Word of God. My afternoon at Coxsackie changed that. Through my testimony, I have brought two other people into this ministry.
When the attorney I work with asked how the retreat was, I replied, “You were right. I did not change the men. The men, through God’s grace, changed me.”