Family Finds Church Home After Tragedy

Posted: 3/4/2013

2013 Easter Vigil, Lafayette, Tenn., missionEven though membership at Glenmary missions is small compared to most diocesan parishes, a number of people choose to become Catholics and join these close-knit mission communities every year at Easter. That's as true as ever in 2013.

The story of a family entering the Church this year at Glenmary's Lafayette, Tenn., mission reveals some of the reasons for their life-changing choice in the wake of a family tragedy. It also shows how missioners and mission members can have a major impact on those searching for answers and thinking about joining the Church and their mission.

Terry and Leanne Bilbrey and five others are currently participating in the RCIA process (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) at Holy Family mission in Lafayette. The Bilbreys and their older son Jacob will receive baptism, confirmation and first Communion at this year's Easter Vigil Mass at the mission.

Terry attended a Protestant church with his family until he was 17. As a young man in the military, he attended services at a few churches and was drawn to Catholic Mass, but soon stopped churchgoing altogether. About six years ago, he met and instantly liked Glenmary Father Dennis Holly, then the Lafayette mission pastor.

Leanne didn't attend any church as she grew up. As an adult, she says, she visited some local denominations with their younger son Lucas at his request—but didn't find one that answered her questions. The whole family ended up reading and discussing the Bible at home.

Their current journey to the Catholic Church began in the most painful way imaginable. On Good Friday 2012, 13-year-old Lucas collapsed suddenly while playing basketball in their yard and died before he reached the hospital.

Terry, Leanne and Jacob were distraught, grieving and looking for answers when Jacob attended Mass at Holy Family one Sunday last spring at the invitation of a close friend. The friend and her family had been very supportive of the Bilbreys after Lucas passed away.

Jacob told his parents that the compassion of that family, and the love and peace he felt at the mission, had helped him. So Leanne and Terry decided to go to Mass with Jacob.

"When we walked through the door for the first time, it felt like home," Terry says. "Everybody was welcoming, caring and kind. And the Mass was so meaningful. It was like we had been going there for years. It's been that way ever since." The Bilbreys have attended Mass at the mission from that Sunday on.

Father Dennis, who knew about the family's loss, sought out Terry and Leanne after one of their first Masses and asked if they'd like to meet and talk—which was exactly what they were hoping to do.

"That was just Godsent," says Leanne. "We had several really good conversations with him. We talked about many things including the Bible, which I had been searching through for answers since Lucas died."

Looking back now, the couple say that Father Dennis—who became a Glenmary senior member and left Lafayette in September 2012—and his successor, Father Vic Subb, have both been wonderful. "We felt a lot of anger after Lucas' death," says Terry. "But Father Dennis let us know it's OK to be angry with God as long as you still love and communicate with him. That really helped us."

In September the couple began the RCIA process, led by Father Vic, to learn more about the Catholic Church and prepare for membership. Terry says that finding a church home "has led us to look at things in a different way. We feel comfortable with the Church's teachings. And we know where Lucas is at now, in a wonderful place. We want to be there someday too."

They are thankful that Holy Family mission is nearby. "If it wasn't here, we wouldn't have been able to be part of this mission community, or talk with Father Dennis and Father Vic, or find the Catholic faith," says Leanne. "Now we go to Mass at least twice a week. And we look forward to entering the Church at the mission this Easter."

Jacob has been away at college this school year—but has continued to attend Mass and prepare to become Catholic. He'll come home at Easter to join the Church with his parents.

On Good Friday, the Bilbreys say, the memories of Lucas' passing the year before will be painful for them. But on Holy Saturday, they will find consolation at the Easter Vigil liturgy as they continue on the faith journeys that have helped them cope and find new meaning in their lives. And they'll be surrounded by Glenmary missioners and mission members who reached out to them when they needed it most.