Rosario Rodriguez was taught to live her faith through action. Her family regularly attended Mass and religion classes, prayed at abortion facilities, performed missionary work and prayed the Hail Mary often.

Survivor of two violent crimes, Rosario Rodriguez brought her message of forgiveness to nearly 1,700 women gathered Saturday at the Washington County Fairgrounds in West Bend for the Women of Christ Conference. (Submitted photo courtesy Rosario Rodriguez)She remembers praying a Hail Mary whenever she heard a siren or heard that someone was ill; it’s a practice that carried her through a period of darkness.

Speaking to nearly 1,700 at the Women of Christ Conference at the Washington County Fairgrounds, West Bend, Saturday, Nov. 1, Rodriguez described how she began high school at age 14 happy and innocent.

A member of the swim team, she was making friends and her high school years looked rosy. Her wide-eyed innocence disappeared one day, however, as she waited for the school bus.

“A man started chasing me, attacked and tried to rape me,” she said. “I was trying to scream but he had his hand over my mouth and no one could hear me. I began praying the Hail Mary and suddenly he stopped and looked above my head. I jumped up and ran away but I saw nothing behind me. I didn’t know if he saw St. Michael, my guardian angel, Mary, or all three of them. But I know he saw something that scared him away.”

She later identified the man, who was stalking and attacking young women, and police knew who he was, but they never found him. Rosario was the only one who was not raped or killed. Grateful not to have been harmed, she nevertheless felt damaged and vulnerable. She struggled to trust men and was angry and bitter toward them.

Conference draws nearly 1,700 women

     The sixth annual Women of Christ Conference drew nearly 1,700 women to the Washington County Fairgrounds Saturday, Nov. 1. 
     Speakers included Fr. Andrew Apostoli, member and cofounder of the Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and Jesuit Fr. James Kubicki, national director of the Milwaukee-based Apostleship of Prayer. 
     The conference included eucharistic adoration, confession, Masses and presentations. 
     Archbishop Jerome Listecki celebrated the Vigil Mass for All Souls Day and 55 priests assisted with the sacrament of reconciliation, with lines, at times, forming down the hallway and around the front corridor of the building. 
     “I have been going since the beginning,” said Jacqueline Heiligenthal, member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Burlington, adding, “and it is always a time for renewal and rejuvenation for me. I try to encourage as many women as I can to come because it is just so spiritually rewarding.”
     Gary Hughes, owner of Gary’s Rosary Lariat, participated as a vendor. 
     “I haven’t been here before and I am actually very surprised at the number of people who are here, including women with their children,” he said. “It strengthens my faith to know that so many women are interested in increasing their faith and growing closer to Our Lord and the sacraments.”
     Next year’s conference will be held Saturday, Nov. 7, at Washington County Fair Park in West Bend.

“I thought he destroyed my life and it changed my entire high school experience dramatically,” she said. “I could not eat or sleep and I was bitter toward everyone. I couldn’t forgive him for this; I had great anger and lost a lot of friends. My relationship with my parents was terrible because I was so bitter, and although I was still swimming and enjoyed that, it was a struggle for me to survive. I slept through classes and skipped school and later learned that I had PTSD from bitterness due to my unforgiveness. I had deep depression and I was suicidal.”

Priest tells her to forgive

A year after she was supposed to graduate high school, she went to her mother and told her she needed help. Her mother took her to their parish priest who suggested three things: She needed to forgive the man for what he did, pray for the man and get professional counseling.

“I didn’t want to forgive this man because he did not deserve it, and Fr. Charles said that no, he didn’t, but neither do we and yet God forgives us for all of our sins. He hung on the cross for all of us, including that man, whether we like it or not,” said Rosario. “He told me to wake up every morning and say that I forgive this man for what he did to me and that it was OK if I didn’t believe the words.”

She was paired with a counselor, but she went reluctantly because he was male.

“I didn’t want to go, but my mom said I told Father I would do it,” she said. “I went to Dr. David’s office and in the room was a picture of our Lady of Guadalupe and it made me feel better because our family had a devotion to her; he told me that he dedicated his practice to her. He also had a devotion to St. Therese of Liseux, which was my confirmation name. I started to feel that maybe God knew what he was doing.”

Healing takes time

She felt she should be healed immediately, but that didn’t happen. In spite of her many rosaries and novenas, she complained to a friend that healing was taking so long.

“My friend said that God has the power to move mountains and she believed that God would move my mountain of healing, but he often moves slowly, and with me, it might be one pebble at a time. She said that each time I did a devotion he will move a pebble,” said Rosario. “It took many years, but I got there. I finally got the peace, joy and freedom, and it was like a huge weight was lifted. Every time I said the words that I forgave that man, I believed it. I never wanted to live my life this way again where I refuse to forgive someone.”

She began to have healthy relationships again and began sharing the message of forgiveness with others by traveling around North America with University Christian Outreach, and spending the summer of 2008 as a lay missionary with the Community of St. John in Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico.

Later, she moved to Los Angeles and worked with Act One, an organization to train Christian writers and producers to bring quality media to the world. She also shared her faith with those in the entertainment industry through The Hollywood Project and became an organizer for 40 Days for Life, volunteered at Los Angeles Pregnancy Services and was on the core team for Catholic Underground LA, an apostolate of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.

“I was very involved in looking good, going to parties, screenings and drinking a lot of coffee during the day and ice cream at night in order to de-stress; and then I wondered why I couldn’t sleep well,” she joked. “I was so busy, but I liked it and my life was going very well. Exciting things were happening and I loved being part of that.”

Second attack almost deadly

One busy evening, Rosario was on her way to visit a friend in his West Hollywood home. As she walked, a woman ran out and Rosario felt her body being rolled around and she came face-to-face with her.

“She had one of my purse straps in her hand and there was one on my arm and she had a gun and told me to give her my purse or she would shoot me, but she pulled my purse and the trigger with one hand and shot me,” she said. “The bullet entered my chest and crossed to the other side missing my aorta by 1 centimeter. Both lungs collapsed and it tore my esophagus.”

Rosario ran down the street after the car hoping to get the license plate number, but the car was going too fast. The car stalled and she prayed to God she would remember the license plate number and as she came up to it she saw that it was just one word, “Shield.”

“I thought about this Scripture passage (Psalm 3:3) that says, ‘Lord, you are a shield around me.’ I was also wearing my medallion of Our Lady of Guadalupe and I believe she was protecting me,” she said.

Owes recovery to prayer

The attack nearly took Rosario’s life. She was in surgery for eight hours where the doctor removed muscle from her abdomen and put it in place of her esophagus. She was weak after surgery and could not even hold her jaw up on her own. After a lengthy recovery, she returned to a nearly normal life. She said she owes her recovery to the many people who prayed for her.

“I am so grateful to all of the people who took a moment of their busy lives to pray for me, whether it was a half hour praying a rosary or a moment, I know their lives were busy, but it saved my life,” she said.

The attacker had been participating in a gang initiation and it was her third offense. The trial took three years and the woman went to prison. After the trial, Rosario gave an impact statement where she forgave her attacker.

“I told her that I forgave her and pray every day that she would know the incredible love, mercy and forgiveness of our Lord Jesus Christ,” she said. “I knew it was powerful and that I had to choose to pray and forgive her each day despite my body being in such pain. It is easy to get frustrated and angry, but I am called to forgive and embrace all that God has given me.”

While recovering, Rosario realized she had found her worth through what she did.

“It doesn’t matter how many organizations I have led or how many mission trips I did,” she explained. “No, I am a daughter of God and striving to live a life of Christ and that is my worth. It is not in my clothes or makeup or where I work. After I was out of the hospital I had friends come over to take care of me and bathe me. It was very humbling to go from being a dancer and swimmer to my body being broken and to have my girlfriends see me in my most vulnerable state.

Suffering is ‘worth something’

“Sometimes I got frustrated and cried, but one friend came over on her birthday to bathe me and I felt bad about it. She told me that she was serving Christ and it is important to serve and love Christ through others. We are blessed in the Catholic Church to know that with suffering comes beauty and mercy. What a beautiful gift that Christ gave us in that our suffering is worth something.”

Just before Rosario moved back home with her parents in Michigan, she visited the place where she was shot. Along with some of the staff of Act One she prayed in the place that almost meant death for her. The director got on his knees and grabbed Rosario’s hand.

“My friends were holding me up because I was so weak,” she said, weeping, “He said ‘On behalf of the church I want to thank you for your suffering.’  It was an incredibly powerful moment.”

Understanding the gift of her Catholic faith, Rosario is grateful for the sacraments.

“The journey is continuous and I felt God’s love in many ways and in the people who came to see me,” Rosario explained. “I found him through others and in the sacraments.”

Karen Mahoney