“Our Special Christmas.” That was the subject text in the email I received from my uncle, Lou Keeler, on Christmas Day. Uncle Lou’s email described the great gift he and my Aunt Morrie received when they volunteered to be proxy sponsors for a sixth grade student who was converting to Catholicism, just two days before Christmas. He said her name was Michelle and she was a student at a local parochial school.
“Michelle was very quiet, without a smile, seeming in awe of the entire ceremony. It was a beautiful and very inspiring ceremony. In conclusion she finally smiled such a great smile of joy as I have ever seen,” he wrote.
The next day, Michelle received her first holy Communion at midnight Mass. Aunt Morrie and Uncle Lou sat in the second pew, right behind their new young friend and her family. He wrapped up his email with, “To see her joy and happiness after she came back from Communion was for us a wonderful Christmas present.”
Uncle Lou’s Christmas message filled me with joy, too. I read it many times over — not only as a niece touched by his experience, but as someone who cares deeply about South Jersey Catholic Schools, where I began working not quite two years ago.
“Wow. That’s one of our students in one of our schools,” I thought, feeling like a proud parent.
Of course, I had to meet Michelle.
“I always believed in Christ, but public schools don’t teach about Christ,” she began.
Supportive of her beliefs, Michelle’s non-Catholic parents suggested she transfer back to Saint Peter School, Merchantville, in November 2016. At the time, Michelle was in fifth grade, returning to her pre-K and kindergarten home.
“Her parents were interested in a good, orderly environment that was safer and healthier for Michelle,” said school principal Joe Saffioti. “And there was the faith component as well. It was clear she wanted to be here.”
Although she was thrilled about coming back to Catholic school, Michelle said she did not have immediate plans for conversion. From a Vietnamese family, her spiritual background is Buddhism, which she described more as a way of life than a religion.
“Buddhists teach the living how to have a good life. I can live a good life [in accordance with her Buddhist roots], and I can believe there is a God,” she said, acknowledging that aspects of Buddhism still have a place in her life.
Michelle said the transition back to Saint Peter was smooth and that she appreciated more challenging academics. She remembered her classmates and felt at home from the beginning. She also discovered a love of Latin, which is taught in first through eighth grades at Saint Peter.
Becoming a Catholic was the natural next step, so Michelle went to the Catholic Church of Saint Mary near her Cherry Hill home and began to meet regularly with the pastor, Father Paul Olszewski.
Father Olszewski said Michelle came to every session with intelligent questions and was clearly developing her knowledge of the faith from what she witnessed and learned in classes at Saint Peter. He also met with Michelle’s parents, who were pleased with and willing to support her desire to convert.
“It was a joy to receive her into the church,” he said.
Reserved and poised, particularly for a girl of 12 years, Michelle said quietly of her baptism, “I was surprised and startled. It was exciting for me. I was about to cry.” And then came the huge, joyous smile Uncle Lou had described.
In a near whisper, Michelle said her first Eucharist “was just,” [long pause] “mind-blowing.” She also said that now, less than a month later, she doesn’t feel like someone who has just been baptized into the faith. “It feels like I’m actually a traditional kind of Catholic person. … I’m a child of God.” She said she feels as though she belongs.
Michelle lit up when she spoke about her classmates — appreciating their cheers and heartfelt congratulations and the bond she now shares with other young Catholics.
“She is an amazing student … a great transfer into our school,” said Saffioti. “Her classmates look up to her. She’s a leader in the school and the classroom, definitely headed for a bright future.” He has no doubt Michelle will achieve her plans to become a doctor, a profession she hopes will lead her to cure patients as she influences them with her faith.
By the time we parted, Michelle was as animated as any typical 12-year-old. “This was actually the best Christmas I ever had,” she said. “It had my baptism, my holy Communion and my mom’s birthday and Christmas … Jesus’ birthday.”
Her enthusiasm brought me back to Uncle Lou’s email, “Our Special Christmas.” I marveled that a 12-year-old and an octogenarian would find the same joy in a gift that doesn’t come in a box.
Mary Beth Peabody is communications and marketing manager, Office of Catholic Schools, Diocese of Camden.