Madonna House

Stephanie and I

by Paulette Curran

There are countless dramatic conversion stories, and they are wonderful, but sometimes a conversion story is very simple. Sometimes God uses people just living their ordinary Catholic lives. This story begins with my First Communion and a little girl named Stephanie.

Her family lived on the second floor of a 70-family apartment building in New York City, and my family lived on the third. Stephanie was four, and I was seven, almost eight, and though I knew her and her family, I didn’t play with her. I considered her too young for me.

But things changed the day I made my First Communion. I was standing around with my friends, the only one of us in a white dress and veil. (I was the youngest of that group; the others had made their First Communion a year or two before.)

Stephanie came over to us as she occasionally did, and stared at me in awe. After hanging around for a bit, she suddenly declared to me, “I want to be a little bride like you.”

With that, she entered my life, big time. She started to follow me everywhere and, when she could, she did whatever I did.

It would be nice to be able to say that, having just made my First Communion, I was kind and loving to her, but this would not be true.

When I was with my friends and she tried to play with us, I would tell her to go away. However, that never worked for long. She either ignored me or left and quickly returned.

Weekends were her best opportunity. I was hardly up on Saturday morning when she would be at the door and in our apartment, watching me, doing whatever I was doing.

“Mommy, make her go home,” I remember whining one Saturday morning when I was painting a picture. Having just walked in, Stephanie had touched the picture curiously and smeared it.

“No,” my mother said. “It’s good for you to have a little sister.” (I was an only child.)

Stephanie’s family was Protestant but they weren’t church-goers. So she was free on Sunday mornings as well.

She entered into the bustle of our getting ready for Mass and then simply came with us. My parents attended the regular Mass, and Stephanie quietly sat through the children’s Mass with me.

After she had attended Mass two or three times, her mother came to my father and said, “Since Stephanie is going to church with you, I’d like to have some idea of what goes on there.”

My father said, “Why don’t you come and see for yourself?”

So she did. When the priest came out on the altar, my parents groaned inwardly. The celebrant was the pastor and he was a gruff man. If the girls in the choir (aged 12 to 17) were fooling around in the choir loft, he would yell at them from the altar. And his sermons (as they were called in those days) were often ones criticizing people or asking for money.

So my parents expected a negative reaction from their guest. But no, to their amazement she said, “Anybody who has guts like that, well, I’m interested in that religion. I want to know more about it.”

She made an appointment with the pastor and in those pre-RCIA days, ended up taking instructions from him.

What really touched this woman so deeply? I doubt my parents even knew. In those pre-Vatican II days, people didn’t share much about what was in their hearts.

All I know is that this single mother ended up entering the Church, bringing with her, of course, her two children, Stephanie and her baby sister; and that it all started with neighbours encountering something as much a part of Catholic life as First Communion clothes and a Sunday sermon that many of the people in the church probably didn’t like very much.