Author Elizabeth Gilbert chronicled her journey alone around the world in the best-selling 2006 memoir, “Eat Pray Love.”
Last year at this time, a Racine woman embarked on a similar adventure, yet for Colleen Hawbaker the entire focus of her journey was spiritual. In fact, the 44-year-old businesswoman considered her journey a Catholic woman’s version of “Eat Pray Love.”
Like Gilbert, Hawbaker had been divorced for a few years, and found herself searching for direction.
While she had a secure job as administrator for the philanthropic foundation at SC Johnson in Racine and staff manager at the company’s Golden Rondelle Theater, and was mother to a 23-year-old daughter, Rachelle, then in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Hawbaker wanted to learn more about her Catholic faith and even questioned the possibility of a religious vocation.
“For a while, I thought maybe a religious vocation might be in my future. I get a lot of satisfaction from helping people. That’s really what I like to do and seeing people (living out) their vocation, what a satisfying, fulfilling life to think you’re always doing God’s work and you’re always being that light of Christ,” she said during an interview earlier this year with your Catholic Herald.
That curiosity, coupled with a generous benefits package from her employer which allowed a paid sabbatical for employees, led Hawbaker to plan a 12-week journey which included volunteer opportunities with pro-life groups and the Sisters of Charity in New York, as well as pilgrimages to religious destinations such as Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje and Garabandal.
She left Racine Sept. 25, 2010, and completed her journey about a week before Christmas.
“I knew God was with me the entire way. I don’t have a lot of street smarts and my family was a little concerned, but God was with me through the entire thing,” she said, explaining that as she traveled, little details kept working out, causing her to believe she was led by divine intervention.
She began her trip in St. Augustine, Fla., at the St. Gerard Campus, a non-profit maternity home and Christian high school for pregnant teenagers. This organization held a special place in Hawbaker’s heart, as 25 years ago she was in much the same situation.
The year after she graduated from high school, she was 19, unmarried and pregnant. While she never considered abortion, Hawbaker thought about giving her child up for adoption. Yet, her parents guided her to Catholic Social Services (now Catholic Charities) where she met a social worker named Rachelle Alioto.
“My parents knew of a young lady who had a child when she was in high school. She talked to me and she suggested I go (to Catholic Social Services) as she had given her child up for adoption,” explained Hawbaker, admitting it was a difficult decision.
She chose to keep the baby, while still pursuing an undegraduate degree in communication and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin – Parkside. She even managed to study abroad for a year, taking her young daughter to Spain with her for the semester.
In Alioto, Hawbaker found not only a mentor and advisor, but a role model. She remembers being impressed with the fact that Alioto had earned a master’s degree, and thought to herself, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the child she carried would one day earn a master’s degree? With Alioto’s help, Hawbaker decided she could not only keep her baby, but could return to school.
The decision to keep her daughter, named Rachelle, after the social worker who influenced her so greatly, is one Hawbaker has never regretted. Rachelle was born on Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, something Hawbaker also sees as divinely inspired.
“This beautiful child I was blessed with, I believe was our Blessed Mother tapping me on the shoulder, working her way into my life,” she said.
In spring, Rachelle fulfilled one of her mom’s dreams for her by completing her master’s degree at Madison in educational leadership and policy.
While at the St. Gerard Campus, Hawbaker did not work with pregnant teens as she had hoped, but she was put to use helping with the organization’s mailings.
“I wanted to volunteer there because it touched a place in my heart,” she said, adding that she was able to attend daily Mass and eucharistic adoration. “While I just wanted to love the little babies, I was thinking this would be great, I could get all my hugs and smooches in with these little ones, they told me they could really use the help with the mailing. I said, ‘OK,’ and while it wasn’t as glamorous as I had hoped I’d be able to do something (with the moms or babies), I realized God was totally leading me in whatever direction I need to be led.”
After two weeks, she returned to Wisconsin briefly to attend a quilting camp in Door County, but next headed to Europe and visited the Our Lady of Knox Shrine in Ireland, Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris. After Paris, she went to Spain with a group of pilgrims and then onto Fatima, Lourdes, Medjugorje and Garabandal. The journey made her realize what a deep connection she has to Mary, she said.
“I remember being in Medjugorje and the guide saying, ‘Your mother has called you here. Our mother has called you here. You are here for a reason.’ That was the most emotional thing to think, that here I was exploring my Catholic faith more, and she was telling me to come there,” she described.
After Europe, Hawbaker met her sister in Istanbul and the two traveled to Turkey, Greece and Italy. In Italy, they thought they were standing in line for a 5:30 a.m. Mass outside the Vatican and discovered they were standing in a reception line for newly created cardinals. A special memory for the sisters is being able to meet Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, former bishop of La Crosse and former archbishop of St. Louis, who is prefect of the Vatican’s highest tribunal, the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Signature.
The Catholic experience continued to be woven through Hawbaker’s journey, from visits to chapels, to accommodations in a Paris convent.
Divine guidance was involved during an injury to her wrist in Spain, she believes. She fell and thought she broke her wrist, but the Haitian woman who had befriended her turned out to be a doctor. Dr. Rosy Toussaint spoke Spanish and helped her to the emergency room where she learned the wrist was not broken.
And, she said, divine intervention also helped her leave Spain a day earlier than planned. Had she waited until her scheduled departure, she would not have been able to leave the country because of a strike in Paris.
“Again, God was totally present with me the entire time,” she said.
Hawbaker’s last leg of her journey took place in New York where she spent nearly a month volunteering and living with the Sisters of Charity and Hope Community Services, a non-profit organization in New Rochelle, N.Y., that helps low income residents maintain adequate nutrition.
Hawbaker lived with four sisters and another, Sr. Liz Judge, picked her up daily where she volunteered at Hope Community Services. Here, Hawbaker’s Spanish-speaking abilities were especially helpful in translating for people at the food pantry.
During the month she spent with them, Sister of Charity Kati Hamm saw in Hawbaker a “wonderful human being,” open to wherever the experience took her.
“She had multiple gifts to share, but I think her joyful, faithfilled presence was what touched people. Energy for life would be another word I might use,” she said in an email to your Catholic Herald, noting that a Hawbaker offered to serve in whatever capacity was needed. She described Hope Community Services as a multi-service agency and because it was between Thanksgiving and Christmas, she said there was much to do.
Sr. Kati also praised Hawbaker’s employer, SC Johnson. “Colleen had the opportunity from her work to use time in service. What a concept! I congratulate companies who recognize that their company is enriched by giving employees this opportunity and support,” she said.
Every day of the journey was a learning experience, according to Hawbaker. Raised in a Catholic household, the last of nine children, she said even though she previously taught religious education, she found there was much about her faith she did not know.
“Every day, I feel blessed to know more about my faith. I feel a deeper connection to it,” she said, admitting that before the trip that she had never prayed a rosary. “Now that’s a daily occurrence for me.”
Describing herself as a worrier, she said she felt comfortable leaving everything in God’s hands.
“Even during the sabbatical, I’d feel a little tap on my shoulder letting me know to let it go, ‘I’m taking care of you. I’ve got your back; it’s all OK,’” she said. “I really think my whole life has been a blessing, even thinking back to when I was a single mom. Yeah, it was difficult, not easy, but I’ve learned something and gained the most beautiful, wonderful daughter. What a blessing that’s been.”
As she looks back on her journey, Hawbaker is thankful for the opportunity to explore her spirituality. She came back realizing religious life is not where God is leading her, yet she won’t rule out the possibility of becoming an associate with a religious order. Eight months after she returned, on Aug. 27 at St. Richard Church, Racine, Hawbaker married the man she had been dating, Paul Hawbaker.
Her journey last year helped put her life into perspective.
“I learned about my faith, encountered people, found such a beauty in others,” she said of the experience. “I was blessed by the people I met and know that people were put in my life to help me learn about my faith,’ she said, adding she sees even more beauty in her Catholic faith.