Father Edwin Sánchez Romero baptizes Rachel Franco. Her godmother and godfather, Brittany and Daniel Franco, her sister-in-law and brother, stand behind her. (Courtesy Beverly Franco)
Father Edwin Sánchez Romero baptizes Rachel Franco. Her godmother and godfather, Brittany and Daniel Franco, her sister-in-law and brother, stand behind her. (Courtesy Beverly Franco)

Oregonians have stayed at home over the spring and rising COVID-19 cases suggest we might need to keep staying at home. That’s not true, however, for essential workers, like Beverly Franco, who clocks in at Home Depot, and like Corey Helling and Bernadette Podwiki, therapists at Samaritan Health in Corvallis.

While big Masses are on hold at churches across the archdiocese (not to mention the country) that doesn’t mean that the essential work of the church is paused. That includes evangelization and welcoming converts.

The Francos and Hellings show how they joined the church, even in a pandemic.

The Francos come to St. Mary’s

Beverly Franco, who moved to Oregon from Mississippi in September 2018, said it was no wonder her oldest son and oldest daughter (out of seven) hadn’t been too sharing about their church here, St. Mary Parish in Albany.

“I had been zealous on the anti-Catholic side,” Franco admitted.

Her oldest two children, together with their spouses, were taking their youngest sister to Mass unbeknownst to Franco.

Franco wasn’t happy about it. She would have to attend a Catholic Mass herself, in order to find out what young Rachel had been exposed to.

It changed her life. “My mouth was hanging open.”

“The whole Mass is scripture,” Franco said. “I thought, ‘Whoa. Where do people get off saying Catholics don’t read the Bible?’”

She was also pleased by how the parish brought people together. “Every nationality was there.”

Franco felt so certain that God was there in the Mass that she wept, her tears brought on because of the liturgy’s beauty but also because she began thinking about how she’d been deceived.

She began reading. “I found out that the early church fathers sounded like Catholics,” she said. “I loved how it pulls together the Old and New Testament, emphasizing the Jewishness of Jesus. Just the way someone gets up to read the Word — it’s more like how someone would read the Talmud. And the most lovely thing is how the year goes through and tells the story over and over. The Mass itself is a catechism.”

Franco’s 20-year-old daughter, Emily, decided to become a Catholic as well.

Franco has book recommendations, beginning with titles by Bishop Robert Barron and the theologian Scott Hahn, who is also a convert to Catholicism.

Before the pandemic, the family shared dinners after church. Franco’s oldest son Daniel asked everyone how the readings related to one another — and sometimes he suggested they watch Bishop Barron’s DVDs about the Mass. “It was stuff we could learn together,” said Franco.

Daniel is now a Knight of Columbus, Fourth Degree. His family was chosen as the Knights “family of the month” earlier this year.

A loving mother to all seven of her children, Franco was quick to say that she respects her children who aren’t Catholic.

St. Mary Parish is now filled with Francos. There’s Beverly, her oldest son, Daniel, her daughters Liliana, Rachel and Emily, her son-in-law and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren.

“They’ve also taught Gramma,” Beverly said of the little ones. At Mass they would tell her when to kneel and when to bow her head. “If nothing else, I want to be a good influence.”

Four sacraments in one day

“Paris is well worth a Mass,” the formerly Protestant Henry of Navarre was reputed to have said when it turned out that converting would make him king of France.

Corey Helling knows the feeling.

He and Bernadette Podwiki felt an instant connection when they met through mutual friends.

“But I knew he wasn’t Catholic,” Podwiki said.

She waited until their third date to tell him how she felt. She wasn’t dating to date, she said, but rather dating to find the right guy to marry. And she wanted to marry a Catholic.

“I loved her enough that I wanted to go and see for myself,” Helling said.

He decided that joining the church wouldn’t be a hardship. “I liked the Catholic Church immediately. It seemed more straightforward.”

“He was open to going with me and learning about it,” Podwiki added.

She’s a physical therapist and he’s a respiratory therapist, both at Samaritan Health in Corvallis, and they agreed on a future committed to one another. They had it all planned out.

They were engaged in July 2019 and would marry after Easter 2020, once Helling had joined the church.

He began his Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults classes at St. Mary Parish in Albany in the autumn. Podwiki attended too, figuring it would be a good refresher course.

COVID put an end to RCIA with three or four classes left. Not only that, it turned their wedding upside down.

“We were stressed out,” said Podwiki. “We thought we might have to wait until September or October.”

Then Ace Tupasi, the RCIA leader at St. Mary, called them May 2, in the evening.

Word had come through that as long as they kept the total number in the church to 25, they could marry. Helling could be baptized, confirmed, take his first Communion and marry, all at one Mass.

“This is rare,” Tupasi told them. “Very rare.”

The first possible date would be May 16.

They took it.

They know exactly the 25 — including them — who would be at the service, from Father Edwin Sánchez Romero to Helling’s brother to the pianist and singer.

And they know who wouldn’t be there, beginning with his parents, who are vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Still, the two have no regrets for saying yes to marrying — and, for Helling’s conversion in the midst of a pandemic.

“We’re lucky,” Podwiki said.

kristenh@catholicsentinel.org