Ciarra Lechman, right, smiles for a photo with Fr. Andy Ricci at Christ the King Cathedral, Superior, on March 2 after the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and public worship suspended, Lechman and her fellow RCIA members at St. Patrick’s Church in Hudson will have to wait to receive their sacraments. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Writer’s note: The testimonies of two women who have prepared to receive Sacraments of Initiation this Easter share a common theme: the importance of welcome and invitation.

College graduate seeks confirmation

Little did Ciarra Lechman know that the path toward full membership in the Catholic Church would lead her to seek out resources and relationships she had resisted only a few years before.

A 2019 graduate of UW-River Falls, Lechman started her college studies at UW-Stevens Point. Ready for what she called a “fun time in life,” she ignored her mother’s encouragement to check out the Newman Center on campus.

Lechman, whose family lives in Webster, attended Webster public schools after being a student at St. Francis de Sales School in Spooner from kindergarten through fourth grade. She made her first Communion with her second-grade class and continued to attend religious education even after she had transferred to public school.

After a few years, however, Lechman said she fell away, feeling some of the content repeated what she had learned at Catholic school, and she just started to lose interest as she got older. By the time her peers were preparing for confirmation, she was no longer enrolled in her parish’s faith formation program; while her family maintained a personal connection with Fr. Andy Ricci from his time at St. Francis in Spooner, they only attended Mass sporadically.

Yet, the foundation of faith she received as a child would serve as a compass of sorts, guiding Lechman closer to and deeper in her Catholic faith.

The Newman Center on campus was the first place she turned during a period of struggle with a difficult roommate situation.

What led the college student to take the next steps – steps that would eventually steer her to participation in the RCIA program at St. Patrick Parish in Hudson – was the genuine welcome and simple invitation to take part in a Newman-sponsored event.

“That first night, a couple of the girls invited me to a women’s Bible study that they had during the week,” Lechman shared, and it wasn’t long before she was regularly attending Mass and Bible study as well as other Newman Center events.

“I got invited to go on a retreat by the Newman director with five others,” Lechman recounted.

She had no reason to say no and was willing to give the retreat a try. Looking back, she recognized that weekend as a key turning point toward committed involvement with campus ministry and her own faith development.

Lechman was quick to say there was “lots of stuff” that struck her while on the Magnify retreat she attended at Viterbo University in La Crosse. It was for college students led by other college students who had already experienced the retreat as participants.

“It was very refreshing to see other people my age practicing and loving their faith,” Lechman said.

She returned as part of the leadership team, as small group leader, prayer team member and meditation presenter. Her connection with the Magnify retreat continued even after she transferred to UW-River Falls for her junior year, even inviting some River Falls students to go with her.

After the transfer, one of the first things Lechman did was to seek out and get connected with the Newman Center at UW-River Falls. Just as her Newman connection was significant for her growth in understanding and involvement with her faith, the new people to whom Lechman was introduced would play a significant role.

One of them would turn out to be Lechman’s confirmation sponsor, close friend and roommate.

Antoinette Kaiser, a youth minister at St. Patrick’s in Hudson and now Lechman’s roommate, was a fellow student at River Falls and a member of the campus’ Newman Center board.

Lechman said confirmation was something she started to seriously consider, but the “decision point” came at her last Magnify retreat.

She had been asked to prepare and present one of the meditations. Her topic was “Jesus Among Us.”

Lechman chose a story format based on the popular “Footprints” poem. It took her, an only child whose primary hobbies are reading, writing and drawing, outside of her comfort zone and allowed her to see Jesus in her own life’s story.

In the meditation, she described a dream where God was accompanying her in a review of her own life.

“I walked along the beach, with God and the images of my life painted across the sky,” Lechman shared with her peer retreatants.

A nebulous first stop became crystal clear when God simply stated a date: Nov. 20, 1997.

Lechman described her reaction: “You know that feeling you get when you drink something cold and can feel it travel down your throat before settling into your stomach? That’s how it felt to have the color drain from my face.”

That date had changed her life forever, not much more than a year after it had started. It was the day her mother died.

She continued the meditation, openly sharing about the anger she confessed to God, anger that seeped into the hole her mother had left. She voiced regret and resentment and then narrated God’s gentle response.

He had given her and her father another woman to continue loving and caring for them, her dad’s second wife, Julie. How Julie, unable to have children herself, loved and raised Ciarra as if she had been her own and officially adopted her during Lechman’s freshman year of college.

She was the mother who had reminded her to pray as a child. The mother who suggested checking out the Newman Center, enough times that her adopted daughter found friends and mentors there and eventually led to that moment in which Lechman was presenting her meditation.

She could see the fading of faith throughout middle and high school when “religion became a chore” after leaving Catholic school, when she got strange looks praying before lunch at the public school – “a habit that soon stopped” – and when “Jesus was turning into a name I was getting tired of hearing.”

She saw the role of family and friends, and watched her cheeks burn as she saw herself rejecting God over many years and asked how it was that he had not given up on her.

“You needed time to trust,” God smiled. “You are worth the wait.”

Lechman repeated to the college students listening, “You are worth the wait.”

In the scene where she connected with the Newman Center at UW-Stevens Point, Lechman admitted to herself that “faith was an integral part of who I was. It was sewn into the fabric of my soul … I had found a family in the Newman Center and it was like I came home.”

Another few scenes and she recognized her own faith growing. Another few steps beyond that she noticed that God the Father, who had been walking alongside her, had been transformed into Jesus.

The meditation concluded with Lechman saying, “When the dream ended, I missed him, but only for a moment.” Her final prayer was for all of the students to have hearts that seek Jesus above all else.

It was this renewed sense of God’s loving providence, even in difficult suffering, that motivated Lechman to seek Jesus more definitively through the sacrament of confirmation.

Not more than a few days later Lechman made contact with Katie Waldal at St. Patrick’s, who worked with the RCIA program.

Kaiser, Lechman’s sponsor, has been a great inspiration. She described how “very impressed and moved” she is by how her friend “lives her life and life of faith.”

Having graduated in December with a history degree and creative writing minor, Lechman has been laid off from her post-graduation/pre-career restaurant job due to the coronavirus lockdown.

In spite of being confronted with yet another challenge, and the delay of her confirmation, Lechman shared that, after first couple weeks of quarantine measures, she was feeling great and refreshed. She had been given plenty of time for further self-discovery and self-care and pressed into the first Lent she had ever taken so seriously.

Musical involvement leads to conversion

Katie Marano, third from right, is pictured with the St. Therese, Phillips, music group she plays with that ultimately led to her desire to convert to Catholicism. Also pictured is her sponsor, Nancy Deda, second from left. (Submitted photo)

Phillips resident Katie Marano had crossed paths with Catholics and even priests in the community before a friend invited her to join a choir at St. Therese Parish that was in need of a pianist.

A Presbyterian, Marano found herself really enjoying the Mass and the solemnity of it. She was drawn to the warm and open sense of community among the members and the “moving service” they celebrated week after week.

While there were similarities between the Mass and the Presbyterian services, Marano thought it was “tremendous” that the music was so different than the one hymnal she was used to. She was very taken by the fact that there were three Catholic songbooks to play from, as well as the variety of expression over the customary and traditional Protestant hymns.

The fact that she was not the only non-Catholic in the choir at St. Therese added to the sense of acceptance, invitation and friendliness she was discovering.

“Just wonderful” were the words Marano used to describe the Catholics she encountered.

“Why not learn a little more about the church?” she asked herself.

Even though her husband had been born and raised Catholic, his practice of the faith had been infrequent.

Marano started RCIA classes last fall to learn more and found it “fabulously interesting.”

She described the instructor, retired Dcn. Jim Celba, as “absolutely terrific.”

“There was not a question asked that he couldn’t answer,” she said, adding that he could give the title of a book to read where the teachings were backed up.

Through an openness to change, her learning and continued experience of the Mass and developing sense of community with the priest – both former Pastor Fr. Jerry Hagen and current priest Fr. Lourduraju Madanu– and the parishioners at St. Therese, Marano decided to take the leap and make her membership permanent.

Marano admitted her first reconciliation was “nerve-wracking,” especially trying to think back over 60-some years of life.

She talked to Fr. Lourdu beforehand and was reassured by his description of the sacrament more as a conversation rather than a fearful and overly formal act. Yes, it was about one’s sins and expressed sorrow, but more focused on God’s grace and the desire to improve.

Feeling well prepared with a written list also made it easier, and she felt pleased that Fr. Lourdu complimented the thought she had put into it.

Calling herself a “patient person,” Marano acknowledged the current circumstances that have delayed her reception into the church are out of everyone’s control.

She called them “opportunities for growth,” but also said she is “greatly looking forward to joining” the Catholic Church.