By RASHAE OPHUS JOHNSON
This Easter the Archdiocese of Anchorage welcomed 83 converts into the Catholic Church. Some of these men and women hail from backgrounds that were hostile to the teachings of Catholicism.
As they tell it, Nicholas Myhre, Jason Yonk and Vanessa never pursued Catholicism. Rather, they were stunned at how their quests for spiritual truth led them to the very church about which they’d been warned.
Myhre’s mother, an agnostic Lakota Sioux, rejected organized religion and taught him that the Catholic Church forcibly indoctrinated the Natives in early America.
Yonk was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which teaches that the true message of Christ was lost by the Catholic Church but restored in a vision to Joseph Smith in the early 1800s and recorded in the Book of Mormon.
Vanessa, who asked that her last name not be used, due to tensions caused by her conversion, grew up in a family of devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, where she was taught that the harlot described in the Book of Revelations represents the Catholic Church.
QUESTIONING THE FAITH
Myhre became acquainted with Catholicism when his father, a recent convert himself, was undergoing cancer treatments and asked Myhre to bring him to church. The first Mass felt awkward, he said.
“I didn’t have hostile feelings toward the church; I just didn’t like being there,” Myhre recalled.
The second visit, though, he was overcome by an epiphany as he watched his father participating in the Mass.
“I just felt that I was in the right place at that moment for a reason, and I needed to know more about what my dad was doing,” he said.
His job working construction around Alaska allowed him some time to read books on apologetics and early church history.
“I was always looking for God: thinking and searching and reading and praying,” he said.
Myhre pushed himself to scrutinize and fully grasp any teachings that challenged him, including purgatory and the veneration of Mary. Other beliefs, though, seemed obvious.
“The presence of Christ in the Eucharist is really what drew me to the faith,” he said. “To make that leap, for me what really cemented it was tradition … That really helped me understand the Catholic Church and where it gets its authority.”
Myhre entered the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), the means by which one enters the Catholic Church. He began attending Mass with his children and his wife, an inactive Baptist, and enrolled his 5-year-old daughter in Our Lady of the Valley Catholic School. At Easter, he joined his wife and youngest daughter in entering into full communion with the Catholic Church.
QUEST FOR SALVATION
Fellow catechumen Jason Yonk launched his search for spiritual truth after reading an alarming book, “23 Minutes in Hell,” which is the author’s account of his near-death experience that went south.
“It honestly scared me,” Yonk said. “I’ve always believed in hell.”
At his mom’s suggestion, he started his quest for salvation by studying the Book of Mormon but wasn’t satisfied with its answers.
“I still felt very confused and lost,” he said.
During long Coast Guard deployments, he studied the Bible and traced Christianity back to its roots in the Catholic Church.
He startled himself when he announced to his wife, a cradle Catholic from a devout family, that he wanted to become Catholic.
“She was as dumbfounded as I was,” he said. “Before this I had a problem with saying I was one religion or another, but it was sudden. It just felt right.”
He and his wife, who was never confirmed, took RCIA together at St. Mary Church in Kodiak. With no other RCIA candidates for most of the year, he enjoyed grilling his teacher, Father Eric Wiseman, with questions during classes.
Yonk is now considering the diaconate after retirement.
A catechumen at St. Patrick Church in Anchorage, Vanessa experienced scathing criticism of the Catholic Church as part of her religious instruction growing up a Jehovah’s Witness. Yet she always felt intrigued by Catholicism, even dreaming as a young girl of becoming a nun.
“I’ve been a Catholic at heart for years,” she said. Observing adult Jehovah’s Witnesses going door-to-door, “I remember Catholics being the people who would say ‘No, thank you; we’re Catholic.’ They were all set.”
Vanessa eventually left the Jehovah’s Witnesses in her 20s and devoted a decade to soul-searching. She read many books, attended friends’ churches and prayed. She also lost and rebuilt a delicate relationship with her parents, who by Jehovah’s Witness creed were supposed to cut themselves off from her for leaving their church.
“I went through a period of knowing that what I was taught (about the Catholic Church) was wrong, yet not being able to free myself from the way I felt,” she said. For instance, “reading the Bible and knowing, just knowing clearly that God is three persons in one — I don’t know how you could dispute that — but still hoping that I would find something to prove otherwise because that’s what I’d always been told to believe.”
Her conversion journey and zeal for Catholicism renewed the faith of her Catholic husband. Her daughter, age 3, was baptized last year, and Vanessa eagerly followed suit this Easter.
“It feels like coming home,” she said. “It feels like correcting a mistake.”
‘FAITH IS A GIFT’
Myhre is similarly excited.
“Cradle Catholics tell me that what I’ve learned and what I’m experiencing is a gift,” he said. “They took everything for granted because they never had to question it or figure it out for themselves.”
He added, “Like we learned in RCIA, ‘Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit.”