Deacon Michael Cullen leads a small-group discussion during the Fire It Up! Retreat June 13 at St. Joseph, Barron (Catholic Herald photo by Anita Draper)

Deacon Michael Cullen leads a small-group discussion during the Fire It Up! Retreat June 13 at St. Joseph, Barron (Catholic Herald photo by Anita Draper)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

“I didn’t want to be so good that God wanted me to be nun, but I didn’t want to be so bad that I went to hell.”
That’s how Caroline Dirkes remembers high school.

A lector, CCD teacher and youth group leader, she was also drinking, partying and messing around with boys. Now half of a husband-and-wife missionary team, Dirkes recalls the emptiness she felt.

“I really lived a double life,” she said.

Caroline told her story Saturday, June 13, at the Diocese of Superior’s fifth annual Holy Spirit Conference.

Organized by the Morning Star Prayer Group, Barron, the Fire It Up! Retreat was June 12-13 at St. Joseph Catholic Church, Barron.

Deacon Michael Cullen, who serves the Barron cluster of parishes, and his wife, Annette, led the prayer group.

Fewer than 50 people were at the conference, a decline in attendance.

Caroline Dirkes (Catholic Herald photo by Anita Draper)

Caroline Dirkes (Catholic Herald photo by Anita Draper)

“Last year we had 100,” the deacon added, shrugging. “You never know. Trust the Lord.”

Caroline and her husband, Dan Dirkes, are the founders of 2Tim4 Ministries. The couple and their three children live in New Jersey; they travel throughout North America singing, preaching and evangelizing.

‘Wanted to follow God’

Friday topics included salvation and God’s love. On Saturday, they talked about new life, receiving God’s gifts, and baptism in the Holy Spirit. Dan, guitarist and singer, led the praise and worship services.

A native of Brooklyn, New York, Caroline is Italian by heritage. She is a cradle Catholic, although her parents “weren’t like ultra-Catholic,” by her description. She learned how to pray the rosary from her grandmother, and she was a pious child.

“I wanted to be good,” she said. “I wanted to follow God.”

When Caroline was 8 years old, her mother joined a prayer group, and the daughter saw her mother transformed by joy.

“We would go to these prayer groups as children, and they had such joy,” she remembers.

In school, Caroline felt pulled to do great things, but she wasn’t overly smart or popular.

“There was just nothing about me that was extraordinary,” she said. “I hated not feeling recognized.”

To win popularity with her peers, Caroline began partying.

“I started to compromise, in small ways at first,” she said. She told herself it was okay, since she wasn’t doing drugs or having sex. But the emptiness she felt lingered into college.

Dealing with an empty heart

Caroline enrolled at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit-founded university in Syracuse, New York, but she soon learned the college’s Catholic roots were all but forgotten. Her philosophy instructor taught that God wasn’t real; on her first retreat, everyone got drunk.

Caroline was confused.

“I was on a great trajectory of being very successful,” she said. She had the grades and the boyfriend, but her heart was empty.

“How do I know that Jesus is really God?” Caroline wondered.

“I went through a time of great doubt,” she said.

On break her freshman year, she had a heart-to-heart talk with God, and told him she needed to know he loved her.

She offered to be a nun, a missionary, anything he wanted.

“I’m a passionate, Italian, Brooklyn girl … if I’m gonna give that, I’m gonna give it 100 percent,” she said. “When we cry out … he can’t help but answer that prayer.”

Caroline’s answer came in the form of an invitation to a parish mission from a faith-filled couple.

She was going through a “punk feminist” phase.

“The last thing I wanted to do was go to a parish mission,” she said. “I was into women’s lib at the time. I don’t need to go to a priest. That’s a man.”

But the priest was fun and dynamic, and Caroline decided to go to confession.

The line was an hour long. Her courage flagged.

“If you haven’t been to confession in awhile, it’s brutal,” she added.

She began talking to the girl ahead of her in line, a prayerful type from whom holiness seemed to be emanating. The girl invited her to a prayer meeting, and Caroline had a revelation.

“God was trying to tell me that I was in bondage … in bondage to sin,” she said.

‘God was there’

Caroline went to a prayer meeting, where she encountered “happy Catholics.” They were in stark contrast to the New York City Catholics she was used to, who’d cut you off in the parking lot after church.

“I knew God was there,” she said. “I knew something was different.”

Long story short, Caroline dumped her boyfriend and fell in love with God. She started attending daily Mass and earned a reputation among friends for being “the religious one.”

In one instance, she shared her faith with a nerdy guy she’d only approached to get a copy of his notes. When she got to his room, she saw it was full of soft-core porn, and she regretted her decision.

He later told her he’d asked God to send someone to speak with him. He started up a conservative Catholic newspaper on campus, which the professors couldn’t stop because it was student-led.

Caroline transferred to Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio.

People who aren’t following God, “They don’t have the Holy Spirit,” she said. “We need the Holy Spirit to make good choices.

“We need power,” she added. “That power is love. Loves helps us forgive. Love helps us preach the gospel and not be afraid.”