I Was Almost a Pagan

by Sandra Wood

God was always present and acting in my life, but it was a long time before I knew it.

I grew up on the prairies of Alberta in western Canada. My grandparents and great-grandparents were homesteaders from the United States and English-speaking Quebec.

When I was four years old, my father went to fight in World War II leaving my mother, who had a kidney disease, with four small children.

So we lived among our relatives—our aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Even after my father returned, we spent summers on my grandparents’ farms—one year with my mother’s parents, the other with my father’s.

I had little supervision and grew up wild and willful. My favorite memories are of roaming the prairies and hunting gophers with my brothers.

My mother’s family was United Church, and when we were with them, we sometimes went to church. My father’s family had no religion whatsoever.

At church, the ministers preached fire and brimstone, and I was fascinated by these men of God. We also heard Bible stories there. I remember to this day the story of the paralyzed man and people taking the tiles off the roof to let him down. But except for that, I was like a pagan child with no knowledge or understanding of God.

When my father returned home, we moved near a small town, and we went to a one-room country school. We had to walk about three miles to school, but I found it fascinating to walk over the prairies, especially in the early spring when you could hear the meadowlarks singing and smell the freshly ploughed earth.

Nature has always played a big part in my life, and somehow in nature I knew God and even used to talk to him. I realized later on that he was also talking to me, giving me hope, even before I knew how to spell the word “hope.”

On my grandparents’ farm, I used to listen to records of country music. But they had one record of songs by the great Caruso that was different from the rest. One of his songs fascinated me. It was in another language and I couldn’t understand the words, but I was so drawn to it that I almost wore it out playing it over and over.

One day I asked my grandmother, “What language is that? What is he saying?” She listened and said, “I don’t know.”

I never heard it again until I went to Madonna House; it was Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” That’s how Our Lady came to this wild almost pagan young Protestant, but I didn’t know it.

I had an Uncle Rex, a wise man whom I loved very much. He was a Rhodes Scholar, and I knew he was smart and knew a lot. One day I asked him, “Uncle Rex, if you went to church, what church would you go to?”

He thought a bit and he said, “I guess I’d have to be a Catholic.” That didn’t mean anything to me; I didn’t know anything about Catholics. I said, “Oh,” and forgot about it.

One day, when I was about ten or eleven, I discovered a big Bible in our attic. We weren’t Bible-readers, which is why it was in the attic, but I found it, and I used to go up and read it.

I remember the story of Jesus calming the storm, and that really made an impression on me. Once when I was walking on the prairie, I tried to calm a storm. It didn’t work.

My mother died when I was eleven. I blamed God for taking her, and I went to the attic and tore that Bible to shreds.

Later on, my father remarried, and we moved to Edmonton, a big city. As you can imagine, that was quite an adjustment for me.

Sports became a big part of my life and at fourteen, I joined a women’s softball team. I was playing ball and living among women of 20, 30, 40 years old. There was lots of drinking and carousing, so you can imagine the influence they had on me.

I was basically an unhappy teenager, and as soon as I graduated from high school at seventeen, I left home. I had various jobs, and then when I was eighteen, I got a job as a clerk with the Defense Department.

Before long, my girl friend and I had the opportunity to transfer to a different city. I heard that the ratio of men to women in Whitehorse, Yukon, was 20 to 1. At eighteen, where would you go? We went to the Yukon.

In the office where I worked in Whitehorse, I noticed a man who walked through the hall every day. He had a military uniform and a little white collar, and I used to wonder, “Who is that man?”

Sometimes he smiled, but mostly he just walked down the hall to his office.

One day, I asked one of the girls who he was. “He’s the Catholic chaplain, Fr. Gene Cullinane,” she told me. I found out later that he was also a Madonna House priest.

I was probably looking for a father figure; anyway, I really was impressed with him.

One day when I was walking home from work, I got to thinking to myself, “I should go back to church.” And then I thought, “What church will I go to? Here I am away from home; I can do whatever I want. I’m free.” And the next thought that came into my head was, “Why don’t I become a Catholic?”

I went to Fr. Gene and told him I wanted to become a Catholic. So he gave me instructions, and some months later, I finally confessed something to him. “Father,” I said, “I’m here under false pretenses. I’m really becoming a Catholic because I wanted to meet you.”

He smiled and said, “Sandra, God uses all kinds of ways to draw us to himself.”

The day I was baptized, Fr. Gene said something very significant to me. “Sandra,” he said, “You are about to embark on a journey that is full of mystery and wonder and awe—the mystery of the Catholic Church.” I thought about that a lot, but I didn’t know what he meant.

Not long after my baptism, one of my friends, who lived in the same barracks as me, came back from her vacation just glowing. She had just come back from summer school in Madonna House.

This friend told me all about Madonna House and how wonderful it was and about the teachings she had received there from different priests. So I thought maybe I should go to Combermere, and maybe I’d meet a nice Catholic man there and also learn more about my new religion.

I asked Fr. Gene what he thought of this idea.

“I think you should stay in Whitehorse,” he said. “You just became a Catholic, and you should stay here and learn about being a Catholic.”

I said, “It’s my life. I’m going!”

Soon after that, he told me that Catherine Doherty was coming to the Yukon soon and that I should go see her at Maryhouse (Madonna Houses’s field house in the Yukon). So I went and she said, “Come. Come to Combermere.”

So, I quit my job, packed my bags, and went. It was May of 1958, and I was 20 years old. I had been a Catholic for three months.

Madonna House enthralled me. It was like a honeymoon. The staff were wonderful, and on weekends, we would go hiking in the hills. The energy we had! We’d hike ten, twenty miles like it was nothing.

In the evenings, we would gather around and Catherine would talk about God and the Gospel. I knew what she was saying was the truth. That’s what I was hungry for and I was like a sponge.

It’s easy to talk about my life before Combermere, but it’s difficult to put into words what happened after that.

I became an applicant, someone in formation, in Madonna House less than a year later, in September of 1958. Six months later, I made my first promises as a member.

Many people, I mean people outside of Madonna House, think that once you’re a member of Madonna House, you’ve got it made. You’re holy; you’re perfect. And I thought all my past sins and all my problems were behind me.

I was working in the gardens, and I was a hard worker. I was out to prove myself by my work.

The main thing in my mind was what I could accomplish. I was living by what Catherine called “productionitis.”

I was working with Mary Davis, and we were getting up early in the morning to study gardening. Then one morning Catherine seeing me engrossed in a book, said, “Why don’t you go up to the chapel to pray?”

I looked at her and thought, “U-u-um. I don’t know,” and just shrugged it off and went back to what I was doing. Catherine didn’t say a word; she just walked away.

I thought, “I’m too busy to think about my interior life. I’ve got work to do, things to accomplish. I’m doing what I’m asked to do. I’m doing God’s work.” In fact, I was “running my own show.”

Who I was as a person, my relationship with God, what God had in mind for me, that was the harder thing, and so I put that on the backburner.

Fr. Brière, one of our priests who has since died, used to greet me whenever he saw me, by saying, “Hello Sandra, you old sinner.” And I’d say to myself, “Who in the hell does he think he is? I know I’m a sinner, but he doesn’t know anything about me.” But he would say this every time he met me, and this went on for years.

Finally, one day it hit me: “Christ came for sinners.” I had probably read that in the Gospels. And I thought, “Well, I’m a sinner. He came for me.” That’s when the penny dropped; that’s when I knew what life at Madonna House is meant to be.

This is the truth. Every time we go to Mass and say the Confiteor, we say, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” That’s our state of being. We are sinners, and God is God.

We fall every day, but he always forgives us, and we trust that, through whatever is going on, he is always acting in us.

If I keep getting up in the morning, if I keep on doing whatever I’m asked to do, if I keep trying to love no matter how it feels, my hope is that the center of my life, which right now still has a lot of me, will gradually move a little bit, making God more and more that center, until hopefully, some day, that center will really be God.

And my hope is that I keep discovering God’s love and who he is as much as a poor human being can in this life, and that when I die, I will come to the full knowledge and love of him in the beatific vision.

From Restoration, January 2010