APPLETON — “The family that prays together, stays together.”
Edna Ulrich of Appleton remembers her uncle telling her that years ago. Her uncle is a Baptist minister and Edna grew up in that faith. So did her husband, Tim.
At the Easter Vigil, they and their daughter, Gillian, will become full members of the Catholic Church at St. Bernard Parish. Gillian will be baptized, confirmed and receive holy Communion for the first time. Edna and Tim will be confirmed and receive their first Communions as well.
And it was all Gillian’s idea.
Gillian, a sixth grader at St. Francis Xavier Middle School, is 11 years old. This is her second year attending Xavier. Her family lives near Xavier High School and, when that school had an open house two years ago, her parents visited and were impressed.
“We thought the curriculum was outstanding,” Tim said. “So we decided that, for the next school year, we would send her to Xavier.”
At Xavier, Gillian attends religion class and weekly Mass, like all the students, and she found herself liking both. So last year, she went home and told her parents that she wanted to become Catholic. Her parents weren’t completely surprised.
“Ever since she was smaller,” Edna said, “we would take her to church and she’d be interested for a while, and then she would lose interest. And I didn’t want it to be a fight, so we started going to different churches, trying to find some place where it fit for all of us and not just Tim and me.
“I didn’t want Gillian to be in the situation where she was forced to go to a church she wasn’t comfortable with,” she added, “When you’re doing that, once you’re old enough to make your own decisions, that’s the last place you’re going. So I wanted it to be something she embraced and realized the importance of and had that base in her life. … So I said, ‘OK, I need to find out about this (Catholic faith) and it’s something we have to do together.’”
What Tim remembers about some of their early visits to St. Bernard’s was how, “in the Catholic Church, you don’t separate the kids from the adults like everywhere else.” He found that he really enjoyed worshipping together as a family.
So, before long, the family approached Deacon Mike Eash of St. Bernard’s to ask some questions. Before long, they were meeting with him once a month.
“Tim and Edna had lots of questions about the Mass,” Deacon Mike recalled.
Then, in September 2015, they formally began the RCIA – Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults — process. Then came another decision for Gillian: join the process with her parents and two other adults, or be baptized at Easter and then attend confirmation classes with the students in her school later on. Gillian chose RCIA, which has met weekly.
“She added youthfulness to the group,” said Deacon Mike.
“What I like,” he added, “is that Gillian will be sitting there and, at the end of class, she’ll ask some profound question — and you can clearly tell she’s been listening the whole time. Gillian’s questions are very basic and very faithful; they’re the core questions.”
Part of the RCIA process includes the Rite of Election, which takes place, with the diocesan bishop at the cathedral, on the First Sunday of Lent. While that day was a whirlwind of excitement — Gillian and her father both had time to be impressed by the cathedral’s pipe organ.
“It had about 2,000 pipes,” said Gillian, who takes voice and cello classes at Lawrence University in Appleton.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that, when asked about saints she knows about, the first one she mentioned was St. Cecilia, patron of musicians.
Both parents have found the entire RCIA process “fun” and cannot believe how quickly the time has gone.
“It seemed like it would take longer and it’s gone really fast,” said Edna. “We were at last year’s Easter Vigil — not really knowing what was going on, but thinking this was really cool.”
“Everybody’s been really nice,” she added. “Sometimes when you go someplace and you’re new, you don’t feel welcome or like you’re a part of anything. And it hasn’t felt that way.”
Not that it hasn’t been an adjustment for Tim and Edna — coming from the Baptist church to the Catholic faith, which Tim calls “a lot different” in its practices. And Edna’s uncle might need to adapt to the family’s changes, but Edna believes he will come to understand.
“As I got older, (my uncle) realized that I was going to make my own decisions, based on what I think is best for me and my family. We’re a family now,” she said, indicating Gillian and Tim, “so we have to do what we need to do for our family.”
As for Gillian, she is looking forward to her baptism March 26 — her sponsor will be Mary Casey, her fifth grade teacher from Xavier Middle School. Her parents’ sponsors will be Bill and Julian Ryno. Bill also works at Gillian’s school.
She and her parents admit that they didn’t quite know what to expect at the baptism itself.
“We had no idea how adults are baptized. We’d seen babies baptized,” Edna said, admitting that they wondered if they would need to “wiggle her up there and hold her?”
Gillian laughed. “I’d be squirming around up there and be dropped, like a fish!”
Deacon Mike explained that Gillian will be baptized by immersion. Fr. Dennis Ryan, St. Bernard’s pastor, stopped by during The Compass’ interview to assure Gillian that they would use warm water. She expressed disappointment, joking that she would prefer cold.
After Easter, St. Bernard’s RCIA classes will continue during a time called the “mystagogy.” In those weeks following Easter, Deacon Mike says they hope to again tour the cathedral, as well as St. Norbert College. Which is fine with Gillian; she said that her favorite part of the RCIA process has been “meeting new people.”