A Family's Journey to Easter and a New Church Home
During this year's Easter Vigil, Les, Judie and Kaylee Sponseller all entered the Catholic Church and joined Glenmary's Maynardville, Tenn., mission community—three of a group of 11 new members. It has been a long journey and a time of choices for the family, but one made much easier and happier by the warm welcome and help they've received since they first visited the local Catholic congregation.
Les and Judie, 71 and 69, are the grandparents and legal guardians of eight-year-old Kaylee, their son's child. The retired couple are lifelong Christians who have been married for 48 years, and until recently, they were longtime practicing members of the Lutheran church—as Judie had been since childhood.
When they moved to the Maynardville area 12 years ago, the couple started attending the nearest Lutheran church and continued going there periodically for several years. But the Sponsellers say they never did feel comfortable there, and it was also 30 miles away. As part of their search for a church home, they went to an open house at the new Glenmary mission in late 2011 and were really impressed by their conversation with Father Steve Pawelk, the pastor. Soon afterwards, Judie and Les also carefully read columns on faith that Father Steve had written for the local newspaper. "We liked what he had to say," Judie says, "and we decided to attend some Masses and meet the mission members."
Based on their positive experiences, the Sponsellers began to seriously consider becoming Catholics. "The Glenmarians (Father Steve; Father Aaron Wessman, the associate pastor; and Brothers Craig Digmann and Joe Steen) were fabulous," says Judie. "They were friendly, easy to talk to, and down to earth." And Les adds that "they and the parishioners made us feel very comfortable and at home." The couple also found the Catholic liturgies very meaningful and similar in a number of ways to Lutheran services.
In addition, Les says, he became involved in other mission activities that made him feel even more a part of the congregation—and was struck by how members lived out their faith and helped others. "I started volunteering with other parishioners at the local food pantry and with Brother Joe in his home repair ministry, and it's been very rewarding. We know that the Glenmarians are always reaching out to assist people and working with other ministers, too." Meanwhile, Judie has been serving as a volunteer at Kaylee's school.
The other major consideration regarding their church decision—the most important for them—was their young granddaughter's future. Kaylee had not yet been baptized, and Judie and Les both say they wanted to make sure God and Jesus were part of her life and that she was a member of a church where she could feel a sense of belonging and grow in her faith.
Also, the grandparents both knew that as they got older, they might have to find another guardian for Kaylee someday. Their adult daughter, who is a devoted practicing Catholic and a source of inspiration about Catholicism for them, told them that if such a time came, she'd be glad to have Kaylee as part of her family and would continue raising her in the Catholic faith.
"We were blessed to find a church that seemed right for all of us," says Judie.
So in late summer 2013, the Sponsellers registered for RCIA and religious education and began the next stage of their faith journey. On Wednesday evenings, the grandparents took Kaylee to her weekly religious education class and attended a faith enrichment program at the mission at the same time. And on Sunday mornings after Mass, the couple participated in weekly RCIA sessions. Their experiences throughout the year convinced them they had made the right choice.
For instance, Les and Judie both say the aspects of Mass that touch them the most are the consecration of the bread and wine and the sharing of Communion. And the readings, study and discussion of the sacrament—as well as other aspects of the Catholic faith—in their RCIA sessions deepened their understanding and belief.
Les says he frequently reviewed Kaylee's workbook with her, too, and learned with her in the process. Kaylee was very concerned at first that she didn't know hardly any of the prayers, recalls Judie, "but Father Aaron sat down with her and reassured her, which was very meaningful. She was very comfortable in class after that."
Finally, at the recent Maynardville Easter Vigil celebration, all three family members happily joined the Catholic Church and the mission, supported by fellow community members. Kaylee was baptized, and she and her grandparents received first Communion and confirmation.
Les says their journey "wouldn't have happened without the Glenmarians. We deeply appreciate all their efforts for us, and I think I'm speaking for a lot of other people in our mission community, too. We're thankful we found the Church and mission and that they found us."
And Judie adds, "We very much needed our new church, and we feel so fortunate to be part of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta mission. We love it there!"