Growing up in Ohio, I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t Catholic. I am the youngest of three girls. We all attended Catholic school, and our family never missed Sunday Mass, followed by brunch at my grandparent’s house. I had a happy childhood with devoted parents who gave me everything a kid needed. I set off to college in St. Louis—the only one to leave Ohio. I soon forgot about Sunday Mass and all things Catholic. When I graduated, my mom asked me what color I’d like my bedroom at home to be re-painted since she imagined I’d be returning. I remember the silence on the other end of the phone when I told her I planned to move to New York City. She never tried to stop me, but I think it was then that she realized her baby was gone.
At the time, I had no idea I’d be in New York permanently, but I wanted to chase my dream of working in advertising on Madison Avenue. Eventually, I landed my first job in the industry a few streets over on 5th Avenue. I worked in the creative department of several agencies over the past 20 years. In 1996, I married my college boyfriend, Peter, and we started a family. Today, we have three almost-grown children; Luke (20), Olivia (20), and Shane (15).
When my twins were in the sixth grade, they asked me why I had not volunteered to be a CCD teacher like the other moms. At the time, we were not practicing Catholics, so I used religious education as an easy crutch to do “the work” for me.
Nonetheless, that was the prompt that landed me in a closet-sized classroom with twenty unruly, after-school-smelly 12-year-olds. As I muddled through the old testament stories that I could barely remember despite all my years of Catholic school, and as the kids swung from the ceiling lights, I thought to myself, what the h*** am I doing here?
Oddly enough, God seemed to know. By the end of the school year, I experienced a major conversion. I was overcome, overwhelmed, surprised, and more than a little bit confused.
It was an intense time for me, and I had a lot to learn. Thankfully I was introduced to Val Sprague, a woman from my parish. She had me signed up for a woman’s bible study before I could think twice about it—and my Catholic formation began.
I dusted off a bible from the bookshelf at home and attended the weekly study, Walking with Purpose, along with a table full of other women. We read scripture and reflected on how it was relevant to our daily lives. Me, in a bible study! Ha! At times I had to laugh! Val was our study leader and knew I was struggling, but with a reassuring voice, she’d say, “Melissa, God has great plans for you!” That made me feel better and nervous; what exactly was this “plan”?
Occasionally, the group hosted guest appearances from various priests. I had no idea who these guys were. Val explained that they were Fathers from Regnum Christi. Wait, Rice Crispi? No, Regnum Christi! Father Jason was a favorite. His gentle and soothing voice, kind smile, and piercing reflections on Jesus and Mary always got me choked up.
It wasn’t long before the subject of Confession came up in our sessions. Val asked me if I wanted to go, which I did not. She reassured me that Father Edward Hopkins would not faint when I admitted it had been 30 years since my last Confession, and he didn’t—at least not in front of me. Instead, he said, “You did a beautiful job.”
Sometime later, I invited Fr. Edward to speak to the 7th grade CCD class. The topic was sexuality, and I certainly did not want to tackle that one. I remember he had a red heart made out of construction paper. He ripped off a little piece of the heart, crumbled it, and threw it on the ground. He did this repeatedly until there was just a tiny bit of the heart left. “Keep your big, beautiful hearts whole,” he implored the kids. “Don’t give them away to someone who doesn’t love you; who is just going to use you and throw you away when they are done; someone who isn’t committed to you in marriage.” All forty beady-little-eyes were locked-in on him. These Rice Crispi Fathers really do have “a way about them,” I thought.
Val continued to walk with me. Years back, she invited me to Spiritual Exercises, a two-day silent retreat. There, I experienced my first spiritual direction with the Fathers. At the lockdown beginning, she welcomed me to a book club. I didn’t know many of the women, but it turns out they are all part of her Regnum Christi Encounter Group. We met on zoom during the heart of the pandemic. One time, Father Eric Nielsen joined us. I unintentionally fell apart because my stepfather had just passed away from Covid. After the meeting, Father called and left me a voicemail. He told me I could reach out to him anytime, and he would be there for me. That meant so much—having a priest call me about such a personal matter. Before the presidential election, I organized a rosary march. Father Eric heard about it and called to ask if he could come and help lead. I was so touched that he did that!
When Val approached me to discuss the open position as Development Coordinator for the NY Tri-State locality, I hesitated, worrying that the position might not be the right fit for me. But Val was pretty sure it would be, so that was good enough! After all, she’d been my north star for a long time.
Working for Regnum Christi has been an honor. I love contributing to the “Coming of His Kingdom” in this unique way. Getting to know the Fathers and the team has been so inspiring. In May, at the end of a Triduum weekend, and with the encouragement of Father Eric, I formally associated with the movement. It felt beautiful and peaceful to be open to the invitation. When Father handed me the little crucifix, and I repeated the words, “Hail, O Cross, our only hope,” all the years of seeking, of sometimes feeling strong and often feeling weak, fell away for a moment. My family had just grown bigger right around me in that little chapel—and the answer to everything was now cupped in my hands.