Though Saint Mary’s is a Catholic School, and its academic environment is formed by Catholic tradition, our school community embraces families and students from all faith backgrounds. Through the years, and through their association with the Saint Mary’s community, some individuals – students and parents – have found themselves drawn to learn more about the Catholic faith and, ultimately, to join the Catholic Church. This story is about some of those individuals and their journey as part of our community.
According to Saint Mary’s Director of RCIA and Baptism Pat Novak, when an individual begins to consider membership in the Catholic Church, he or she begins a program called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA. RCIA is a formal process of faith formation providing the inquirer with answers to his/her questions, an understanding of the key tenets of the faith and experiences in prayer that can shape spirituality. The choice to join the Catholic Church is always a free choice.
The traditional time to celebrate this entrance into the parish community is on Holy Saturday night, the eve of Easter. Those who have never been baptized will receive all three sacraments of initiation: baptism, first Eucharist and confirmation. Those who have already been baptized in another denomination will make a profession of faith and then receive first Eucharist and confirmation.
Ally Talton, and twin son and daughter John and Callie Talton:
Ally, her husband Corby, and their twins John and Callie became part of the Saint Mary’s School family in 2015-2016 when John and Callie started the fourth grade. They were active in another Christian church in the area, but Ally started attending student Mass on Wednesdays with John and Callie.
As the twins got to middle school, they found themselves interested in what they were learning in religion class with Saint Mary’s middle school religion teacher Mrs. Jeanne Slifka. Ally was learning, too – she joined a group of parents who, pre-COVID, met each Monday morning to pray the Rosary together. Ally was also supporting a dear friend who was sick with cancer. Ally’s friend had drifted away from Catholicism, but her faith was growing as her journey with cancer progressed. Ally’s friend shared her growing faith with Ally.
John and Callie made their decisions to be confirmed as a Catholic after attending the Diocesan Youth Conference last February. Ally then decided to join her twins in becoming Catholic.
“I felt like I was a puzzle with one piece missing,” Ally said, “and the first time I attended Mass, I felt like someone had put that piece in the puzzle. There’s a depth to the Catholic faith that I’ve never experienced elsewhere.”
The three of them: Ally, Callie and John, are attending RCIA now and will be initiated into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil Mass.
While Corby has not decided to take the step to become Catholic, he has been supportive, and he joins Ally and the twins at Mass each weekend. “He sees how meaningful this is for Callie, John and me,” Ally said.
When asked what she believes are ways that Saint Mary’s Catholic School shares faith with students, the community and the world, Ally said that for John and Callie, it’s not just about what they’re learning in a classroom.
“You know how they say you can talk the talk? At Saint Mary’s they walk the walk.” Ally said. “They’re living it. They really do show it in everything they do. There’s such a humility in the way they teach the kids and the things they want the kids to be mindful of – prayer before lunch, at the opening and closing of the day, thinking of others and not themselves, being contributory to the community – they weave it into everything.
“It is a gift the kids won’t even realize they’ve gotten until they are parents one day,” she said. “You see it in the whole community. The overriding piece of that is faith.”
Vanessa and Ryan Young: Vanessa is originally from Switzerland and came to the U.S. in 2002 to go to college in New Hampshire. She ended up in New York City and met her husband, Ryan, there. They moved to Northern Virginia, had their daughter, Julia (who is now a second grader at Saint Mary’s) and decided to move to Richmond to raise their family, which now includes a younger daughter named Isobel.
Ryan is originally from Lynchburg and was raised Baptist; Vanessa was raised in the Protestant church. As a couple, they’d been exploring different religions to try to find a faith community where they felt a connection.
Vanessa said they discovered Saint Mary’s during the pandemic – they wanted Julia, who finished first grade online with Henrico County schools, to be able to attend school in person this year. Saint Mary’s was the first and only private school they looked at; Vanessa said they felt very at peace with deciding to enroll Julia and are grateful that she’s able to be at school here.
She said that in exploring Saint Mary’s as a faith community, they’ve found RCIA to be a place where they can connect with God and be spiritual and at peace. They’ve learned to read the Bible in a different way and to get a better understanding of religion in general.
Because the RCIA group is able to meet in person during COVID (using spatially distant guidelines), Vanessa said it’s been a place to connect. Father Mike is great, she said.
“It’s been a really meaningful journey for both of us,” she said. “We’re both talking about our faith more as a couple. It’s brought us together closer as a couple as a result.”
The RCIA sponsors are there because they want to be there, not because they have to be, Vanessa said. “Ryan and I are excited to go to RCIA class on Wednesdays.”
About Saint Mary’s School, Vanessa said: “I think they really do a good job teaching the kids about service – that you’re not the only one that matters — about being a responsible human being, a responsible citizen to the earth and the people we encounter on a daily basis. I think our daughter has learned a lot. I think Saint Mary’s drives home a value system with the lessons they teach.”
David Gleberman Dave’s parents are Jewish and he was raised in their faith, celebrating his Bar Mitzvah at age 13 and attending services for the Jewish high holidays. But by his college years, he said, he lost interest in his faith and was largely agnostic.
Dave was introduced to Catholicism by his wife, Becky. He began attending Mass with her during their courtship. He said he was very drawn to the Mass and learning about the faith, but his journey was a long one. He attended weekly Mass for 22 years before Sister Pat McCarthy (former Pastoral Associate at St. Mary Church) grabbed his arm one day and asked him if he was ready to join the church.
The Gleberman family began their journey with Catholic education at St. Bridget’s School when their oldest child entered kindergarten. When their oldest child completed middle school, they reassessed their educational needs and decided that Saint Mary’s, with its IB Middle Years Programme, was the perfect home. Their oldest child moved on to Benedictine College Preparatory, and Becky and Dave transitioned their other children to Saint Mary’s.
Dave said that while he attended weekly Mass, participated in his children’s faith-based education and witnessed the many sacraments of each of their children, he’d not considered RCIA until Sister Pat approached him. It was summer when Sister Pat asked him if he was ready, and he immediately joined the RCIA group. He received the sacraments at the Easter Vigil in 2017.
“RCIA was not at all what I expected,” Dave said. “My initial belief was RCIA was going to teach me how to be Catholic. I thought it would be a rigorous study of the Catechism and would teach me the mechanics of prayer. Instead it truly was a faith journey that allowed me to connect dots in my life that led me to Jesus Christ.”
“The largest influence in my faith journey is definitely my wife, though she never asked me to become Catholic,” Dave said. “My children were also significant influences in my journey. I traveled with them through so many sacraments. And I learned so much about my faith through them and their Catholic education.”
Dave said that he and his family have felt blessed and welcome at Saint Mary’s. They appreciate Father Renninger’s long-term leadership, the faith-centered education at Saint Mary’s School, and they love the overlap between the school and parish community.
“Perhaps our favorite aspect of Saint Mary’s is the close relationship between the church and school communities,” Dave said.
Dontrese grew up “rooted in the Southern Baptist tradition” at a church in New Albany, Indiana, just across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. His grandfather was a preacher in the church his family attended, and Dontrese said they were in church all the time. As he grew older, he did not practice churchgoing as much.
As an adult he started feeling drawn closer to God and to his Christianity. Meg, his wife, grew up Catholic, so they were married in the Catholic church; their children have been raised in the Catholic faith. As a family, they held to many Catholic traditions.
“As I felt closer to God, I knew that I would transition to Catholicism,” he said.
The Brown family moved to Richmond in 2015, and after doing so they were looking for a church home where they felt comfortable. The only people they really knew in Richmond happened to be Steve and Anne Leigh Bisese: Steve had been dean of students at Georgetown College in Kentucky when Dontrese attended for undergraduate studies. Anne Leigh – Saint Mary’s director of admissions – had been a financial advisor at Georgetown College in Kentucky. When Dontrese and Meg were considering their move to Richmond, he called the Biseses and had lunch with Anne Leigh.
“We started talking about school systems and where we might want to live,” Dontrese said, “and Anne Leigh said ‘I am biased, but Saint Mary’s is one of the top schools in the area.’ So it was stick and stay! Let’s do it!” That’s how they found Saint Mary’s.
About three years ago, when Dontrese began to feel ready to explore a transition to Catholicism, he set up time to talk to Sister Pat, and told her he felt God was pulling him to complete the circle and join the rest of his family as a Catholic.
Dontrese said the welcome and togetherness of Saint Mary’s influenced his faith journey and his family’s settling into Richmond. The Saint Mary’s community gave them a sense of connectedness and normalcy. Being a Catholic member of Saint Mary’s has “given me a great understanding of my faith journey,” he said. “It has allowed me to be confident of that faith journey. It enriched my life because I feel comfortable talking about it.”
Dontrese said he feels Saint Mary’s Catholic School has given his two children a solid foundation. “I feel phenomenal about the foundation that is built at Saint Mary’s: respecting elders, religious beliefs, making the right decisions,” he said.
Dontrese was part of the feasibility study that resulted in Cristo Rey Richmond High School being established in Richmond. Cristo Rey is a Catholic learning community that educates young men and women of low economic means, and includes a diverse population. Dontrese said he wants to see that broad demographic of young men and women receive the same strong foundation his children have found through Catholic education.
He hopes to be part of an effort to facilitate conversation around greater diversity and inclusion at Saint Mary’s, and to help create an even stronger sense of welcome within the school and parish community.
Sutten and Rod Compton
Sutten and Rod are parents to seventh-grader Mac. They were Christian but did not attend services at any faith community. They chose to send Mac to Saint Mary’s School because it was more convenient than the public option open to them in Goochland when Mac was entering first grade. They didn’t want Mac to have to ride the bus one hour each way to and from school, and when a neighbor (who is a St. Mary’s parishioner and alumni parent) suggested Saint Mary’s, they explored and chose it for Mac.
Mac was baptized Catholic and received first Communion with his classmates, and Sutten and Rod began to bring him to Mass each Sunday. After several months of attending Mass each week, Sutten said, both she and Rod decided to join Mac on his faith journey.
When asked how being a member of the Catholic Church and Saint Mary’s community has enriched their family life, Sutten said: “I think we feel a deeper part of the Saint Mary’s community, and a strong connection to and dependence on God.
“Going through RCIA demonstrated the ‘family’ of the Church,” Sutten said. “I never understood why the Eucharist was only shared by Catholics in the Catholic Church. I also learned more about the Bible as a whole. It was something Rod and I did together each week.”
Sutten said she loves that Saint Mary’s School students attend Mass together each week, and that Mac especially enjoyed the Mass Buddy program that paired older and younger students at Mass each week pre-COVID.
Christi Klein, and son Jack Hopler
Christi’s daughter Aerin and son Joe are students at Saint Mary’s. Her oldest son, Jack, graduated from Saint Mary’s in 2020.
Christi was baptized in the Catholic Church as an infant and her mother was Catholic, so she always identified as (Irish) Catholic. However, for various reasons her mother didn’t actively practice her faith, and Christi did not receive first Communion or otherwise become an official member of the Church until she was an adult.
Christi and her husband, David Hopler, discovered the Saint Mary’s community when they decided to enroll Jack in kindergarten in 2011. They had neighbors (who were not Catholic) whose children attended Saint Mary’s and who recommended the school.
In 2016, when Jack was in Mr. Woodburn’s fifth-grade class, he let his parents know that he wanted to become Catholic. Christi talked to Mr. Woodburn and to Sister Pat, and decided to enter the RCIA program and receive first Communion and be confirmed parallel to Jack’s journey. Christi was able to receive first Communion and be confirmed shortly before Jack, so that she could be closely involved in Jack’s baptism, first Communion and confirmation.
Christi attended weekly sessions with another RCIA candidate, and these were led by Sister Pat and another RCIA team member.
“These small sessions of just four people were extremely intimate and productive and greatly enriched my understanding of and desire to belong to the Catholic faith,” Christi said.
When asked how she feels Saint Mary’s School shares its faith and values with students and the world, Christi said: “I find that Saint Mary’s builds Catholic morality and guidance into everything the students do, whether it be ‘regular’ non-religious classes or at weekly Mass. Saint Mary’s also emphasizes giving back, including school supply and toy drives for less privileged children, which allows me to discuss with my own children the importance of understanding their advantages and helping others in line with Gospel values.”
Richard grew up Methodist; his grandparents helped shape his faith growing up. He and his wife Jo, who is Catholic, have attended Catholic Mass together since their teenage years. Jo has been an extremely important part of Richard’s faith journey and has been “help along the way” for more than 25 years, he said.
Richard said: “I have always enjoyed Mass even while not participating in many of the rites. As my family began to grow and my oldest son began participating in more of the rites, it became clear to me that it was time for me to take the next step in my Catholic faith journey.”
Richard and Jo and their children joined the Saint Mary’s community when they moved from Glen Allen to Henrico. They have two nephews who were both attending Saint Mary’s School at the time and they felt the community was a great fit for their son, who is now a fourth grader.
Richard said he rarely reads the church bulletin, but the bulletin from the Mass for his son’s first Communion included an “advertisement” for RCIA. “After that Mass, I was drawn to the information about RCIA and it was clear to me that I needed to act upon it,” he said. “God was telling me that it was time.
“Joining the rest of my family and finally taking the step to become Catholic has allowed each of us to make our faith more a part of our everyday life,” Richard said. “From prayer to Mass, we are more connected to one another and to God.”
Being part of the Saint Mary’s School community echoes the Lewis’s values: “I believe that the school provides an invaluable faith experience where the students have the opportunity to learn about their personal faith in an environment that is supportive, caring and understanding,” Richard said. “In normal times, the school community is very close, but also welcoming and inviting to others. As the school and parents work to develop our children into teenagers and young adults grounded in their faith, I know that we are simply doing our part by making the world a better place.”
Karen Lamb, and daughter Winnie:
Karen is a middle school math teacher at Saint Mary’s School – she joined the faculty as a part-time math teacher in 2019, and became a full-time teacher this school year. Her son and daughter, Bobby and Winnie, began attending Saint Mary’s this year.
Karen said she was reared in the Baptist church and that her family was a strong church family, attending a rural church near where she grew up – her dad was an organist at their church at age 15, her parents met there, and, growing up, her family was at their church five days a week.
When she was in college, her parents left her home-base church and spent some time seeking another good fit before they found another church in the city. When Karen came back home to attend services with her parents, it no longer felt like the place in which she grew up.
Karen and her husband Nick were married in 2003, and from that time, through having children, to today, they’ve tried various churches in the West End and Mechanicsville, looking for a community that had the same feel Karen had experienced in the church where she grew up. Till now, they’ve never really found the right fit.
Karen joined the Saint Mary’s faculty in 2018. “The first time I came to school Mass – it was before school started and it was just the faculty and staff – I felt at home, even with hardly any people there.”
Karen said she felt called to join the Catholic church last year, but she wasn’t ready to start RCIA. Her daughter Winnie, a third grader, started expressing interest this year as soon as she started attending Saint Mary’s Catholic School.
When asked how Saint Mary’s shares its beliefs with the community, Karen said: “It’s the way people interact with each other – faith is part of the daily conversation and life. People support each other.”
Also, Karen said, there’s something about the tradition and holiness of the Mass that draws her to the celebration.
“There’s a reverence here that I haven’t felt in a long time,” she said. “It feels sacred. I can slow down and hear God. I can feel it.”
Karen came to Saint Mary’s School from the public school system, and now she said she can’t imagine going back.
“I think the fact that we have God present in the curriculum makes a difference in the way we treat the children – it makes a difference in the way we approach each child,” she said. “At this point I can’t imagine teaching without that present.”
Karen and Winnie will start RCIA this summer.
Principal Brandon Hess
Mr. Hess was born and raised Protestant and said his family was very active in their church, attending services every Sunday and Wednesday, and participating in a robust youth program there. “I was able to form a lot of friends and foundational faith in those years,” he said.
When he married his wife, Meghan, who is Catholic, he was frequently exposed to Catholicism and was “able to see more closely the acceptance that was provided in the Catholic Church,” he said. “Growing closer to Jesus through regular communion with a supportive community allowed me to refocus my perspective on faith.”
The Hess family regularly attended Saint Bridget Catholic Church, and Father Michael Renninger was a pastor there years ago. Mr. Hess said that when he and Meghan had children and moved to the West End, they found a parish home at Saint Mary’s and were reunited with Father Renninger.
When asked how the Saint Mary’s community influenced his faith journey, Mr. Hess said: “Having spent nearly 20 years attending Catholic Mass as a Protestant, I was well equipped to make the move to being Catholic. The influencers were my wife and later the SMCS school community.”
Saint Mary’s School is doing a good job sharing Gospel values with the world, he said. “Daily, our teachers and staff fill the school with faith as examples of living the Catholic life. Our school day begins with prayer and lessons connect to the values of Jesus’s teachings. Taking the time to pause and reflect on the connections between our academic and daily lives with our Catholic life and how they are all woven together are providing a foundation to each student on how to be a faith-filled Catholic.”
Pat is the director of RCIA and Baptism at St. Mary Catholic Church; she assumed this role when Sister Pat McCarthy retired in 2020.
Her comments during our interview well summed what I felt running through the words of all the community members to whom I spoke:
“People come to us tentatively trusting us when they send their child to school at Saint Mary’s,” she said. “They find that it’s more than just a school – they are drawn in by the welcoming presence and depth to membership. There is an opportunity to live faith out here.
“Membership in church is not just about theology,” Pat said. “The creed is its basis, but it’s more about how you live out that membership. There’s incredible potential – there’s enough room for everybody with lots of work to do.”
If you would like to learn more about becoming a Catholic, you can contact Pat Novak through an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.