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After a long journey, they take their place in a new faith

Nearly 1,000 converts join the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.

Published April 8, 2007

[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Mokia Laisin, 12, is baptized by Father Bill Swengros on Saturday at St. Stephen's Catholic Church in Valrico. The Laisins came to the United States from a predominantly Catholic village in Cameroon.

Salvation has meant many things in Jane Laisin's life.

She endured nearly three years of separation from her children before finally bringing them to the United States from Cameroon. Reunited, she endured increasing abuse by her husband, who denied the children the faith that had sustained her through it all.

Still, she felt a spirit guiding her.

The redemption she had long prayed for came Saturday. Just after nightfall, she shepherded her four youngest children through a throng of more than 500 worshipers filing into St. Stephen's Catholic Church in Valrico.

Slowly, light spread candle to candle, filling the church.

The children wore brown, knee-length robes, marking them as prepared for baptism at Saturday night's Easter vigil.

The Laisin children were among nearly 1,000 new Catholics welcomed throughout the Diocese of St. Petersburg. The elaborate celebration capped months of study and preparation, and swelled the ranks of the region's largest denomination.

For many, the rite also marked a milestone on the difficult road to faith.

Two weeks before Easter, 40 people spent a sunny Sunday morning in a darkened classroom at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Spring Hill.

They sat in two concentric circles around a low, round table topped with a candle, a cross and a bare tree branch. The newcomers formed the inner circle, their sponsors and teachers behind them.

A deacon stepped quietly around the room, placing his hands gently on their heads. This was the time to pray for release from any lingering doubts.

For seven months, the group met almost every week, slowly growing into their new faith through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, or RCIA.

Their reasons for being there varied. One man wanted to be a godfather. Another had married a Catholic. Some - called "candidates" - came from a Christian background and already had a valid baptism.

The catechumens ka-te-KYU-mens grew up in other faiths or were not baptized. They prepared for all three rites of initiation: baptism, confirmation and communion.

Coordinator Sandy Sperlazza began volunteering with RCIA shortly after her own conversion in 1990. She described RCIA as a process, not a program.

Each week, teachers offer instruction on the sacraments, church history and the different prayers.

But that fulfills just a part of the instruction. The rest is the responsibility of the RCIA team. They help the newcomers navigate the thorny and sometimes painful obstacles to faith, like the annulment of past marriages.

Many find it hard to understand the role of Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus. Others struggle with the Catholic belief in the "actual presence" of Christ's body and blood in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.

"We're here to walk the journey with them," Sperlazza said

To close her final meeting, Sperlazza reminds the candidates and catechumens that the Easter Vigil is not the end. It's the beginning.

It's a journey of faith, she said later. And the journey never ends.

- - -

Rufus and Tammy Flinchum describe a passage toward Catholicism familiar to many converts, marked by doubt and a longing for a true spiritual "home."

Once devout Pentecostals, the two met in a church where the faithful often fainted or spoke in tongues. Like other fundamentalist Christians, they believed Catholics were idolators who worshiped Mary and prayed to dead "saints."

Tammy grew up in the sparsely populated mountains of Craig County, Va., where her social life orbited the Pentecostal church: skating, vacation Bible school, youth crusades.

As her already strained relationship with her family crumbled, she sought help from her church, but found none.

"You would go to the preacher and say, 'What am I supposed to do? I'm praying and it seems like nothing is happening,' " Tammy said.

One day, Rufus surrendered to an unusual impulse. He gave an employee - a struggling father of five - $100 out of his own pocket. To repay the kindness, the man sent Rufus some Catholic literature.

"I started out really thinking I can prove this Catholic stuff is wrong," Rufus said. He went on the Internet, looking for evidence to disprove his friend's faith. Instead of proof, he found questions.

"What happened when Jesus went back to heaven? What did they believe back then?" Rufus began asking.

His own 100-year-old church suddenly seemed antihistorical, misguided. "You start reading about the early church fathers, and you say, 'My gosh! Have we been deceived?' "

Their newfound faith came at a price, particularly for Tammy. It deepened the painful rift with her mother, who refused to provide Tammy's baptismal certificate, leaving the Catholic Church no choice but to baptize her again.

But the process also provided healing. She embraced Mary, the venerated virgin she once thought of as a pagan idol. She took comfort in the constancy of Mary's "mother's heart," filling the void at the heart of her own life.

- - -

Converts often make the best Catholics, the RCIA instructors like to say.

Some, like the Flinchums, carry their evangelical traditions with them into Catholicism: their zeal, their belief in personal transformation through Christ, their commitment to "witnessing" their faith to unbelievers.

RCIA borrows heavily from that tradition.

Its post-Vatican II evolution reinvigorated evangelicalism in the Catholic Church. It mirrors customs central to born-again Christian denominations: the personal call to faith, the importance of public profession, and the responsibility of each parishioner to be a missionary in his or her own community.

Where priests once tutored converts in private, now the entire congregation participates in the initiation.

Terry Modica, coordinator of the RCIA program at St. Stephen's Catholic Church in Valrico, remembered her own conversion journey in 1977 as very private. The congregation wasn't even aware of it, she said.

It wasn't until the 1980s that the RCIA process became the norm, she said. It made conversion less intimidating to newcomers, and greatly expanded the number entering the church each year.

St. Stephen's will welcome nearly 40 newcomers this year. They will join the region's more than 419,000 Catholics, said Father Len Plazewski, director of vocations for the diocese.

- - -

Laisin feels a spirit guided her to St. Stephen's.

"I've been to many churches in America in the six years I've been here, but when I went to St. Stephen's, there was something in the air," Laisin recalled. "It made me feel like I was in the right place."

Laisin, a cradle Catholic, was raised in a village of 2,000 people in the west African nation of Cameroon. Eighty-five percent of the villagers were Catholic.

She went to a Catholic girls school, learning her early lessons from Irish nuns. She married a Catholic and expected to raise her family in the church.

She baptized her first son. Her husband objected, but her father insisted. Her husband grew increasingly abusive and refused to allow their younger four children to be baptized, she said. Laisin continued to go to church, alone. She prayed for her children.

She moved to Minnesota in 2001, and began working as a nurse. Her family stayed behind. Two years and ten months. She counted the days.

After her family joined her in 2004, the physical abuse continued, she said. Two months later, her marriage fell apart. She moved to Riverview and found St. Stephen's.

"I felt like now I have the children's life in my hands, and it was about time to do what I had to do for them," she said.

She enrolled her four youngest, ages 11 to 19, in the RCIA program.

In late March, Laisin's 71-year-old mother received a travel visa to come to the United States and see her daughter for the first time in six years. She arrived less than two weeks before Easter and eagerly looked forward to the celebration.

It was her last wish.

"When I see this, I will be ready to go," she told Laisin. "When the children are baptized, I will tell my Lord, I am ready to go home."

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at or (352) 754-6127.



[Last modified April 8, 2007, 11:29:09]

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