Dieric Bouts, “Coronation of Mary,” c. 1450
“To Jesus through Mary” is a well-known spiritual principle. Meet four non-Catholics who experienced the truth of this in a very dramatic and personal way.
The song “Once in love with Amy, always in love with Amy” appears to express the same sentiments of these non-Catholic converts who experienced a profound presence of Our Lady in their faith journey. Their theme song could very well be “Once in love with Mary, always in love with Mary.”
Of course, there are saints, such as Louis de Montfort, who preached and wrote about Mary as the “Lady of breathless beauty,” and Maximilian Kolbe, who was called Our Lady’s Fool, as well as St. John Paul II whose episcopal motto was “Totally Yours,” taken from de Montfort’s famous act of Marian consecration. The Venerable Fulton Sheen chose this Marian verse for his episcopal motto: “Let me come through your Mother.”
Then there is the Rosary Priest, the Servant of God Father Patrick Peyton, of whom a famous actress once said that she had never met a man so in love with a woman as he was in love with Mary. All of these are noted for their intense devotion to her.
But I am speaking of non-Catholic Americans who were led to the Church through an unusual experience of Our Lady that initiated their interest in our faith. I have in mind Father Donald Calloway of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, Roy Schoeman, Claude Newman and Charles Rogers.
Father Donald Calloway
Father Calloway’s story about his “metanoia” from a tumultuous, rebellious and irresponsible teenager to priesthood is well known through his book No Turning Back” as well as sharing his story in DVDs and interviews. Deep into a promiscuous lifestyle from the age of 13 to 20, which included a legal expulsion from Japan, Father Calloway describes his unforgettable encounter with Our Lady one evening when he unexpectedly declined to join his usual party crowd.
He tried to pass the time away by browsing through a bookcase where he stumbled across a book on Our Lady. Its title piqued his curiosity. He had no religion in his upbringing, but his parents had converted to Catholicism while he was travelling following his favorite bands. He read the book cover-to-cover in one sitting and discovered the truth of our faith. He describes it as like being hit by a divine 2×4; and, he spontaneously “fell in love with Mary.”
When he went to bed that night, he heard the sweetest, most feminine voice say, “Donnie, I am so happy!” That brought him immediately to seek instruction in the Catholic faith. His daily attendance at Mass made some people inquire about his becoming a priest. At first he was incredulous about such a possibility because of his past. But as he learned about the mercy of God, the idea attracted him more and more. That brought him to the Marians of the Immaculate Conception where he developed into a vibrant popular speaker and author.
Roy Schoeman recorded his experience in his book Salvation is from the Jews, which is also reported on his websites. Of Jewish descent, he had no interest in Christianity. But one night he dreamed of a very beautiful young woman who he knew was the mother of Jesus. She volunteered to answer his questions and he admits having quite a few.
When he awoke, he found himself “madly in love with Mary.” Being ignorant of Christianity, he approached a Protestant minster about the Christian faith. Then Roy asked him about the place of Mary. When the minister gave a negative reply, he knew that it was not the place for him. Eventually he came to see the veneration by which Catholicism honored her and he entered the Church.
I must admit that at first I had difficulty accepting the conversion story of Claude Newman. It seemed like a fascinating piece of fiction produced by a very active imagination. But that completely changed when, at a clergy conference, I unexpectedly met the priest who catechized him and brought him into the Church.
Claude Newman, an African-American, was a young illiterate field worker in Mississippi convicted of murdering his step-grandfather who abused his grandmother. One day while conversing with four others who shared the same jail block, Claude noticed a Miraculous Medal of Mary on the neck of one of them.
When he inquired about it, the fellow prisoner gave it to him without an explanation. That night Claude claimed to have seen “the most beautiful woman God ever created” who told him that if he wanted her as his mother and to be her son, then he was to see a Catholic priest. He immediately demanded to see a priest. The priest came and, although dubious of his story, began instructing him and the others who became interested because of Claude.
During the session about Confession, Claude blurted out that at Confession we are kneeling at the foot of the Cross with the Blood of Jesus washing us clean and that it was like talking to God through a phone: we speak into it [to the priest] and God answers through the priest. Everyone was surprised to learn that Our Lady was tutoring him. Because the chaplain still appeared doubtful, Claude told the priest privately that when he was in a trench in Belgium, he made a promise to Our Lady which she was still waiting for him to fulfill. He even gave the details of that promise. The priest could no longer be skeptical. Claude was baptized a few days before his execution Feb. 4, 1944.
But Claude learned earlier that the sheriff and others were working for a stay of execution. That upset Claude immensely. He questioned why he was being denied being with Our Lady as he so desired. The priest suggested that he offer up this time away from Mary for another prisoner, a fallen-away Catholic, who was bitterly against any religion and refused to see a priest.
After two weeks the stay was denied. Claude prepared himself for execution by a Holy Hour and Communion. The priest, Father Robert O’Leary, admitted that he never saw anyone proceed to execution so joyfully.
As for the prisoner for whom Claude had prayed, he remained bitter refusing to have a clergyman at his execution as the law required. Strapped in the electric chair, he suddenly screamed out that he wanted a priest. Everyone cleared the room while Father O’Leary heard his confession.
When the sheriff asked him the reason for his sudden conversion, he told them that he saw Claude and Our Lady who showed him his place in hell if he refused conversion. He was told that Our Lady obtained this grace for him because of Claude’s offering of those two weeks of separation from her for his conversion. Claude was so “madly in love with Mary” that it may seem excessive, but it brought him and others to desire heaven.
I never met Father Calloway, Roy Schoeman or Claude Newman, but I did meet Charles Rogers before he and his wife entered the Church. We met Nov. 2, 2014 when he visited our diocesan Shrine, that of Our Lady of Joyful Hope – Our Lady of South Carolina, in Kingstree, South Carolina. I found it strange that a Protestant would come to a Catholic shrine, especially since it required his driving a long distance to get to it. Not only that, but Mary is commonly the biggest hurdle they have to get over.
The reason he gave was his interest in Marian apparitions and locutions, and in one locution Mary said to go to her shrines where she gives special graces. More intrigue. I checked the website which was produced by Msgr. John Esseff, the well-known authority on mysticism. He had been invited to our diocesan clergy convocation earlier that year to speak on exorcism. So I accepted the website that Charles referred to as authentic.
Eventually, I asked Charles to give me the details of his Marian adventure. It began in 2012, when, as a Presbyterian, he went to a bookstore for some spiritual reading and got to browse in the religious section. Nothing at first interested him. But he was drawn to a certain book. Not knowing anything about its subject, he ignored it and proceeded to leave the store without getting anything. But that book haunted him, so he went back to that rack and bought it. It was about the apparitions of Our Lady of Kibeho, Africa.
Unused to such religious phenomena, he was impressed by the religiosity of the people. He began reading it about a week later and found the unusual Catholic stuff “strange but extremely interesting.” When he finished the book, he thought, “These are some of the most religious people I have read about. I want to be like them. I will start praying the rosary.” He assembled a lengthy scripture passage for each of the mysteries and started praying every morning at about 5:30. He remembers on the third day thinking, “this is long,” but he persevered. Let us recall that he had none of these prayers memorized but had to read each Hail Mary, etc.
Then something impressive happened. About seven days into it, he experienced an overwhelming engulfing floral aroma that frightened him. All he knew was that it was supernatural. Learning that others had the same experience, he realized that it was her way of introducing herself to him. After this, she had his full attention all day long from morning until night.
He experienced sudden incredible insights when researching her, He admitted that his “thirst for this stuff was unquenchable.” He started to order many books about Mary. But it was not easy. Even after all this it took a while before he began to trust her.
It was unsettling at first. He often thought that he was going insane. He explains that “her intention from the beginning was to turn my ship around and set sail in the right direction. And she does not treat us condescendingly but so gently that I couldn’t believe it.” She became “the major part of his life.”
He furthermore discovered that she loves us very much and we are important to her — more than we know. He is convinced that if we only knew how much she loves us we would all change our ways. The Rosary became incredibly important.
He began to notice certain changes in his life. First, the spiritual world was no longer “out there,” very distant. Jesus and Mary were now “local” to him, right next to him. The reality of this was overwhelming. A 59-year-old computer programmer at a steel firm, he suddenly found himself completely disinterested in financial matters.
He sensed that he was never alone since Mary was with him. That made him uneasy because he was doing things he didn’t want her to see. He was a heavy drinker, especially on weekends. One Sunday he took a sudden look at what he had become and he did not like it. He complained out loud to her saying why did she pick such a sorry excuse for a person as he, “who doesn’t care about anyone but himself.” Her clear verbal response amazed him: “Because I love you.”
He then realized how great an “ally” she was. He is now completely open to her and wants to be “under her watchful attention.” Even as a Protestant, he made the de Montfort consecration to her and intends to renew it now that he is Catholic.
He and his wife entered the RCIA program in the fall of 2018 and were received into the Church at Easter 2019. His wife, Melanie, says that she always believed in her mind about her Presbyterian faith but after becoming Catholic she has been drawn to God deep in her heart. She feels that many questions have been answered. Her first reception of the Eucharist was a very moving experience. It was a joyful journey and she looks forward for what is to come.
Charles declares that his life has been overflowing since he met Our Lady and he couldn’t have asked for more. He is ever grateful to Jesus for allowing this to happen to him and to the Blessed Virgin Mary, “the guide and protectress of his faith,” for everything she has done for him and continues to do.
In conclusion, I have an admission to make. In 1998, during a pilgrimage to venerate the Holy Shroud in Turin, Italy, our group also went to Milan. Among the sites we visited was the Sanctuary of Santa Maria Bambina — the miraculous Holy Baby Mary — about which I knew nothing. I celebrated Mass right below the scene of her in a crib surrounded by choirs of angels, contemplating her. Her little smiling holy face looking at me reached my heart immediately. I was smitten by her and, yes, I fell in love with Maria Bambina.
Eventually I came across a smaller version of her and acquired it for our Kingstree Shrine. Whenever I look at her, it is as though for the first time. And so, I must join the choir of those singing “Once in love with Mary, always in love with Mary!”
Father Smolenski is the director of the Shrine of Our Lady of Joyful Hope in Kingstree, South Carolina