By Barb Arland-Fye
GRINNELL — Several years ago Terry McDowell thought about joining the Catholic Church, but decided it wasn’t the right time. With encouragement from friends, though, he enrolled in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) last fall at St. Mary Parish in Grinnell.
During Easter Vigil on April 23, Terry received the sacraments of initiation and was joyfully welcomed into the Catholic Church with two other new Catholics. Less than three weeks later Terry, 62, died unexpectedly and now the parish is preparing to celebrate Mass for him.
“He’d been coming to Mass for a long time,” said Deacon Bill Olson, who leads the RCIA class at St. Mary’s. He knew Terry had Catholicism in his background and had a number of Catholic friends, but he had not been raised in the Church or received the sacraments. Retired from DeLong Sportswear, he worked part-time at St. Francis Manor in Grinnell. And he hemmed and hawed about making a commitment to the Church.
“I said, ‘Terry, you need to fish or cut bait,’” Deacon Olson said. So Terry chose to embark on the faith formation process, and the deacon is grateful to have been a part of the conversion process. Terry enjoyed RCIA classes, said his sponsor, Maridean Tharp, herself a convert who joined the Catholic Church 15 years ago at age 60.
“He’d call me on Monday night and say, ‘I went to (RCIA) tonight and learned about such and such,” she said. But he also admitted it was challenging to retain all the information he was learning about the Catholic Church.
A longtime friend of Terry’s, Maridean shared her faith story with him. She joined the Catholic Church at the encouragement of her aunt, who served as her sponsor. The aunt told her she was one of the luckiest people in the world because she’d been confirmed, baptized and received her first Communion. Maridean told Terry he would have enjoyed attending RCIA class with her aunt, a cradle Catholic who was still learning about the Catholic Church when she accompanied Maridean to class.
Attending RCIA class with Terry were two younger women, Shawn Sampson and Nicolle Smith. Terry referred to them as his little sisters. The three developed a bond, “what we call cohesion,” Deacon Olson said. “He was always happy to see his ‘little sisters.’ Both of them were very talkative and Terry would join in.”
Two Sundays passed between the time of Terry’s initiation into the Church and his death on May 11. “I happened to distribute the Eucharist to him each of those Sundays. He still looked a little nervous, but he came up each time,” Deacon Olson said. Terry’s remains have been cremated and buried, but the parish plans to celebrate Mass for him soon. “We’ll mention the gift of what has happened with him joining the Church and why it was worth doing.”
Maridean is still trying to get over the shock of Terry’s death. She had spoken to him by phone that night and knew he wasn’t feeling well. But he didn’t make a big deal of it. “I have a feeling he knew more than he ever told us as far as his health was concerned.”
She takes comfort in the fact that he was fully initiated in the Catholic Church at the time of his death.
“I have always thought it is a beautiful religion.”