Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Laura Paxton will come Catholic Saturday night at St. Mary Church in Eugene.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Laura Paxton will come Catholic Saturday night at St. Mary Church in Eugene.
Laura Paxton was born in a town called Rome, in Georgia. And now, after decades of spiritual wandering, she’s found home in the Roman Catholic Church.

Paxton, a 43-year-old writer who now lives in Eugene, becomes Catholic Saturday during the Easter Vigil at St. Mary Church, in Eugene.

She says the moment she realized God’s “overwhelming grace and mercy” and decided to become a Catholic, she was a new human being.

“People say I glow,” she explains.

Paxton was raised Southern Baptist in Rome, Ga., the child of two college professors. She faced challenges early on — Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning autism, plus a disengaged and rejecting mother. The autism stunted her socially; much of the time, she was either lonely or bullied.  

She tried to be active in her childhood faith, but was left cold. When, with her keen mind, she raised serious religious questions, people changed the subject. At 14, she attended a Catholic Mass and felt a powerful attraction. The idea of the Eucharist made deep sense and she met regularly with a local nun who taught her to pray the rosary. She attended youth classes and became friends with Catholic children.

When she asked her parents if she could become Catholic, they decided the flirtation with the faith centered in Rome, Italy, had gone too far. When she was 15, they pulled her from Catholic parish life, telling her that she needed no saints, priests or nuns to stand between her and God. What she knew as lifelines, her parents had severed.

Soon after, Paxton began experiencing chaotic bipolar episodes. Nevertheless, she graduated from college at 20 and earned two master’s degrees — in psychology and guidance counseling — by the time she was 23. In the course of her studies, she accepted what she now sees as faulty notions about Catholicism, namely that it represses sexuality and promotes guilt.   

When she was in her mid-20s, she decided to become an Episcopalian. But she still felt lost. “I held few things sacred and delighted in decadence,” she says. “I was a tortured soul.”

After being manipulated and tricked in several relationships, Paxton attempted suicide. It almost worked. But she emerged from despair,  got married and moved to California, where at 26 she wrote a best-selling self-help book, Borderline and Beyond.

Living off royalties, she immersed herself in a New Age group for years. The life, she now says, offered only “temporary highs” and attempted to manufacture happiness void of moral requirement. Her guru, while accepting large amounts of her money, urged her to alienate her family, which did not support the cult-like venture.

When the exuberance ended, as it inevitably does in cults, she felt alone and confused. Her successes in life seemed meaningless. She moved to Oregon, wanting neither failure nor success, just sanity.

Her poem “Lost and Found” expresses her life up to this point: “I cannot count the infinite ways to get nowhere.”

Then, through a friend, she decided to return to an old home — Catholicism. She joined a program for those who want to explore the church. Through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, she discovered that the Catholicism was the one influence in her life that never steered her wrong. She has found truth, she explains, in the church’s moral teaching on free will, good and evil.

Now, Paxton wants to pick up where she left off at 15 and turn her life into perpetual adoration of God.”I hope to do nothing that would disrupt my relationship with Jesus,” she says.

Paxton is now planning to create educational documentaries about autism and is at work on a book about contemplative prayer.  

Terry Marks, an upstanding California policeman for 30 years, felt self-sufficient. As a sergeant in his department, he gave orders and they were followed.

“I thought I was right in everything,” says Marks, who at 61 now realizes that his life really depends on a higher power. He’ll be baptized Saturday at Shepherd of the Valley Church in Central Point.

Marks grew up in Southern California and was raised in the Christian Science Church. He found that denomination hard to fathom and as a young man sought another church. He joined one — he’d rather not name it — and raised five children in the tradition. When he was divorced, that church excommunicated him.    

Marks later met and married a Catholic woman who had not been fully practicing her faith. They didn’t join a faith community, and Marks felt his spirituality wane. He just built up what he calls a “comfortable life.”

In 2003, he retired from police work and he and his wife moved to southern Oregon. His wife was re-discovering her Catholicism. For years, Marks had been taught that the Catholic Church was abominable, with an early history mixed with politics and corruption.  Then came the priest sex abuse scandals. He never saw himself becoming part of the Catholic Church.

After a personal crisis hit, he “started looking at the bigger picture.” He prayed, for the first time truly seeking divine guidance instead of resorting to his own power and wits.

“The problem was, I had never surrendered to God’s will,” Marks says. “I had never really sought God’s help. I was taught that God helps those who help themselves.”

He started attending RCIA “just to understand the church and its teachings.” Then, last fall while on a walk, he felt a burst of consolation and knew he should join the original Christian church.

“I felt a warmth come over me,” he says. “A light shined on my soul.”

In addition to RCIA, he has embarked on a Bible study. All the learning has confirmed his decision and fostered his dependence on God.

Marks suggested that Shepherd of the Valley hold a study on Matthew Kelly’s book, Rediscovering Catholicism. The gatherings have drawn large groups in anticipation of a southern Oregon seminar set for April when Kelly himself will speak.

Marks is looking forward most to receiving the Eucharist, which will be a sign of God’s closeness and his own willingness to surrender. He has a phrase for how he feels just now — “spiritual acceleration.”

Joyce Eason, who leads RCIA at Shepherd of the Valley, says Marks and the 16 others to be baptized at the church feel an urgent longing.

“It seems like they all wanted it yesterday,” Eason says. “They want the Eucharist; they want to be wiped free of their sins with baptism.”

Eason urges her classes to continue discerning to the very end because the commitment is so serious.

“I think they are looking at these last weeks and days with open eyes and open hearts,” Eason says. “They are happy about coming into this family. What I see is joy.”

Deacon Tom Altenhofen, who leads the RCIA at St. Mary’s in Eugene, is witness to “excitement and anticipation,” among those to become Catholic.

“Over and over again as the year has gone on, they have a stronger desire to have the Eucharist,” Altenhofen says. “I hear that more than anything. People are hungry.”

Jerry Spann was raised Protestant, and when he fell in love with Mary, a cradle Catholic who is now his wife, they agreed that they would take turns going back and forth between the two churches. But as he began attending Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Spann began to fall in love once again.

“As I started to attend the Catholic Church, I really appreciated it,” he said. “I appreciated the ceremony and history, and it felt very right.”

Spann grew up in Tacoma and Mary hails from the Minnesota, but they found each other in Portland.

Mary has been Spann’s sponsor; they read scripture and gospel together every morning.

“It’s been very beneficial for our relationship to have this commonality of faith,” Spann said.

He said he has discovered a new level of reverence for the Eucharist.

“Being from a Protestant church, I’d taken Communion before, but I feel like I value it a lot more now that I see the history behind it and what an important ceremony it is,” Spann said. “It can be taken fairly casually in other faiths. [But in the Catholic faith], it’s not something to be taken lightly.”

When Margie Henrikson was a girl, her family lived in the country. Sunday School was offered occasionally at the grange hall, and when Henrikson was in high school, she rode along with school friends the 31 miles to a Catholic church a few times.

She was always curious to explore her faith, but life just kept rushing by. She got married and had three children. The family went sometimes to Lutheran church.

Then, in 2005, when Henrikson and her husband were living on 3 acres in Siletz, her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The hospice nurse inquired about their faith and what sort of traditions they observed.

“It started bothering me that I had no religion,” Henrikson said.

It was a year-and-a-half after her husband’s death, that Henrikson found her home parish, St. Joseph the Worker. A friend, Ron Sill (now her sponsor) asked if he could take her to church with him some Sunday.

“I always sat around on Sunday mornings and read the paper and drank my coffee,” she said, but finally she agreed to go. At St. Joseph she discovered a sense of belonging, so last year, she began the RCIA process.

“I wish I’d done this years before,” Henrikson said. She knows her heart will be full when she takes first Communion at the Easter Vigil Mass.

“It’s been a great journey so far, and this is only the beginning,” she said.