By Joyce Coronel, Together Let Us Go Forth ~ Juntos Sigamos Adelante Magazine
Sitting in her quiet front room inside a modest home on a tree-lined street in Chandler, Joan Wall, mother of Bishop James S. Wall of the Diocese of Gallup, describes an early glimpse inside the Catholic Church. She was 11 years old at the time.
Raised as a Methodist in La Grande, Oregon, she recalls there was just one Catholic church in town.
“I was always kind of fascinated by Catholics because, well, what were they doing?” Joan says. “I remember one time walking home and the door was kind of open. I peeked in, and it looked really different than my Methodist church did.”
An elder cousin Joan idolized was married in the Catholic Church. “I thought it was so interesting that she had the courage to become Catholic,” she says with a laugh. “But she seemed very happy with it.” The couple went on to have nine children.
And then came Joan’s college years at Western New Mexico University. “There were maybe only one or two Catholics,” Joan says, but she found someone else who was fascinated by the Catholic religion.
“So, we went down to the Catholic church and met the priest and talked to him a little bit about becoming Catholic. We never went back, but I do remember him explaining the Trinity with a shamrock. It was the first time I’d ever heard it explained that way.”
A few months later, Jim Wall, the man who would one day become her husband, asked her out on a date. James Wall, Sr., would go on to become a high school teacher, plus a track and football coach. He died in 1999.
“It turned out that he really liked the Catholic Church, and he went every Sunday evening with his friends and had the whole time he’d been in college and while he was in the Marine Corps,” Joan says. The couple married later that year in a ceremony at Joan’s home, with a Methodist minister presiding.
For a while, after the wedding, the couple attended a Catholic church. “And then I was ready to go one Sunday, and my husband said, ‘Oh, I think I’ll sleep in,’ and that was the end of it.” By the time they had two children, Joan says she told her husband the children needed to learn about God. For a short stint, Joan took them to an Episcopal church.
National tragedy sparks conversion
Then came the move to Chinle, Arizona, the center of the Navajo Nation. It was the early 1960s, and Jim was hired as a teacher and coach at the public high school. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 deeply affected Joan.
“I remember watching his funeral on TV, and I thought, ‘I need to be a Catholic. That’s just the only thing there is.’ It just called to me, and I said to my husband, ‘When we get back home, do you care if I go to the Catholic church and ask a priest to come talk to us?’ And he said, ‘That would be fine.’” The couple had three children at the time.
She didn’t even know where the Catholic church was in Chinle, but she looked it up and got directions to Our Lady of Fatima Church from a friend.
“There’s a road leading up to it, and you just didn’t really see it from the road if you weren’t looking for it, so I went up there.”
Finding the door of what seemed to be the rectory, Joan knocked and then stood, waiting.
“This priest answered. And I said, ‘You know, I wondered, would it be a problem if you came and talked to my husband and me about the Catholic Church?’ ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Yes, I’d be glad to.’ And later I realized, that’s what they live for, those things.”
Once a week, Father Ivo Zircabach came and sat at the dining room table with Joan and Jim, explaining the faith. He kicked off the catechesis by delving into the mystery of the Eucharist. Joan says the young priest’s explanation finally addressed a nagging question she’d posed to her Methodist Sunday School teacher years earlier.
“We were reading John where Jesus says, ‘You have to eat My flesh and drink My blood or you do not have Me in you,’ and the people all just left. And I said to my Sunday School teacher, ‘Why didn’t He go after them and say, ‘No, no, I just mean that as a symbol.’” The teacher replied that she didn’t really know, and Joan had always wondered about it.
“Well, Father Ivo, on our first night, he started with the Gospel of John, and he explained that, in the Catholic Church, that really is the body and blood of Christ. And it’s like, ‘Oh. This is the pinnacle of everything and so all the rest of it must be true. I don’t know what it is, but I think I’m ready to do this.’ The question I had for 10 or 12 years was finally answered.”
It was during these months of instruction that Joan became pregnant with the baby who would one day become Bishop James S. Wall. Because they weren’t sure that Joan had been validly baptized earlier in life, she and her husband received the sacrament of Baptism on Holy Thursday in 1964. They were confirmed three weeks later when Bishop Bernard Espelage of the Diocese of Gallup visited Our Lady of Fatima Church.
A few months later, the couple welcomed their youngest son.
Born a few weeks early in October 1964, the future bishop of Gallup, James S. Wall, nearly died within the first hour of life. He was baptized in the hospital where he was born.
Joan told her son after he became a priest: “You know, you didn’t stand a chance. You had so much grace poured out on you!”
Joan and her husband eventually had six children in all, three sons and three daughters.
When her son, then-Father Jim, received the news he had been appointed bishop of the Diocese of Gallup, he called Joan to tell her he needed to see her. The pair had lunch at Liberty Market in downtown Gilbert, the same spot Joan and her husband stopped for groceries when they first arrived in the East Valley decades previously.
The news of her son’s elevation to bishop was stunning, Joan notes.
“He told me, and I thought my heart was going to stop. And he said he thought for a minute he’d killed his mother,” Joan chuckles.
So what kind of child was Bishop Wall growing up?
“He was just a run-of-the-mill kid growing up,” Joan says with a laugh. She pauses, thinking back.
“He did do one thing that nobody else did. He used to get my old Bible that I’d gotten in the fifth grade from the Methodist church, and he would go out in the backyard. He would have church, and he’d be the priest. He’s the only one of all of them who ever did anything like that.”
And just how did she manage to raise a young man who would eventually bear the miter and crozier?
“We always gathered for dinner every night,” Joan says. “I just think that is one of the biggest things you can do for your family is all gather together at least once.” They prayed grace before meals, and Joan says she and her husband made sure the children attended religious instruction classes, then known as CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine).
In the end, though, Joan cautions, “It’s up to God. But I think the biggest thing is, you honor priests, and you honor the Church. Maybe you’re unhappy about something and you talk about it, but you don’t let your kids hear you running the Church down.
“I think if eventually they’re called, the ground will be fertile there so they can do it and feel comfortable about doing it.”
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