by April Helenek
When attending The Year of Faith “kick off” Catholic Conference this fall, one of the speakers was reminding us of St. Lawrence in third century Rome. This was the man whom, when realized by the Prefect of Rome for having possession of the Holy Chalice of which the Apostles drank from during the Last Supper, was asked by Rome to give up the “Jewels of the Church”. Lawrence asked permission for three days in order to gather these possessions. He was granted this request, and then he proceeded to disperse as much
Church property to the poor as he could and returned back to the council empty handed. When asked once again for the “Jewels of the Church”, he walked out, returning once more, but this time with all the poor people from the city. He presented them to the council saying, “These people here are the Jewels of the Church”. Of course he was seen as a provoker and was burned alive, but not without a little sense of humor, telling the Roman soldiers to flip him over once he was “done” on one side.
As I listened to the story of this courageous Saint I thought to myself-, “If I were asked to bring forward the “Jewels of the Church” what would I have presented?” At that moment I saw the magnitude of my own vocation… validating my passion, and finally appreciating where all my gifts lie… I realized that my choice of “jewels” would be children. God had enabled me to recognize that each and every child contains Christ Himself. I suddenly felt honored to have been granted this gift of being able to see Him in them, and I came to a realization that this seed had been planted strategically, and sown beautifully through all God’s little “happenings” in my own life experiences. This incredible passion for children has grown immensely since I have begun my journey homeschooling my own family, while also benefiting others through creating the St Lucy’s Homeschool Adventure Group which has been immensely blessed and its success indicative of Our Lord’s guidance.
Almost four years ago, my husband Jae and I were challenged by the Holy Spirit to keep our children home longer than the typical age of 5 years old. I didn’t feel that I was the type of person, or parent, that would be homeschooling, but our oldest daughter Piper was showing us that she was obviously not ready to leave home. The decision to homeschool her was no easy feat. I was two years away from graduating from nursing school and my self-employed carpenter husband was working very hard so that I could go to night school while he worked during the day. We felt as though we were doing what “good contributing Americans” were supposed to be doing…but God had other plans….
Rewinding a few years… Jae and I were living the Dream, or so we thought, of fun, sun, and more fun. We were residing in a beautiful part of California and were slipping down a slope leading ultimately away from our Heavenly Father and His unending love for us. Jae was wrapped up in the world as a professional snowboarder. I had worked my way up the business ladder as a Massage Therapist, and at the age of 22, I was offered an opportunity of a lifetime; to take over the company that I was working for. We were living in the world and we were hooked. God however, had His own plan to win us back to Himself, despite all the selfish choices we now realize that we were making, He gave us Piper and everything began to change…Piper came into the world quiet and strong, and because of her very special personality, we are here today thanking God for every sunrise and sunset…
Rewarding the prayers of my good mother, God put the urge into our hearts to move back home to the East Coast, and for the next 7 years there was trial after trial, and on our knees we went. At the very peak of our “spiritual re-boot”, Piper, at 2 1/2 years old, ended up in the hospital knocking on death’s door due to a five-day-old ruptured appendix, disguised as the “flu”. The doctors had not detected a rupture since her little body was not showing the right symptoms for what was happening inside of her, and there was not the high temperature characteristic of an infection this dangerous. For five days Piper quietly suffered, crying out only once from the pain, until she finally stopped breathing in my arms. She was then admitted to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU), and during her three-day stay, before she was cleared to the regular hospital, braces were strapped to her arms forcing them to stay straight and we were only able to give her a water soaked sponge that was attached to a little plastic stick. Significantly this all occurred during Lent, and it was my devout Catholic mother who pointed out to us the images so incredibly similar to our very own Christ on the Cross. Here was our 2 ½ year old child lying in a bed with tubes coming out of every hole, collapsed lungs, deadly fluid swelling her tiny little belly... needing me… and I wasn’t even strong enough in my faith to call upon God to save her…
St. Leonard of Port Maurice, the Franciscan Friar responsible for giving us The Divine Praises, reminds us so beautifully of just how incredibly merciful Our Lord is towards sinners, “He created us so that we can be with him for eternity, not damn us to hell… God is so good that when He sees a sinner running to his ruin, He runs after him, calls him, entreats and accompanies him… what will He not do to convert him? He sends him good inspiration and holy thoughts, and if he does not profit from them… will He strike him? No… But the sinner is not converted yet. God sends him a mortal illness. It is certainly all over for him. No, brothers, God heals him; the sinner becomes obstinate in evil, and God in His mercy looks for another way; He gives him another year, and when that year is over, He grants him yet another…”
God knew what he was doing…by using this one little child many hearts would be transformed. Through this “miracle” that He was about to perform Jae and I would be mercifully led back to Him, and looking back, I realize that God had designed Piper for just this role… She was a very sweet child, and very quiet, for 2-½ years old she wasn’t speaking much. But once again, this had to be so…in order that one other incident could be “effective”… One month after Piper was admitted to the hospital, the doctors released her back home to us. She was given more antibiotics than we even knew existed and everyone crossed their fingers and prayed. That very night the four-inch wound that the staples had only just been removed from earlier, opened up from the inside out. We were told to drive her immediately back to the emergency room 45 minutes away. Jae drove as fast as he could while I sat in the back seat next to my little baby girl. This was when I finally began to fully realize what was and could be happening to my first-born.
There was a flurry of white wet snow that night, and as we drove down the highway I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the white dots hitting the car. As I watched each drop I felt what I could only describe as a “heavenly feeling”. It came over my entire body, and it seemed as though every prayer that was being said all over the country (summoned by my mother) for Piper’s life was literally coming right into the car at that moment. The feeling was so overwhelming that I began to cry, realizing that I was helpless in this battle to save Piper’s life. Piper saw me crying and asked me if I was sad? I told her that I was, and she sweetly followed up with, “Well then, why don’t you pray?” I could not believe what I had just heard from my non- communicating, suffering child’s mouth. (Keeping in mind that I was NOT a praying person) As Jae and I both looked at her, and then at each other in absolute astonishment, I asked her what we should say. Our 2-½ year old then suggested that we say the Hail Mary, a prayer that she had only heard in the presence of her beloved grandmother (my mother). To this tiny little person who was enduring so much, God gave just the words necessary that would bring me back to the Rosary after 10 years of refusing to say this “thought-to-be meaningless” prayer.
This motion to pray by that weak little girl, and the realization that I had not yet asked God to save my own child’s life haunted me. How had I gotten where I was, I wondered? My parents had brought me up Roman Catholic with a devotion to the Rosary which we prayed together every night. They literally went above and beyond when it came to teaching the nine of us the importance of involving Our Lord in everything we did, even moving our family five hours from the only home we had ever known to be closer to a strong Catholic Community. In addition, my father commuted the five hours to and from his job every weekend in order to make it possible for my mother to remain home and mind the seven of us still living at home. Through their prayerful and loving example, they not only instilled this message of God’s great Love and infinite Mercy into my siblings, and myself, but also into my husband-to-be who was from a broken home, and became a “regular”, frequenting our home, taking part in our working and praying together. So, why had I become so removed from my Lord that not even in my darkest hour did I call on Him or His Most Holy Mother for help?
The only possible answer was that I had willed myself out of that practice. I had come to believe that I was in charge of my life and I was proud of that. Human relationships and affections had become so important to me that if it meant I would have to re-write the Catholic Catechism in order to fit my life and the lives of the people I “loved”, than I was willing to do that, and I had… I had convinced myself that the Rosary was old and was only good for those who couldn’t think of any prayers of their own. I would say, “Rosary sayers are those who don’t have a relationship with our Lord; that’s not me!” Jae and I were both still attending Mass and even going to Confession, (probably due to the prayers of my good mother) and undoubtedly receiving graces from this, but we were both thoroughly lacking in understanding.
When Piper left the hospital two months later and ten pounds lighter, as the child that should not have survived and left the Doctors scratching their heads because she was, as one surgeon of 20 years stated; “the sickest child he had seen; not only to survive, but to be able to WALK out of the hospital”, it was only then that I finally embraced the realization that Our Lord is the One to put all the pieces together; for me and for my family. His love for us is limitless. It has now been three years since Piper’s “miracle” – and so many more “miracles” in between — and as the seeds planted in our hearts continue to grow, Jae and I are becoming stronger, not only in our knowledge and faith in God, but most importantly, in our desire to know, love and serve Him.
I was close to earning that nursing degree that I was working so hard towards, and the income that it would have brought us would have contributed very nicely to our family’s simple life, but the Holy Spirit put into our hearts the call to homeschool our children. We didn’t understand everything at the time, and we knew NOTHING about homeschooling, only recently having been introduced to the idea through a family member, but once again, the “seed was planted” in our hearts, and we chose to humbly obey God’s urging. Then very quickly we began to witness how the responsibility of educating our children academically as well as in the Faith was creating in us a need to learn more, and we both began to grow rapidly in our own Faith. We had given our “YES” to God, and surrendered our will to His Will. Now we were able to see His plan for us, and as we share this story of our journey of conversion and homeschool experiences we are awestruck at what God has been capable of in us, and we are grateful to Him for having entrusted to us these “jewels” of the Church.
April and her husband Jae reside in Massachusetts where they homeschool their four children. April is the founder of the St. Lucy’s Homeschool Adventure Group, which enriches the lives of over forty home-schooling children.