COVID couldn’t keep new Catholics from initiation sacraments

Aaron Lambert

When a person is received into the Catholic Church, it conjures images of the prodigal son running to his father’s arms after being away for so long.

Usually, new Catholics are received into the Church on the most important day in the liturgical year, and consequently one of the most beautiful liturgies: The Easter Vigil. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Easter Vigil Mass, when new faithful are baptized, confirmed and receive First Communion, was postponed until Pentecost, or in some cases, even later.

Even so, for the Archdiocese of Denver’s newest members of the Catholic Church, the day they were received into the Church made no difference. After all, they’re part of the family now.

’I always knew in my heart that I needed to find my way back to the Church.’

Growing up in Oklahoma, Jen Lempges was always exposed to the Catholic faith through her dad and her grandmother. However, her mom was Baptist, and together her parents decided that she would be raised in the Methodist church.

“Neither one of them wanted me to grow up the other religion because they weren’t willing to convert,” she told the Denver Catholic “So they kind of decided together that they would raise me Methodist.”

Lempges was baptized and grew up going to church every Sunday. She went to Christian summer camps and attended youth group. However, once she hit college, she became disconnected from the church.

“I think like a lot of kids, you go to college and you just kind of lose your faith,” she said. “You’re on to discover new things, and it just kind of falls to the backburner.”

After graduating from college, Lempges moved to Colorado, where she’s resided for the last six years. Upon moving here, she remained distant from the church. That all changed, though, when her grandma passed away a few years ago.

“When I moved here, a couple years later, my grandmother actually passed away,” Lemges said. “At that time, I just started dating a guy named Jake who is now actually my fiancé, and he’s Catholic. After going to my grandmother’s funeral and having that experience – of course, he went to the funeral with me – I just really kind of had this moment of, ‘you know what? I really am feeling drawn to go back to church. I’m really feeling like I’m missing something in my life.

“I think I always knew in my heart that I needed to somehow find my way back to the church.”

Jen Lempges was received into the Catholic Church on June 13, which was Blessed Sacrament’s celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi – the parish’s feast day. (Photo provided)

After her grandmother’s funeral and as her relationship with Jake became more serious, they had the “religion talk.”

“There was never any pressure,” Lempges said. “It was never, ‘well, you have to be Catholic and we have to have a Catholic wedding.’ It all fell into place.”

They started exploring options for churches together and stumbled upon Blessed Sacrament Parish in Denver. Over time, it became clearer to Lempges that this was where she was supposed to be

“I really think it was just [Jake’s] experiences and the combination of having so much Catholic influence my entire life and having this experience at my grandmother’s death,” she said. “It all kind of blended together. It was not this ‘aha!’ epiphany moment. It was just slowly a desire to be pulled back to church. “

While going through RCIA at Blessed Sacrament, Lempges enjoyed getting the chance to dive into Sacred Scripture at a deeper level than ever before and then discussing it with a small group. She also enjoyed discovering the richness and history of the Catholic faith.

“That’s what I love so much about the Catholic faith, is there is truly a meaning for everything, and it’s been done like this or a variation of this for all of time, pretty much,” she said.

Lempges was received into the Church on June 13, which was Blessed Sacrament’s celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi – the parish’s feast day.

’The Eucharist was the final drive. That’s what I wanted.’

Up until about two years ago, Cody Whiteside had no faith background whatsoever. However, as he describes it, “I just started to feel a call,” and he followed it.

Initially, that call led him to begin attending a nondenominational church. However, as a history major, he wanted to dig deeper.

“I’m really interested in the history of everything, so I was really looking into things and started to build up that faith,” Whiteside told the Denver Catholic. “And I just found that after doing some further research, the research led me to the Catholic Church.”

Cody Whiteside was received into the Catholic Church during the Pentecost Vigil Mass at St. Mary’s in Littleton. (Photo provided)

As he began exploring the Catholic faith and talking with his friends about what he’d been learning, he discovered that many of his friends were Catholic, which he previously didn’t know about them.

“I started to have conversations with them,” he said. “It started to come out that they were Catholic and we had these really deep conversations which helped me with that passion. I really just wanted to be a part of it.”

The thing he wanted most, however, was the Eucharist.

“The Eucharist was the final drive,” he said. “That’s what I wanted.”

Whiteside began to attend RCIA classes at St. Mary’s Parish in Littleton. As his and his classmates’ anticipation of being fully received into the Church at the Easter Vigil grew, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“Initially I was bummed because we were all looking forward to it,” he said. “But through this whole experience, you learn to be patient. And we actually were able to spend another month and a half basically learning more and spending time in prayer and just getting closer to it and building up to that anticipated moment.”

At long last, when Whiteside was finally received into the Church at the Pentecost Vigil and was able to receive the Eucharist for the first time, it was all worth the wait.

When Whiteside received the Eucharist for the first time, “It felt like everything paused for that moment,” he said. (Photo provided)

“I just had this overwhelming emotion come over me during the whole process,” he said. “Getting baptized and receiving the Eucharist, it just felt like everything paused for that moment. I don’t even know how long I was kneeling there and receiving it.”

Now, Whiteside feels like he is part of a “big family” that he feels supported by. Along the way, he experienced the power of praying the rosary and asking for Mary’s intercession, and he expects to have similar experiences in his new, lifelong journey as a Catholic.

“I’m just glad that I did it,” Whiteside concluded. “I’m glad that I was called to this journey. It’s going to be a lifelong formation and I’m looking forward to that.”

COMING UP: ‘Better than planned’: Newly-married couple Mr. & Mrs. Bradshaw on their COVID-19 wedding

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When preparing for their wedding, a bride and groom are faced with a long list of items for which they must plan. Church? Check. Reception venue? Check. Guest list? Check. Pandemic sweeping across the globe leading to mass cancellations and self-isolation orders? Well…

With the outbreak of COVID-19, couples around the country have found themselves in a holding pattern as their wedding plans have quickly been upended. Just as circumstances of the pandemic have changed daily since the first reported case of the virus showed up in Colorado at the beginning of March, so, too, have expectations surrounding upcoming weddings.

“It’s been day-by-day,” Ashley Stratman told the Denver Catholic in a March 30 video call. “Two weeks ago everything was in order. Then one day, one thing fell through, then the next day, another thing fell through. Even the last 24 hours have changed a lot. Every single piece is now different.”

Stratman had been eagerly anticipating her wedding to Ryan Bradshaw, originally scheduled for April 17. Friends and family were booked to fly in and all the details were arranged. And then almost one month to the day before their wedding, regulations started to be announced regarding what businesses could stay open and how many people could gather at one time.

“I was feeling a little bit helpless about the situation,” Bradshaw, 36, said. “Now I feel more detached from it. For me, it almost doesn’t matter when (the wedding) happens. The most important thing is that Ashley is there when it does.”

“I plan on being there,” Stratman, 31, joked with him. “Oh good, me too,” he responded, laughing with her.

Ashley Stratman and Ryan Bradshaw were in the midst of planning a wedding for April 17 when the coronavirus pandemic hit. With large gatherings virtually banned altogether, they weren’t sure their wedding was going to happen as planned. Still, they remained adaptable and lighthearted through it all. (Photo by James Snyder Photography)

Despite the stress associated with re-working their plans over and over again, the two remained lighthearted and quick to laugh.

I think it’s bringing them closer together and reaffirming that they are really meant to be together because of how well they are proceeding through all the emotions,” Theresa Francis, one of Stratman’s bridesmaids, said. “Even in the midst of processing it all, they are just the happiest couple.”

Francis introduced Stratman and Bradshaw, having met each individually through her work as a missionary for Catholic Sports. She walked with them as they dated different people, and as she did so, she became more aware of what exactly each one was looking for in a spouse. One day it occurred to her that the qualities for which they were each searching could be found in the other.

They had both been telling me individually that they’ve been looking for the exact same thing,” Francis said. “Before they even met each other they were on the same page.”

She introduced them in early 2019 and by fall, they were engaged. They said the relative rapidity of their courtship and engagement is a testament to their shared desires and goals.

I think the one stability, the one area of peace that I’ve had amongst all of this, has just been that though all the external factors have been changing and difficult, never have we disagreed on anything through the re-planning,” Stratman said. “The most important pieces of ending up at the end of all this together and sacramentally married, all of those things are very much in order.”

“You just remind yourself what the important thing is,” Bradshaw agreed. “We need a priest, a witness and the two of us to show up at the same time. It’s just detachment from the worldly things.”

Additional support continues to come from their families, bridal party, and Fr. Scott Bailey — “We have Fr. Scott on speed dial!” — who will be celebrating their wedding Mass.

James Syder, one of Bradshaw’s groomsmen and the photographer of their engagement photos, was himself supposed to get married on April 5, so he has a particular sympathy to their unique situation.

We understand what they are going through really well because we’ve had to completely cancel our plans until the stay-at-home orders are lifted,” said Snyder, who lives in the Seattle area. “So we just try to provide whatever kind of emotional and mental support that they need while they’re going through this. We’re really glad that we’re able to do that, and they do the same thing for us.”

In the meantime, their certainty in each other and their shared vocation had become something of a buoy to friends like Francis, who is also engaged and hoping to get married in September.

“It brings into perspective just how much weddings have been inflated by society and how much of it is influenced by a social norm,” she said. “To just see all of those pieces fall away and slip out the door, it’s been so much more affirming that in the end, the thing that matters is the sacrament, the marriage, and the fact they have found their vocation. And I just think that is so obvious with Ryan and Ashley.

“Their perseverance and their peace amidst all of it, and their humility and joy, is just beaming. It is such a light to people in such unsure times.”

As March turned into April, Bradshaw and Stratman’s wedding still had no firm date, though they had begun to look ahead to options in the summer. Stratman’s immediate family lives locally, but Bradshaw’s parents would need to travel for the celebration, and he wasn’t sure if they should hop on a plane with so much uncertainty abounding.

“Even if we don’t get married until June or July or whenever, we are weathering this together,” said Bradshaw during the March 30 interview. “Ultimately that’s the most important thing.”

It seemed the lack of concrete plans would be the status quo well into the summer, until about a week before their original April 17 wedding date when, as the two tell it with a laugh, “We both had mild breakdowns.”

Though they had discussed every possible idea from getting married immediately without anyone but a priest and a witness present, to waiting indefinitely for when all their guests could attend, in the end they came to terms with letting go of almost every previous plan, with the exception of ensuring their immediate family would be there.

“We finally called Ryan’s parents and said, ‘We want you to be here — how soon can we get you out here?’” said Stratman.

Father Scott Bailey presided over the wedding of Ashley Stratman and Ryan Bradshaw at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in the presence of the bride and groom’s immediate family on April 17, 2020, in Denver, Colorado. “For us, this really could not have been a better day,” Bradshaw said. “The wedding we planned was not going to be better than the wedding that happened”(Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

With airports and flights now largely empty, they decided air travel was the best option for them.

“Once they showed up [at the Denver airport] and got in the car and we started driving back home, it felt real,” Bradshaw said. “This is going to happen.”

And happen it did. On April 17, the Friday that had been circled on the calendar months prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Ryan Bradshaw and Ashley Stratman exchanged their vows.

“For us, this really could not have been a better day. The wedding we planned was not going to be better than the wedding that happened,” Bradshaw said, in a follow-up interview a few days after their wedding.

“It was better than expected, better than planned,” Stratman — now-Mrs. Ashley Bradshaw — agreed. “When we were saying our vows, I was so ready and at complete peace knowing that Ryan is the right person, this is the right day. And knowing God was going to give us the graces we needed to make this last a lifetime.”

While only a few people could be present in the pews to share in the joy of the wedding ceremony, unbeknownst to the couple, a caravan of friends awaited them just outside. Safely distanced and remaining in their individual cars, the group waited for Bradshaw and Stratman to walk by so they could honk and holler their congratulations. It was the exact right send-off for a wedding day that came together despite the difficult and unprecedented situation.

For now, the newlyweds are quite content to wait until all restrictions are lifted to have their reception, and are eager to support other friends who are now in similar predicaments. Stratman has three friends in her bible study group alone who are supposed to get married in the next six months. Her advice to them: Circumstances may shift on a daily basis, so constantly be touching base with your fiancé to be sure you’re on the same page, and know what is most important to you both.

“For us, it was super freeing to be able to focus on what’s really happening,” she said. “It really focused us, and I would not change our wedding day for anything.”