An alcoholic diagnosed with terminal cancer found healing, conversion, and peace on the other side of an ambulance ride that delivered him to the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne.
The stories of radical conversions like St. Paul or St. Augustine can inspire us and are meant to do so. God is always calling us to Himself, and the saints of old are our teachers in this. Though they are very much alive, we in our time and space, can feel remote from them. But every now and again, some of us are graced to witness a true conversion story with our own eyes. This is one such story.
Arriving at Rosary Hill
Bob came to live with us, the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, as a broken man. He was sick with cancer, like all of our patients, yet far worse was his spiritual state. Bob had a “black hole” within himself, as he described it, which he numbed with alcohol. Because of this, he had lost his family, his friends, everything; and now he was dying of cancer. An alcoholic, he had made a million promises to change and had broken them all, and now it seemed there was no chance to redeem himself.
The day he arrived at our home he was intoxicated, disheveled, distant: a crumpled mess of a man. He was taken to his room with a smile and welcomed, just like any other patient. We washed him, shaved him, made him comfortable, fed him and let him rest. The first month went by like that with little doses of love. Slowly, instead of dying he began to heal physically. Bob still wanted to drink, but he also wanted to stay, and he knew he could not have both. So, with a little tough love and a lot of prayer, we helped him fight back the urge to drink, and that bottomless pit he had been trying to fill, began to be filled with grace and love.
A holy friendship
As the months went by, he started to go to Mass. This came about because he had begun a friendship with our chaplain Fr. Jacob Restrick, O.P., and he had started asking questions about the Sisters. We, in our turn, could see that day by day, he was responding to the graces given to him. The longer he was sober, the more he was able to heal and before long, he began to take instructions from Fr. Jacob to become a Catholic. They would meet nearly every day at 3pm and would go through the Catechism. Fr. Jacob said “his ‘formation’ in AA helped, as it had taught him to do a moral inventory.”
After coming into the Church, he began to go to daily Mass on days he felt well. There was a visible change not just physically, but in his whole person. He who once felt himself unlovable, was full of love and showed it to all those he met. He commented he thought the changes were gradual, but the Sisters were surprised at the quickness in which over the course of a year they saw a broken man become sober; a sober man become virtuous; and a virtuous man become holy.
Conversion is not a magic spell. Bob was given grace and he chose to be receptive to those graces and he did the work of growing in virtue to increase his capacity for those graces. Once He knew the love of God, he followed after it. As the Venerable Mary of Agreda says, “Seeking to fly after the aroma of the ointments of its Beloved, one begins to live more where one loves, then where one lives.”
Reconciled with family
One of the fruits of this conversion was that some of his family came back into his life. He got involved with his two daughters, attending their school events when possible, and becoming a true father to them again. Before he died, he and his wife, from whom he had been separated, reconciled. His parents, overjoyed at the change in Bob said to the Sisters at one point, “You have given us back our son.”
Yes, and no. Rosary Hill was where the seed was started, but it was God who granted the increase. And there was a slew of people who were instrumental in supporting his new life: volunteers, his new friends at AA, employees at Rosary Hill, and even other patients.
From alcoholic to witness
Bob did not just have his own conversion but was instrumental in the conversion of others. One such person was a patient named Diane. She had been away from the Church and came to us with high levels of anxiety and depression. His relationship to her started with just stopping by her room to invite her to activities with him and the other patients.
Soon he was talking to her about the Faith and helping her to overcome her fears. It wasn’t long before Diane made her request to see the chaplain and began to receive Holy Communion. Bob was instrumental in Diane being reconciled to the Church before she died because she experienced the love of God through his kindness to her.
Knowing Bob and his story helped many of the Sisters in that daily call to conversion that we should all have. It is good to study about the spiritual life, but we must be fully engaged in it as well. Bob only found his true self when he died to the old, alcoholic, broken man he had become. We, too, are not our true selves if we are not living the life God is calling us to. Being a witness to his conversion reminds us of the glories that await us if we strive for sanctity. For if our life is short or long, what only matters is that we remain in His holy will. As St. Francis de Sales says, “Remember that the present day is given to you in order to gain the future day of eternity.”
A holy death
Bob was given a lot of ‘extra’ time where he felt well compared to that day on which he arrived at Rosary Hill, but eventually his illness began to take hold. When he was close to death, Fr. Jacob says, “His wife and girls came, and with the Dominican Brothers,” [who were stationed at Rosary Hill for a time during their formation], “we did a Solemn Anointing of the Sick according to the Old Rite, in English, anointing the eyes, nose, ears, mouth, hands and feet…It was a holy death and the completion of all that the Lord was doing in him over the year.”
Bob would have agreed with Father as is shown in some words he wrote about his conversion: “I came to believe that maybe my life was worth living…Unlike my past attempts to change my life, this one was not out of fear or desperation. This was for love, love like I have never known before…The road was not one, but Three leading to One Love, One Truth: One Infinite beyond any part of my imagination…And now I can feel the pain and hurt and overcome the uncomfortable moments that are part of life. But, so much more, I can feel joy and love. The love from those that tried to love the unlovable me: and I the unlovable can love back…I love today.”
If you would like to know more about the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, please visit our website www.hawthorne-dominicans.org , or call 845-745-1319.