Jewish by birth and a gentle atheist by choice, Lisa Fitzgerald in 2017 relocated from the East Coast to Portland, one of the most unchurched cities in the nation. But it was here that she opened her heart’s door to prayer by just a crack — and was hit by a spiritual hurricane that hurled her into the arms of Catholicism.

Fitzgerald, a 2016 graduate of Harvard Law School, had hoped to be baptized, confirmed and receive the Eucharist during the Easter Vigil at St. Patrick Parish in Northwest Portland. The plan now is for her go through initiation at Pentecost. The coronavirus pause, she said, only allows her joyfully to explore her newfound faith more deeply.

Fitzgerald, 31, works for the public defender office in Portland, advocating for homeless youths. While her Catholic beliefs may be new, serving others is a venerable family value.

Fitzgerald, who grew up in Connecticut, learned from her mother, a nurse, that human beings have a responsibility to care for each other. For a long time, it’s been in serving others that Fitzgerald has felt most meaning.

Her atheism was not militant. She respected religion even while she could not embrace a higher power.

The change began when a friend in Portland suggested she read the works of Simone Weil, an early 20th-century French philosopher and agnostic Jew who grew more religious after attempting prayer.

Fitzgerald found this wisdom from Weil: Pray without expectation. Don’t seek anything. Accept the void, because that is the only way there will be space for God.

“Even as an atheist, I always said, ‘I am open; all God has to do is knock,’” Fitzgerald said. “But I had never embraced the void.

I made myself as busy as possible. I never left any space.”

With Weil’s advice in mind, Fitzgerald went into a Presbyterian Church on the flanks of Mount Tabor in Southeast Portland. In Christian tradition, Mount Tabor in Israel is the place where Jesus was transfigured amid brightness — an irrefutable showing of his divine identity.

But before Fitzgerald could experience any light, she tried prayer and emptiness in the old church for three weeks.

One morning in late March 2019, she awoke at 4 a.m. pulsing with energy. Though she is not an athlete, she decided to go for a run at Laurelhurst Park as the sun rose. The new feeling frightened her. A thought began to repeat itself firmly and repeatedly — “Ok. Ok. I accept.”

There in the park, Fitzgerald began to weep deeply and started to cross herself repeatedly. She felt an urge to pray the rosary, but did not know how. She looked it up on her phone and began.

After the dramatic experience, she felt a desire to pray more. She popped into Catholic churches. She began to read “Introduction to Christianity,” the 1968 book written by the future Pope Benedict XVI. Now, her intellect as well as her heart was being satisfied by Catholic tradition.

Over the following months, she wrestled with some Christian ideas, found a spiritual director and entered RCIA at St. Patrick Parish. She has welcomed many answers, and when not, she has found acceptance and peace.

Fitzgerald is highly captivated by the rich Catholic traditions of service and hospitality. She became active in Portland’s new Catholic Worker house, which is named after none other than Simone Weil. In the future, Fitzgerald hopes to become involved in the church’s restorative justice movement, a new approach to crime, punishment and reconciliation.

While the COVID-19 isolation has been good for Fitzgerald’s private prayer and reading, she misses friends made on her faith journey. That includes a women’s group from the People of Praise, a Christian charismatic movement that encompasses many Catholics.

Father Tim Furlow, pastor of St. Patrick Parish, said he stands in awe of what God has done in Fitzgerald.

“If there’s one thing that’s inspiring to see as a priest, it’s the sincere conversion of a soul via the grace of the Holy Spirit,” said Father Furlow. “For me, this year, Lisa is that soul.”