[dropcap type=”4″]V[/dropcap]eronica Robbins knew that when she applied to a Catholic high school she would learn more about the faith and its saints.

She was OK with that despite growing up in the Lutheran Church plus its Sunday school and youth programs. Robbins knew that Lutheranism came out of Catholicism and knew her faith was important enough to her to have it incorporated into her high school education.

Robbins didn’t know that by Easter of her senior year at Notre Dame Preparatory, whose students are known as the saints, that she would have a saint name of her own. Robbins was one of three teenagers and several adults who entered the Catholic Church at St. Bernard of Clairvaux in Scottsdale.

Approximately 500 people entered the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Phoenix during the Easter Vigil April 4, according to Bernadette Lopez from the Office of Worship and Liturgy. Their journey of faith culminated in being confirmed, and for some, baptized as well.

“Easter is always a joyous time of celebration for those who love the Lord. And for us Catholics, we find this time particularly joyous,” said Angela Gaetano, diocesan director of parish leadership support. “It’s also a time of deep gratitude: gratitude to God for calling our new brothers and sisters to Him, gratitude for their faithfulness during the time of conversion and gratitude to the wonderful priests and laity who walked with them during the time of conversion.”

Easter Vigil April 4 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix. (Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN)
Easter Vigil April 4 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix. (Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN)

Connecting with the saints

Robbins chose St. Elizabeth Ann Seton as her confirmation name because she thought it appropriate to look more deeply at some saints who were also converts.

“When I read her biography, I really liked her story and how her obstacles only brought her closer to God and she was dedicated to God’s will and she had a love for scripture,” Robbins said.

The Notre Dame student credited her own faith journey to theology classes at Notre Dame, people at her Lutheran church and her parents.

“They’ve always challenged me to figure out what I believe in,” said Robbins, who is the youngest of three children.

Her mom and dad attended all of the Masses involving the public scrutinies and were there at the Easter Vigil as she completed the sacraments of initiation. Robbins was excited to finally join the communion line after watching others be unified with Christ in the Eucharist for so many years.

Robbins also credited time during her fall Kairos retreat for juniors and seniors for confirming her desire to become Catholic. The retreat featured student talks, group discussions, Masses and adoration.

“I had been going back and forth about whether I should become Catholic,” Robbins said, “When I went to Kairos, it dispelled my fears about it.”

Her time at schoolwide liturgies over the years where she sat among other non-Catholic students also helped. So did routine prayer before each class period and other campus events.

“I love it because when things don’t really go our way or as we planned them, we still have something to hope in and something to trust in,” Robbins said about the Christian faith.

Easter Vigil April 4 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix. (Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN)
Easter Vigil April 4 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix. (Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN)

Returning home

Although she was raised Catholic, Cynthia Velasquez was never baptized.

Her parents, she said, couldn’t attend the classes required by the parish for a child’s baptism.

“They wanted you to keep your children at home while you went through the classes and I was so sick at the time that they really couldn’t leave me,” Velasquez said.

Today, she struggles with Lupus and fibromyalgia, but she’s suffered from Celiac disease since birth. “Not being able to have gluten, I would not be able to receive Communion. It was always pushed back and pushed back,” she said. These days, there’s a gluten-free option, something she’s very grateful for.

Growing up, the family attended Sunday Mass early on, but then fell out of the practice. After a while, they only attended at the holidays.

Velasquez’ grandmother often urged her to go to church and receive the sacraments. “That was one of her wishes and I always promised her I would do it. In 2013 she passed away and then a few months after that, my fiancé passed away,” Velasquez said. “I was looking for answers after two deaths in my family so close together. I could have easily turned a different way and just hated God and the Catholic traditions, but instead it helped me embrace the Church more.”

Two days before her Baptism, Confirmation and first Communion at the Easter Vigil, Velasquez was full of anticipation and gratitude. Her RCIA class chose her to bring forward the hosts during the offertory, something she said meant a great deal to her.

And though she still grieves the loss of her loved ones, she said she has found healing. “I feel alone, but once I step foot in the cathedral, I don’t feel alone. I feel peace. I feel happiness there,” Velasquez said. She knows her grandmother and fiancé are praying for her, and she chose Pamela Young, the woman who served as her fiancé’s godmother, to be her godmother as well.

So how did it feel to be initiated into the Church?

“I was crying after the Baptism. My godmother and I came back and we were crying. We were so happy,” Velasquez said.

“It was like something heavy on my shoulders was finally lifted. I finally accomplished one of my life goals. I finally got baptized, did my Confirmation and received my first holy Communion.”

Easter Vigil April 4 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix. (Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN)
Easter Vigil April 4 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix. (Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN)

Like daughter, like mother

The sacramental waters of baptism that streamed down the face of Donna Douglas was an intimate moment shared with the Holy Spirit.

As she clothed herself in Christ through the symbol of her white garment and sat in prayer at St. Maria Goretti Church during the Easter Vigil, she felt the light touch of a hand on her shoulder.

Her daughter and sponsor, Hattie Douglas, sat next to her — a strong witness and support during each step of her mother’s initiation process.

“I thought it was my daughter,” Donna said, “but it wasn’t. It was the Spirit and it was an overwhelming experience.”

The first time she went to a Catholic church, she was 13. Spending the night with her friend on a Saturday meant Mass in the morning.

Her initiation 55 years later gives Donna a sense of fulfillment.

“To receive his Body and his Blood — I feel complete.”

As a little girl Donna grew up hearing scripture and being introduced to Jesus by her “gruff” grandfather during visits at his kitchen table.

“As soon as he got an audience, he’d reach over and grab his Bible and read,” she said. “I thought everybody did it.”

The wellspring of passages recited decades earlier at the table often rushed back into her memory as the group broke open God’s word each Sunday during formation.

“I would hear the Gospel reading and I would remember hearing my grandfather’s voice,” Donna said. “In RCIA I learned what I practiced all my life. It was eye-opening and soothing.”

The third generation Arizonan and mother of four is a recent widow, having lost her husband a year earlier.

In the wake of his death, Donna has attended Mass with Hattie every week — who herself came into the Church more than 20 years earlier.

“I feel more alive and I’m open to everything God has in store,” Donna said. “I can hear better. It’s like waking up.”

Easter Vigil April 4 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix. (Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN)
Easter Vigil April 4 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix. (Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN)

Honor thy father

Nicholas Walters had to hit rock bottom before he could embrace the Catholic Faith at St. Rose Parish in Anthem. Growing up, he had been very active in a non-denominational church including attending Youth Group activities. But, in 2004, his beloved grandmother died of cancer.

“I hated God at that point,” he said. “How could God take someone who was so loving? How could he let her suffer like that? I spent years denouncing God to everyone I know.”

His father and paternal grandmother were both Catholic and his mother eventually converted. His father kept encouraging him to return to God, to attend church functions with him.

“Sometimes when I needed something, my father would pay for it and tell me I didn’t have to pay him back with money. He would tell me just to attend a church function with him, Mass or some ceremony.” Walters said. “I went but I didn’t want to be there. I still hated God.”

Last September the unthinkable happened. He lost his loving father to suicide. But, instead of sinking deeper into despair, he decided to investigate the Catholic Church in honor of his father.

“For the first few weeks, I went and was just someone sitting in a chair. I didn’t know what I was doing there. Then I started hearing other people’s stories, what led them to the Catholic Church, why they believed in God. And I know exactly why I was there.”

Walters and his wife disposed of all contraception methods and are now expecting their third child. The two older kids were baptized April 10.

His father was cremated with a special rosary called a Rainbow Rosary that is only available at a church in Hawaii. Walters’ brother had ordered some more Rainbow Rosaries in their father’s honor. One of these rosaries hangs in Walters’ car and reminds him of his father and his love for God. He said every time he sees it he feels his father is with him, urging him on in his profession of faith.

He and his family are moving to Missouri where he intends to become active in church activities, especially RCIA.

“I want people to know God as I have come to know him,” he said. “I hope my story inspires others to love God.”

Joyce Coronel, Mary Dahl, Ambria Hammel, and Gina Keating contributed to this story.