When a family of four moves across several states, the household naturally experiences some difficult adjustments. But when the Nunnally family moved to Wisconsin three years ago, their most daunting challenge was not the displacement of their household, but of their spiritual life.
Brenda Nunnally was a Lutheran when she married Dave, a Catholic, in St. Louis in 1998. As they raised son Davis,12, and daughter Caroline,10, the family identified more with the Lutheran tradition, and found a spiritual home at their church in St. Louis.
But when they moved to Brenda’s home state of Wisconsin, the Nunnallys found themselves without a place to worship – and quickly losing touch with their religious identities.
Now, three years later, the family calls Nashotah’s St. Joan of Arc their spiritual home, and during this past Easter Vigil Mass, Brenda, Davis and Caroline were welcomed fully into the Catholic Church.
“I don’t think there’s ever a point where I’m abandoning my past,” said Brenda. “I think I’m building on my future. Whatever my relationship was with the Catholic Church before, it now feels like home, too.”
Gaping hole in faith journey
After moving across several states, “I had a gaping hole in my faith journey,” said Brenda. “(At our church in St. Louis) Dave and I were in a small group, we all had meals on Sunday night and talked about Scripture and engaged in that community. When we moved, I didn’t have any of that.”
Though the family had purchased a home near St. Joan of Arc, it didn’t occur to them to visit a Catholic parish. Brenda turned to YouTube to watch sermons from her old church in order to stay connected, and she devoted many weekends to “church-shopping” with daughter Caroline, trying to find a community that met their needs as a family.
“It became more imperative and more obvious over time that I wasn’t doing my parental role in helping my kids grow in their faith,” she said. “Their journey had come to a screeching halt. We filled that Sunday morning space with sports activities. If you don’t make it a priority, it just fills up with other things…. It was a battle to get people to go to church.”
One Sunday in late August 2013, Brenda found a Lutheran church she liked. Eager to introduce her husband and kids to the congregation, the family piled into the car and plotted the 13-mile journey on their GPS.
As they pulled out of their subdivision that morning, they could hear the bells ringing at St. Joan of Arc.
“My husband said, ‘It would be so much easier – we would be early if we were going to St. Joan’s today instead of 13 miles away,’” recalled Brenda. “And the kids cheered – not kidding you, like, screamed and cheered in the backseat. And at this point, I’m like, ‘OK, I am so tired of fighting with you people! I am so tired of trying to get a family of four ready and out the door. Turn the car around. Fine, let’s go.’”
At St. Joan’s, Fr. Mike Strachota’s homily resonated with Brenda.
“The Mass that day was about our responsibilities – under the umbrella of Catholic social justice – (and) that it’s not just about you. It’s not just about what you come in here to get for yourself, it’s your responsibility to pay it forward,” said Brenda. “At some point Fr. Mike said, ‘Look to your left, look to your right. It’s about those kids. It’s about that journey, your responsibility to continue to build the faith.’ I’m a crier anyway, but I bawled (during) that sermon.”
When they returned home after Mass, Davis informed his mom that he wanted to attend St. Joan of Arc regularly.
“He says, ‘Mom, I know that was really hard for you today. But is it OK with you if that’s my church? It’s across the street – I could walk,’” remembered Brenda. “It was a non-issue from that point.”
Completing the journey
Brenda, Davis and Caroline enrolled in St. Joan of Arc’s RCIA program in September 2013, under the guidance of Christian Formation director Mary Sue Reutebuch and pastoral associate Ellen Heitman.
Leaving the Lutheran church of her childhood, said Brenda, “wasn’t the easiest decision. It was a shock. I wasn’t used to kneeling and making the Sign of the Cross. And yet it felt so comfortable.”
“We have to die to certain things, sometimes, in our lives – to let go of them,” said Reutebuch. “Brenda was quite challenged by some concepts of the Catholic Church, but when she decided to embrace it, she embraced it as a whole. Their whole family did, and you could see the joy in the children.
“If you could have seen the Brenda I saw in October, to the Brenda I saw the night of the vigil, it was like seeing a totally different woman. Just alive and vibrant. You could tell she had found a home. This is their faith home now.”
Learning more about Catholicism reinforced Brenda’s long-held belief in the kinship of all Christian religions.
“I had always seen the Catholic faith as a dear friend, a mirror image of everything that I held near and dear to my heart,” she said. “There’s so many more similarities than I ever knew before (between Catholicism and Lutheranism).”
“I like that we’re going to be able to get Communion instead of just sitting back in the pews while everybody else gets Communion,” said Davis, who, along with his sister, plans to become an altar server. “In the Catholic Church, we do a lot more with Mother Mary and we don’t really do the full Our Father. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s fun.”
As Brenda and her children never made her first Communion in the Catholic Church, they had to refrain from receiving Eucharist at Mass until the Easter Vigil. It was a heartbreaking fast for all three of them, but Heitman said that it just made the vigil that much more momentous.
“It was my privilege to be one of the Communion ministers at the Easter Vigil,” said Heitman. “And if you could have seen the look on all their faces … there was this look of, ‘I’ve come home. Christ is within me.’”