At Edmonton's St. Thomas More Parish, 24 people are preparing to enter the Church at Easter.

WCR PHOTO | LASHA MORNINGSTAR

At Edmonton's St. Thomas More Parish, 24 people are preparing to enter the Church at Easter.

March 23, 2015
LASHA MORNINGSTAR
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Sitting around the table at the meeting at Thomas More Church, Darlene Smigelski felt a smile start to soften her face.

"Lord, you are funny. When you want to communicate with me you hit me with a two-by-four, don't you?"

Smigelski had just agreed to be coordinator of the RCIA program for the church.

That was 15 years ago.

"I have been doing this since the turn of the century. That is what I like to say."

She had retired from the Air Force and prayed she would do "whatever you want me to do, Lord."

She and her husband had moved from Ottawa to Edmonton because her husband's family lived here. The church is eight doors down from her home and she thought, "I have to throw myself into this or I am going to go stale."

So she became an RCIA sponsor, then a catechist and kept praying to God, asking him what he wanted her to do with her life.

Smigelski had taught in the military, so she had the necessary teaching and leadership skills to lead the RCIA. When the former RCIA coordinator left, she thought, "Oh Lord. This is whatever, isn't it?"

She told the pastor, Father Ken West, she could do the teaching but "Theology scares the crap out of me." West assured her he would cover the theology.

Judging from the 24 people enrolled in the initiation programs at St. Thomas More, her guidance works.

Looking around a recent Thursday night meeting one is surprised at the number of people in their 20s and 30s.

"They are befuddled with what is going on in the world," said Smigelski. "They are coming to the Catholic Church saying, 'Look, you people are the only people standing up for anything. So I am coming here.'"

She said she finds it funny that "When you think things are down and black, people are still drawn to the Church.

"One fellow came in when Pope John II died, saying that everything he was seeing on the news was negative, negative. He didn't believe what he was hearing. He investigated, started to read and then he came to RCIA."

The group's numbers vary from year to year. Some people start and then drop out.

That's normal, Smigelski said. "They think, 'Hey! This isn't the time of life for me to do this.'"

DATABASE

But she keeps a detailed database and stays in touch.

Cathy Gust, Smigelski's "right hand," and her family became Catholic in 2007.

"We were Lutherans and our Lutheran pastor had left our church." When their Lutheran bishop, who is a family friend, became Catholic, "We thought 'What do they know that we don't know?'

"It was when the same-sex blessing came up and everyone was so divided on it, it became bigger than that one issue. It was just everything, and we knew there had to be truth somewhere."

So they followed their former pastor and bishop and started learning about the Catholic Church.

"It is such a wonderful journey," said Gust. "When you look back, it is like a miracle we are here."

Their children Michael and Stephen go to Mass. One plays music, the other sings in the choir.

She and husband Tom stayed in the RCIA ministry. "It just feels like the right ministry for us. We know what the questions are; we know what the people are concerned about."

POWER OF ATTRACTION

During a March 5 session, Smigelski pointed out a young man who had come to RCIA with his girlfriend. His brother saw what was happening to him and joined the group too.

Smigelski made Catholic conversion real for the class when she bluntly told her own story.

Born in 1959, prior to Vatican II, she was the middle child in a good Catholic family of five children. Church and prayer were part of their lives. She had two older sisters and her parents "were pretty strict with the older two girls."

But when Vatican II came along, the parents "lightened up a little bit at the younger three, quite frankly to our peril."

At 18, she joined the Air Force, went to university and "started dating and slipping away from my faith."

Smigelski dated her husband and they lived together for eight years before getting married. "That broke my mother's heart, and I didn't see it. When I did see it, I didn't care."

Yet she kept feeling "something's missing." Finally after hearing her say "something's missing" so many times, her live-in boyfriend said, "Do you think you should go back to Church? Get on with it."

Smigelski had hair "down to my buttocks and for the first two years that I went to Mass, I was so thankful for my long hair because I could not sit through an entire Mass without crying.

"I'd bow my head, cover my face and wonder 'What is this about?' I know now it was the tears of repentance."

Smigelski soon developed a serious prayer life. "But I am still shacked up with my honey."

So she worked on other things – taming a fierce Irish temper, cleaning up her coarse language. A tougher layer to get through "was the whole premarital sex thing."

Smigelski said it took her three years after they were married before she "wrestled that thing to the ground. I knew in an academic sense it was a sin, but I did not know it in my heart."

Smigelski kept making their relation right by using the excuse she was giving her husband's son a home.

Standing in the shower one day, she heard God tell her, "Darlene my daughter, I gave the boy a mother and you ain't it. You use a child of mine to justify your sin."

As the words and realities flashed through her brain, she realized she "had to trust God now."

So she "elbowed her way to confession."

She noted St. Ambrose said there are two conversions in the Church – water and tears. The water of Baptism and tears of repentance. "I certainly saw that in my conversion – the two years when I was hiding behind my hair."