(More than 200 adults and children are preparing to enter the Catholic Church in the Davenport Diocese at the Easter Vigil. This is the story of a couple whose journey of faith led them to the Catholic Church and St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant a decade ago.)
By Theresa Rose
For The Catholic Messenger
Dave and Carmen Heaton of Mount Pleasant weren’t looking for a church or faith in God in 1996. Both were raised in strong Christian homes and while they weren’t regular churchgoers they still considered themselves Presbyterians. The couple owned a successful business, Dave was busy serving in the state legislature and their son and daughter were pretty much on their own. So how did the Heatons become devoted members of St. Alphonus Catholic Church in Mount Pleasant? If you ask Dave he will say, “It was music and the Mass.”
The Heatons are still well known for the popular Iris Restaurant which they ran for 42 years in Mount Pleasant. Dave is in his 21st year in the Iowa House of Representatives. Carmen is in her 10th year as a trustee on the local hospital board. She is also music director for St. Alphonsus Parish. In January the couple was honored as 2014 Mount Pleasant Citizens of the Year, recognizing their dedication to many other groups and organizations in the community.
Their lives have been busy and fulfilling. But it wasn’t until 1996 that Carmen realized something was missing. She recalls receiving a phone call that year from St. Alphonsus Parish asking if she would be interested in substituting for the church organist who broke her wrist. Carmen wasn’t Catholic and the restaurant was open Sundays. “If we expected our employees to work Sundays, we felt we should be there, too.” The organist position didn’t seem manageable. But, “a voice kept telling me I should do this.” Looking back now she thinks that might have been God’s voice.
After some initial concern on Dave’s part, Carmen accepted the position. Dave said they made it work at the restaurant. “I was actually glad my wife had an opportunity to express and share her musical talent.” Carmen majored in music and organ in college, he noted proudly. Dave’s mother was an organist but he said she never had the chance to share her talent because she worked so hard in the restaurant his parents owned while he was growing up.
Carmen was raised in northern Henry County, attending the United Church of Christ. She felt connected to church until she went to college. After that, “It was the business, kids … life happened and church just didn’t seem important.”
Playing the organ for one and sometimes two Masses a weekend at St. Alphonsus was just a job, at first. “After hearing the celebration of the Mass over and over, it started to soak in and I fell in love with it,” Carmen said. “The songs spoke to me.” Dave said Carmen would go around the house humming hymns.
She was also influenced by good, longtime friends who are Catholics and by Dave’s sister-in-law who Carmen said had a strong faith that she lived every day. But in 1996 Carmen wasn’t thinking about becoming Catholic. By 2002, she knew it was exactly what she wanted to happen. Three years later, Dave made the same decision.
Dave’s grandfather was a Presbyterian minister. Church was important to his family. Dave came to Mount Pleasant to attend Iowa Wesleyan College and stayed connected thanks to a professor who taught Old and New Testament classes. “The understanding of the Bible is what kept me connected.” But Sunday was a big day in the restaurant business; going to church and practicing his faith didn’t fit into the routine, Dave said.
Then he started attending Mass when Carmen played, sitting in the St. Alphonsus choir loft with his wife, listening and watching her play the organ. He, too, came to love the Mass, especially the Christmas Eve liturgy, and started thinking about becoming a Catholic. “There is a certainty with the Catholic faith,” Dave said. “The Church has principles and stands on these.”
He recalls the Easter Vigil Mass at which he entered the Catholic Church: “Standing before the congregation was very emotional for me. I was finally at the moment of acceptance by my church.” He thought back to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) classes and discussions with his classmates as they moved toward becoming Catholic.
Dave was very excited to receive Communion for the first time. He said he feels the same way every Sunday. “I have Christ in my body until the next opportunity for Communion. Taking Christ’s body and blood into our bodies is a very, very important part of our beliefs.”
For Carmen, “The forgiveness piece and the love are very powerful.” But she also agrees with her husband that the Catholic faith is a compassionate one. Both are emphatic that this has absolutely impacted their lives of service. Carmen believes you never know who you might influence. “It’s our mission to make disciples of ourselves.”
In the Iowa Legislature Dave has become respected for his knowledge and passion in the area of health and human services. He said he looks to the teachings of Jesus as he works on behalf of Iowa’s poor and disabled. “I strive to live life as Jesus would and to live up to the challenge he has given us.”
Music may have brought the Heatons to the Catholic Church, but it’s much more that keeps them there.