Sponsors surround Jessica Ronan after her baptism April 20 during the Easter Vigil at St. Frederic Church in St. Helens. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Sponsors surround Jessica Ronan after her baptism April 20 during the Easter Vigil at St. Frederic Church in St. Helens. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

About 750 people were initiated into the church this Easter in western Oregon. Each one seems to have a story about confusion followed by clarity. Their progression is an encouragement to everyone in the church. Here are the stories of four new Catholics.

‘Now I’m a full glass’

BANDON — Jimmy Upton wasn’t raised in a religious home. He didn’t even step foot in a church until he was 23, and then it was only because a girlfriend made him attend a wedding. For the next several decades, Upton, a Southern California native, continued to have no religious exposure. He got married, had kids, traveled and lived all over the world, including in Saudi Arabia for 10 years. He worked in numerous high tech industries as an operations manager. Life went on and his wife of 15 years died. A few years later, he met Cathy online. Upton had a lifelong dream to live in a small coastal town, so after he met his Cathy, they retired to Bandon. They married last spring.

Cathy is Catholic and over the next several months, Upton attended Mass periodically with her. After meeting the new parish priest at Holy Trinity Parish here, Father Anthony Ahamefule, Upton was inspired by the young priest’s ministry. Meeting Father Ahamefule pushed him over the line of conversion and Upton began studying with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Father Ahamefule, Upton said, gets 99% of the credit for his conversion. And Upton is grateful for him.

“I walked around my whole life as an empty glass not knowing that I was empty, and now I’m a full glass,” said Upton. “I feel love. I feel connected. I feel part of something much bigger than myself and the world I live in.”

The oldest of four children, Upton notes that three of his four siblings are now deeply religious. One was even a Baptist pastor.

The conversion has transformed him.

“These last few months, going through RCIA and Bible study and everything associated with them has just fulfilled me. I feel complete now.”

— Sarah Wolf

‘Full of insight’

ST. HELENS — Jessica Ronan, 38, is raising three teen daughters on her own because their father was deported from the United States.

Ronan, manager of the Wells Fargo Bank in St. Helens, was baptized during the Easter Vigil at St. Frederic Church here. 

Years ago, her mother developed dementia and destroyed family records before anyone could affirm if baby Jessica was baptized.

But Ronan acted Catholic. In her 20s, she went to Mass but did not get involved deeply in parish life. Eight years ago, after the deportation, Mass became painful for her and her daughters. Parishioners kept asking the girls where their father was. Other families in the pews had both parents.

“It was a reminder that our family wasn’t complete,” Ronan said.

The household opted instead for community service on the weekends, including animal rescue.

After a move to Columbia County two years ago, a cousin who lived in the area asked Ronan to be the godmother of a new baby. Lack of church records became a problem, so Ronan joined the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.

“It was not just a routine thing for her to finish,” said Tom Prevish, who led the classes. 

Ronan is glad she went through the learning and spiritual formation of RCIA. “I am finding it really is full of insight,” she said. 

She is excited to be a godmother for the 1-year-old boy whose first name is Ronan, in her honor. “I want to be a positive impact on him,” she said. “I hope he grows up with faith in his life.”

Friends ask why she is Catholic. “Being in church has always brought this calmness to me,” she responds. “And I have always loved saints. I love seeing people who have doubts and problems and then move through them.”

— Ed Langlois

‘She knew where she was going’

Heidi Kincaid was sitting in a pew at the funeral Mass of close friend Jen Watson when she made the decision to become Catholic. Watson had been a convert to Catholicism, a member of All Saints Parish in Northeast Portland and the mother of three children. She died last year of sarcoma at age 46.

“Her faith was so strong,” said Kincaid. “She knew where she was going, and she wanted to be with God; she wasn’t scared. It inspired me to want that same faith.”

Kincaid, 44, always had believed in Jesus but her religious exposure during childhood was limited mostly to Sunday school at a Baptist church. She was never baptized. “I was on vacation that day so couldn’t be bothered,” recalled Kincaid.

When she met her husband 15 years ago, she was plunged into a fervently Catholic family.

“After we started dating and I was introduced to my husband’s grandmother, the first thing she asked was, ‘Is she Catholic?’” Kincaid laughed at the memory.

Once they had children, the couple enrolled them at All Saints School, where Kincaid became active in the school community. Though she regularly attended school liturgies and Sunday Mass and made “the best friends of my life” at All Saints, Kincaid remained uncomfortable during Mass.

“I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t understand it,” she said.

At Watson’s funeral Mass, she understood one thing clearly.

“I told a girlfriend that day, ‘I’m going to become Catholic.’”

“And I’m your sponsor, of course,” responded the friend, a lifelong Catholic.

During the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, Kincaid said she deepened her knowledge of the faith and felt her relationship with God intensify.

The Easter Vigil was “extremely emotional,” said Kincaid, who had Watson on her mind throughout the night. “My sponsor was bawling, and I was trying to keep it together as best I could. It was powerful and beautiful.”

— Katie Scott

Faith now steady

Finding Sacred Heart Parish in Southeast Portland proved the blessing Daniel Miller needed to keep his faith steady.

Up until this last year, Miller had had an on-again off-again relationship with God. He’d been raised Baptist, but when he was 13 his father was badly injured in an accident. “My entire world crashed down around me,” Miller said. “I was so angry that I turned my back on God.”

At 18, Miller headed to boot camp with the U.S. Marine Corps, and soon after attended his first Catholic Mass — a worship experience so intriguing that the memory remains vivid for him today.

When he returned to Portland from a posting in Japan, Miller’s marriage was crumbling. He realized he needed God, found a Catholic church and began attending Mass.

“I spent a lot more time reflecting on who I was, what my purpose was,” he said.

Miller began RCIA classes and got a lot out of them, including a new understanding of marriage, how it is a vocation and a sacrament. But he did not yet opt for baptism.

Later, he began attending Mass at Sacred Heart, near where he works in cybersecurity. Parishioners welcomed him and suggested he talk with Father Bob Barricks, the pastor, about the RCIA classes that would soon begin. He decided to give RCIA another try.

At the Easter Vigil, Father Barricks told Miller and other elect that this was the night of the year when he knew becoming a priest had been the right choice. This is the night “I help turn you mortals into immortals,” he said.

Father Barricks then spoke briefly about each man’s journey. He said Miller told him he had realized that Christ is everywhere, in every person he meets. 

Miller’s son, Seva, 9, was there for his father’s baptism. In fact, Seva had a choice on Good Friday to attend a Tai Kwon Do pizza party or to go to the Good Friday service.

Seva chose church.

— Kristen Hannum