For the past 23 years, Tom Garwood of Buxton has been accompanying his wife, Eva, to Mass. They raised four daughters in the faith, as well. Until this Easter, however, Tom himself was not Catholic. He was Methodist.
“I’ve just been going to the church, seeing things, learning things but not understanding necessarily. In the back of my mind thinking maybe I should do something someday,” he explains.
That day came last fall when he received an invitation from Michele Bernier, pastoral life coordinator for the Portland Peninsula & Island Parishes. Michele had long seen Eva and Tom together at Mass but knew he was not a member of the Catholic Church. She was aware of other couples in similar situations. After thinking and praying about it for some time, Michele consulted the diocese’s Office of Lifelong Faith Formation about the possibility of forming a couples group, in which individuals looking to join the Church would be accompanied by their already Catholic spouses.
“The sacramental unity of a family is deeply powerful, so if there is something that we can do to continue to help support that or strengthen that, then it’s time to do it,” she says. “The thought was that we could give them something to enrich their marriage and their union, in addition to teaching the catechism. Their union is going to last a lot longer than the class, so why not bring them together and really build on that?”
Michele put together a flyer, which read, ‘Is this the year?’ Although not everyone responded, for five couples, the answer was yes.
“I said, ‘This is perfect. This is wonderful,’” says Eva.
“It’s because of Michele that we’re here,” adds Tom, noting that he had previously been hesitant about beginning the RCIA process. “This has sort of made it non-threatening to me.”
“I just thought that was a natural fit. It was the perfect situation for us,” says Didi Holt, who joined the group through neighboring Our Lady of Hope Parish in Portland.
“It was amazing,” says Jay, her husband, a cradle Catholic. “That monthly meeting that we had was really great. I think it bore a lot of fruit for all the people there.”
Michele designed the program to follow the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (USCCA). The group met monthly, during the evening, in the hall of St. Louis Church. The couples ate together, prayed together, and grew in faith together. Helping Michele lead the lessons were Laura and Tom Krause, married members of the Church, as well as the participants themselves, each contributing by sharing some of their own observations and knowledge.
“Jay and I, we always sit and talk, and he tells me things. You do this and you do that. That is what this is for. He answers my questions, which he’s done a lot, but he can also bring that to the group, just like the other spouses there, with their knowledge,” says Didi. “It was a wonderful experience because we got to hear people who were very similar to us telling their stories.”
“It made everyone really comfortable because we had a mix. Some people had been practicing the faith for a while, others not as long. So, between all of us and Michele, we were able to ask a lot of different questions and get a lot of different angles,” says Jay. “I had the feeling that we were all led there, each of us was brought there at that point, together, all the couples. It was nice.”
“I feel more connected doing it together. I feel like there is something very family-centered about it,” says Jency Liddell of Portland, who was joined by her husband, Alan, in the group. “That makes us feel good and strong to really build our foundation before we have kids.”
In addition to their time together, the husbands and wives were assigned chapters in the USCCA to read, study, and discuss at home. They were also encouraged to do additional reading on their own, something Tom Garwood wholeheartedly embraced. He especially points to Scott Hahn’s book Rome Sweet Home.
“As we go through the chapters, there usually are some stumbling blocks, one of them being the Eucharist, so when I read Scott Hahn’s book, it was more helpful than anything. When Christ did the Bread of Life discourse, He didn’t say it’s only a symbol, and when Scott Hahn pointed that out, I thought, ‘Oh man,’” he says. “And with Eva being here, we’re reading the same things. We go home and we discuss.”
The couples all point to the value of those at-home conversations.
“I have a lot of questions,” says Jency, speaking to Alan. “And since you already have somewhat of a background and some knowledge, it’s really helpful to get to talk to you if I have a doubt about something or if I get confused.”
“But also, you raise questions that I hadn’t thought of before. So that helps me think it through, too,” he responds. “It’s a mutual support network.”
Alan says the classes have been valuable to him because he participated in RCIA and made his first Communion and confirmation while serving in Iraq but fell away from the faith not long after that.
“I’ve had 11 years to reflect on that, stew on that, grow a whole lot, and this group, and the reading that we’re doing supplemental to this, has really, really strengthened my faith,” he says.
Jency, who explored several other religions before Catholicism, says she, too, has benefited greatly.
“It's been really exciting just to get to know the richness in Catholicism,” she says.
Didi and Jay say the classes have made faith more a part of their everyday lives.
“It has been there front and center,” says Didi. “I think, for our marriage, it’s made it stronger.”
It wasn’t until three years ago when their daughter, Ada, made her first Communion that Jay received the sacrament of confirmation, which he hadn’t done as a child. Now, he attends daily Mass whenever he can.
“I was just away so long and now, as they say, the Holy Spirit sets your heart afire.”
Didi, who hadn’t regularly attended any church services since she accompanied her grandmother while still a child, says joining Jay and Ada at Mass made her feel at home, leading her to the RCIA group. All the pieces, she says, just fell into place.
“It’s fascinating. It’s history, and that’s what I loved so much about coming to the Catholic Church,” she says. “This is the Church that was built by Jesus, so it just all made sense to me, all of a sudden.”
She says the last year has been a wonderful time in her life.
“I feel so special and so connected,” she says. “I don’t want it to end.”
“We keep telling that it’s just the beginning,” assures Jay.
The couple says they have a peace about them now that they didn’t have before.
“It just feels natural. It just feels right,” says Jay.
“We’re the family, but also, we’re not alone,” says Didi. “We have so much more.”
They say that is why they now want to share what they’ve experienced with others.
“We’re going to spread the love. That’s our mission,” says Jay. “We’re the disciples. That’s what we’re called to do.”