An Interview with Annie and John-Paul Deddens of Pray More Novenas
Zoe Romanowsky: Everyone loves a good love story; first tell me a little bit about how you met.
Annie: I was a college journalism student doing a story about the local 40 Days for Life campaign for a local radio station and I heard that John-Paul was “the one” to talk to about pro-life matters so I set up an interview and chatted with him about the campaign. Afterwards, I turned off my recorder, and he said to me, “Now, tell me about yourself.” I was caught off-guard. He ended up getting my phone number, and a few weeks later we went on our first date.
One of my favorite parts of our story, which sheds light on why novenas are particularly special for us, is that before I set up my interview with John-Paul, I was spending time every morning before class in the chapel on campus praying with two of my girlfriends. I remember walking out of the chapel and noticing a man praying alone in the back. I didn’t know who he was, but I liked seeing a guy there praying and it planted a seed of desire to meet a man like that. I began praying a Novena to St. Anne at that time — I knew of a few other women who had asked for the saint’s intercession and then met their boyfriends or fiances soon after. So I took the prayer to the chapel with me every morning. I met John-Paul very shortly after finishing the novena, and realized that he was the man in the back of the chapel!
Together, you run the online ministry, Pray More Novenas. Before we talk more about that, for those who may not know, what is a novena, and what is the history of it as a form of prayer?
John-Paul: A novena is a set of prayers prayed over the course of nine days. The word "novena" comes from the latin word for "nine." This is modeled after the nine days the Apostles and Our Lady spent praying between the Ascension and Pentecost. This is why the Holy Spirit novena is considered the first novena.
What inspired you to start Pray More Novenas and how has it changed and grown?
John-Paul: My experience with novenas wasn’t great because of my own lack of discipline. I would pray through day 4 or so and then get sidetracked or forget for several days. I pretty much felt like a failure so novenas became a source of guilt rather than a blessing. Because of this, when my then-girlfriend (Annie) asked me to pray a novena with her, I turned her down. After a few days, though, I started to think that my lack of discipline was probably a poor reason not to pray with my girlfriend, and I also thought there were probably many other people who struggled with this, too. So, I decided to create an email service to remind people to pray novenas. That’s how it all began.
Annie: We now have over 158,000 people praying with us from around the world — that’s a lot more than the few hundred that started praying with us in Champaigin, Illinois when we began! The ministry has grown a lot, but it’s also much the same. We discern which novenas we’re praying, what intentions we’re focusing on, and which specific prayers we’re using. We get a ton of suggestions, and we definitely use them. The intentions for each novena are almost always inspired by what our members tell us they need prayers for. In this sense, it’s truly a community.
Why promote novenas, instead of some other kind of prayer like the rosary, the Divine Mercy chaplet, meditation, etc?
Annie: I didn’t grow up praying novenas — but I came to really like the process: I liked the nine days of prayer and the dedication of coming back each day with your intentions. It was comforting to me to realize that many others before me had prayed the same novena; it gave me a sense of unity with the Church. I think, in the end, the reason we chose to promote novenas instead of some other prayer is that novenas have been intertwined in our relationship since before we met.
You’re a modern, young adult couple. How do you think the novena prayer is relevant for young Catholics today?
John-Paul: I think Pray More Novenas provides a great way to combine an ancient form of prayer with modern technology and life. We’re all very busy these days and getting these emails on our phones or computers helps us to stop and take a few moments to pray and remember our priorities.
I want you to know that you are solely responsible for the fact that I’ve prayed more novenas in the past year than in the last 10 years put together. I always wanted to, but I’d never remember in time, or I’d start and then forget a couple days into it. Now, I wake up to an email, pray the prayer, and actually make it to Day 9! Is this a typical story of people who sign up on your web site?
Annie: Definitely! John-Paul can relate to this personally, and we hear from a lot of people who have finished their very first novena with us because of our email reminders. It’s awesome! I believe God is completely behind all of this.
One of the things I really appreciate is that I can actually pray the prayers you write with sincerity. Many novenas I’ve seen use antiquated language or are overly flowery — just not my style. It felt inauthentic to pray them. Your prayers are not that way. How do you come up with them?
Annie: I completely agree. The very first novenas I remember reading and praying sounded very antiquated — the language was just not something that sounded like it was coming from my heart. I think that’s a huge turn-off for people, and maybe a reason that novenas aren’t popular anymore; it’s difficult to feel sincere while praying something that doesn’t sound like you. So when we’re writing the prayers, we keep this in mind. We hope that what we write sounds familiar, llike something people would actually say.
John-Paul: Coming up with the prayers is a joint effort. Generally, I write the actual novena prayers and Annie writes the introductory intentions. There are some novenas that can’t really be updated — the Divine Mercy Novena, for instance—but we write new prayers where we can. We try to listen to what those praying with us are asking for and struggling with, and incorporate the main themes so that each novena is meaningful. And, of course, we pray for guidance as we reflect and write each one.
What fruit have you seen personally or through your ministry? Can you share any stories?
Annie: Back in 2013, a woman named Cala had emailed us with a prayer request. Her husband was insistent upon having a vasectomy; he didn’t want anymore children. She asked us to pray for a change of heart in him. Well, this morning, Cala emailed and said that she and her husband are expecting another baby (a planned baby) this April! She wrote, "This process has brought us closer together, instead of driving us apart and I appreciate your intercession for us. Thank you!" There are many stories like this and they’re amazing.
Personally, Pray More Novenas has allowed John Paul and me to integrate intentional, disciplined prayer into our lives. I’ve grown so much by praying them, and I love interacting with the people we’re praying with — their emails, prayer requests, hope and faith during hard times is inspiring. My prayers aren’t always answered, but to be honest, I’ve learned just as much, if not more, about faith by experiencing and hearing about unanswered prayers. I feel like God uses our seemingly-unanswered prayers to bring us closer to Him, to change our prayer — and to, eventually, have our prayer change us — that we may be praying more for His will, and less for our own.
Is this a full-time ministry? How do you make it work in your lives and who does what?
John-Paul: This started as a hobby. I would come home from my job as head of the Students for Life of Illinois — a non-profit I started that works with college students across the state of Illinois to build them up as pro-life leaders — and write the novena prayers and send them out. I worked there for about ten years and I’m still on the board of the organization, but now most of my time is spent working on Pray More Novenas. Over a few years, it really started to grow. About a year ago, we both decided to leave our jobs and work on the ministry full-time from our home office. I tend to do more of the technical things while Annie does more of the writing. Much of our time is spent replying to the thousands of prayer requests we receive. Through the small donations we receive, we are now able to meet both our ministry and personal expenses.
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