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A mother's journey of faith
By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2000
GULFPORT -- Penny Lord's son was weeks short of his 20th birthday when he died of a drug overdose.
Distraught, she cursed God and discarded her Roman Catholic faith.
The despair lasted for more than three years.
"If you exist," she screamed at the God in whom she had always believed, "I hate you."
More than a quarter of a century later, Mrs. Lord is ashamed of her words. In the years since her crisis of faith, she and her husband, Bob, have reconciled with their church. They have become well-known hosts on the Catholic cable television station, Eternal World Television Network, given lectures, written almost two dozen books and led numerous pilgrimages to distant lands.
Early in the ministry, however, when a close friend and priest told Mrs. Lord that her son had died so that she could begin her religious work, her defiant response was, "Tell Jesus to take back the work and give me back my son."
This week, speaking by telephone from her home in Folsom, Calif., she added, "I've given talks and said, "That's what I said, but Mary never said that.' "
Mrs. Lord went on to talk about the motivation behind her evangelization efforts.
"The world crashed in on our family," she said, explaining that as far as she is concerned, she and her husband did everything that was right for their children, including playing and praying with them and sending them to Catholic schools.
"We thought that as long as we could keep the world out, we could keep our children safe. And that's why we're in the ministry we're in. We want to tell the people that you cannot keep the world out. You have to change the world. . . . That's our message. That's what we have spent the last 25 years doing."
Next month Mrs. Lord will bring her message to Tampa Bay. On May 13 she will speak at the Mother-Daughter Breakfast sponsored by Magnificat, a national Catholic ministry that encourages women to share their faith at gatherings where they sing, pray and share a meal.
Helen Piazza, a coordinator of St. Petersburg's Magnificat chapter, which draws women from throughout Pinellas County and farther afield, is excited about Mrs. Lord's visit.
"I have seen her on EWTN, and I was so fascinated by her witness talk that I thought she would be great if we could afford to bring her down here," said Mrs. Piazza, adding that she hopes others will be similarly moved.
"She's so spiritual. Maybe their faith can be strengthened by what she says, by what she has gone through."
Arlene Diaco, another local Magnificat coordinator, added, "Her message will be pertinent to young people, because her son did die of an overdose and it is our mother-daughter meal. Plus, she is someone who left the church, and the Lord pursued her."
What is certain is that those who attend next month's gathering will hear some straight talk.
"I'm going to share our story," said Mrs. Lord, speaking in the same soft but passionate voice heard on her television programs.
"It's not a lecture and it's not a talk. It's witnessing to where we are, where we've gone and where we want to go. I don't believe in preaching."
Still, she added, "I never know what I'm going to say. Bob and I always pray before the Blessed Sacrament before giving a talk."
Bob Lord, her constant companion, will be at her side during the May breakfast, which will be held at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church. Without question, she will talk about Richard, the son she described this week as "a wonderful boy" and "an outstanding human being." And she will describe how her faith, and her husband's as well, died with Richard on Oct. 23, 1971.
For more than three years, except on the anniversary of their son's death, the Lords refused to attend Mass. That pattern, said Mrs. Lord, would not change until Jan. 1, 1975, the feast day of the Solemnity of Mary.
As Mrs. Lord tells it, her husband was outside shaking out a tablecloth when he had a revelation.
"He had a thought and the thought was, it was time to go back to church. . . . He gets this thought that he's to go to church every day. He comes into the family room where I'm sitting looking at TV and not seeing anything and he has to tell me. . . . I went with him, because he was always my friend."
It was an emotional homecoming for Bob Lord.
"He scared me. He had tears in his eyes and when the host was raised in consecration, the tears are rolling down his face. And I'm kneeling down to a God that I don't believe in," Mrs. Lord recalled.
Her thought then, she added, was that her husband was going to divorce her and join the priesthood.
From that first day of 1975 until May 23 that year, the Lords went to church daily, sometimes two or even three times a day. Mrs. Lord, however, had not regained her faith. Her epiphany would not occur until after the couple attended a marriage encounter session, a program designed to help married people become reacquainted.
The weekend program in May 1975 bore fruit for the Lords, who in their grief had grown apart.
After the session, Mrs. Lord said, "I fell in love with my husband. I also fell madly in love with Jesus. . . . Worse than losing your son is losing Jesus. That's our strength. Could you imagine how he wept when he watched what we were doing to ourselves?"
The grandmother and great-grandmother came to another realization.
"If you destroy the family unit, you destroy the church. You destroy the world. Isn't that what's happening now?" she asked.
"If Satan could have destroyed our marriage, we wouldn't be reaching out to so many people, would we?"
Other changes were to occur as well.
At the time, they were running a successful business, said Mrs. Lord, adding that she became convinced that God wanted them to sell everything and follow him. Notwithstanding his renewed faith, Bob Lord was unconvinced. In fact, it was almost eight years before he finally agreed with his wife. When he did, it was Mrs. Lord's turn to waver.
"I got scared," she said.
In 1983, however, they established Journeys of Faith, a non-profit organization that today includes their work on EWTN. Besides hosting their own programs on the television station, the Lords sometimes appear on Mother Angelica Live, a popular program hosted by the cloistered nun who founded the Catholic network. The Lords also conduct pilgrimages, publish a newsletter, give lectures and write books. Their latest book is titled The Journey and the Dream, Our Story.
Today, said Mrs. Lord, she and her husband own nothing. Proceeds from their books and videos as well as donations and stipends from speeches go to the ministry, she said. In June, the Lords will leave California and move with adopted daughter, Luz Elena Sandoval-Lord, and Brother Joseph, a lay brother, to the mission they are building in Morrilton, Ark.
Besides administrative offices, the mission will include a replica of the Holy House of Loreto, the original of which is in Italy and believed to have been the Nazareth home of the Holy Family.
On 83 acres, the Arkansas facility will be open to all, Mrs. Lord said.
"We are Roman Catholic and we teach the Catholic faith, but . . . everything is open to all faiths to use as they need to. This is not for the salvation of Catholic families, but for all families. It's the unity John Paul II has talked about. . . . It is a mission for the salvation and the strengthening of the earthly family through the Holy Family."
It is, Mrs. Lord said, at the core of their ministry, "to bring back those who have left Jesus and the church and to strengthen those who have remained."
If you go
Magnificat Mother-Daughter Breakfast, 9 a.m. to noon, May 13, Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church, the Maria Center, 5800 15th Ave. S, Gulfport. Tickets are $6 and must be purchased by May 8. Call 864-0464 or send checks and a self-addressed envelope to Magnificat, 601 66th Ave. S, St. Petersburg, FL, 33705.
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