At nearly 21, the young man was home alone for the first time in a long while. There were no drugs, no distractions from music or wild parties and no parents at home to tell him what or what not to do. It was late and his heart began racing as the familiar darkness enveloped his mind and heart. His thoughts turned to suicide. To distract himself, he pulled a random book from his parent’s bookshelf, one that happened to be about Marian apparitions.
His parents were Catholic converts, but he had rejected anything to do with faith and had no knowledge of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Once he began reading, however, he couldn’t put the book down. He was smitten with this woman, the mother of Jesus.
“She was so beautiful that she would make little children cry and fall on their knees because of her femininity and loveliness,” said Fr. Donald Calloway, of the Congregation of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception.
This was the beginning of the drug addicted, twice institutionalized, high school dropout’s dramatic conversion; one he will share 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 25 at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish in Kenosha.
As a 10-year-old, Fr. Calloway moved from Virginia to Southern California with his mother and second stepfather. Enamored with the sunny skies, balmy weather, ocean currents and learning to surf, the young boy spent most of his time with friends and by 13, pursued a life solely devoted to personal pleasure.
“I come from this tumultuous background where I had three fathers before I was 9 and between living in the environment daily in the house and just soaking up worldly things such as watching bad stuff on TV, influences from friends who had troubled pasts, smoking pot, drinking and immoral things,” he said, adding, “and the world got me at a very young age.”
His military father announced one day that the family would be moving to Japan and Fr. Calloway was livid.
After arriving in Japan, it wasn’t long before he pursued friends who became his link to the yakuza, a Japanese gang organization. The members would fill his backpack with drugs and money, sending him to various casinos on the big island of Honshu. Eventually, the Japanese government and the United States government, including the United States military presence in Japan, caught up with him. Kicked out of the country, Fr. Calloway was released into his father’s custody.
Placed in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, Fr. Calloway relapsed as soon as he was released. His happiness was tantamount to feeling good, which meant never being sober.
“God used the beauty of Mary to get me and it was a brilliant way because it worked. I stayed up all night and read that book,” he said. “I think it is very possible that I would have succumbed to suicide if God hadn’t provided a way out. I’ve thought and prayed about that as friends and relatives from my past didn’t have an experience like me and they are not here anymore. They have either taken their own lives or are here, but their lives are a wreck. They may be in jail or in the streets.”
The next morning, he tried explaining to his confounded mother what had happened and she finally understood that he had a religious experience. After his mother called several priests at 6 a.m., Fr. Calloway recalled some sort of church or chapel on the base where they were living at Norfolk Naval Air Station. His mother told him to run and find the priest.
“I am sure I was a sight to behold with my long hair and looking unkempt,” he said. “I was very grateful that he talked to me because a lot of others would have pushed me off. He took me to his office, pulled out a chair and was welcoming, but I could tell he was nervous because of my look and manner.”
The priest invited him to Mass that morning and gave him a picture of Jesus, a crucifix and an image of the pope. So, unaccustomed to others giving him anything, Fr. Calloway ran home and began throwing away all reminders of his former life, though forgiving himself was a bit more challenging.
“My Dad was out on an aircraft carrier, but when he came back I told my parents that I was so sorry for all I did. I was remorseful and they sensed that and forgave me, but they said I needed to forgive myself,” said Fr. Calloway. “I did so many bad things, so I had to let go of that. I figured that if God and my parents could forgive me, then I could forgive myself. Even though you go through a conversion, the memories remain and regret comes back up and I often wondered how I could have been so bad.”
Just six months after Fr. Calloway read the book on Marian apparitions, he was received into the Catholic Church. It was an accelerated journey due to the unique nature of the Archdiocese of the Military that ministers to 1.8 million men, women and children. Bishops are spread thin so the military priests have permission to impart the Sacrament of Confirmation.
After his conversion, Fr. Calloway attended Franciscan University at Steubenville, Ohio, but struggled with what he wanted to do. “I was drawn to the priests praying Mass and I remember getting a booklet at school during a vocations fair with postcards to religious communities. “I picked only the orders with Mary in their name because Mary brought me to Jesus in the Catholic Church. There were a ton of those and I received my first initiation to visit the Marians from Fr. Bill Hayward, who was the Vocation Director in Connecticut.”
As the pastor of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish, Fr. Hayward recalls the young Fr. Calloway as shy and a bit innocent looking.
“We did not speak at length about his past, this was an initial discernment retreat,” Fr. Hayward explained explained. “The object of the retreat was for him to have an experience of the Marians and for us to see if the candidate was mature, open and sincere.”
Some thought he joined a cult or became crazy and he lost all his friends.
“They wanted nothing to do with me. I cut my hair, got a job and dressed normal, but I was unbelievably lonely, isolated and distanced from everyone, but at the same time, it was exactly what I needed,” he explained. “In rehab programs, they say you have to change people, places and things from your former lives. I didn’t have the strength to do it on my own, so God came in and did it for me. One friend found me and said he couldn’t believe I was alive and shocked that I was a Catholic priest.”
Using the lessons from his troubled past, Fr. Calloway is popular among the youth, especially with the sacrament of reconciliation. However, relating to music and activities is becoming more challenging.
“As I get older, I am losing contact with music and lives, but I think that every generation has said, ‘that music is horrible,’” he said, laughing. “But, sin is sin and we are all messed up and all have issues and the youth especially have a real sense of needing to hear that. They feel that they come to a priest and he will come down with a divine hammer, but we are all messed up and I am thankful for humility.”
Fr. Calloway’s conversion story is powerful, because grace is so powerful, explained Fr. Hayward.
“We don’t perceive grace working so dramatically in our lives, but who knows what we would be doing or who we would be were not God’s grace and mercy operating in our souls. We might even make the teenager Don Calloway blush,” he said. In telling his story, Fr. Calloway hopes people realize there is a purpose to life.
“Some think we just happen to be here, the YOLO (you only live once) thing, but that’s not the way it is. There is more and you are not just some cosmic glob that came together for no purpose,” he said. “There is meaning for this life and you need to take this stuff seriously because you are made by God for a purpose. Don’t let distractions of electronic devices, even though they can be good, take over. Take time to ponder the deeper questions and to realize these things. Or, life will go by you and you will find yourself old and freaking out because you would have wasted so much time and there may never be time.”