Family follows God’s call to adopt

Five-year-old Joseph was near death when his mother Agnes brought him to an orphanage near their home in western Uganda. Both were HIV-positive and severely malnourished.

Dying of AIDS caused by HIV, his mother had sought out the home, Manna Rescue Home, to care for the two of her seven children that were HIV-positive: Joseph and his older sister, Joselyn, now 13.

Joselyn had been able to sustain reasonable health, while Joseph suffered a distended belly, a terrible cough and after a while, no longer responded to medication. Treatment was stopped; he was given last rites and a call was put out: “Someone, adopt him quick.”

That call reached Jess and Ben Wiederholt in Arvada, who had been considering adopting a second child with HIV, after adopting a young Ethiopian boy, Abiti, about a year and a half earlier in October 2011. An estimated 3.2 million children worldwide were living with HIV in 2013, most in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organization. The majority acquired the disease from their infected mothers during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding.

“Joseph could die tomorrow, or a year or two from now,” Jess Wiederholt was told.

“I’m a person that leads with my heart,” she said. “No, we weren’t ready, but God was ready.”

They needed to raise $30,000, and quickly. In addition to Joseph’s urgent medical needs, the adoption courts in Uganda were closing for the year in July.

“OK God, if we’re supposed to do this, we’ll get there,” became their motto.

CroppedThe family—Jess, Ben, their three biological children: Samuel, Luke and Abe, now 10, 8 and 5; and their new brother Abiti, now 8—had garage sales, sold T-shirts, made Lenten sacrifices and reached out to their parish community at Spirit of Christ in Arvada. The stewardship committee supported them with $5,000.

“Spirit of Christ is a very giving parish,” Jess said. “We were blown away. We felt so surrounded by our community. It was something so much bigger than us—it was so beautiful.”

The seemingly impossible was becoming a reality: they raised the funds needed, then jumped on a plane with high hopes but no actual court date. Five weeks later, the adoption process for Joseph and Joselyn was complete.

One day, while still in Uganda, Jess was praying for Agnes with the children when Joselyn asked: “Mom, why don’t you pray for Lillian?”

“Who’s Lillian?” Jess asked.

Lillian, now 11, is Joselyn’s younger sister. She had been left with the girls’ father about two years earlier, though he was unable to care for her.

“I really want to say goodbye,” Joselyn pleaded.

They spent five hours driving and hiking through remote mountain areas looking for Lillian. They finally found her, in dire conditions, living with another family member—her head was shaved, she was malnourished and unknowingly suffering with malaria.

“All Jos did was cry,” Jess said. “They were only together for 10 minutes. There were no words. There was only grief. I didn’t expect it.”

They uttered their goodbyes and Jess and Joselyn started their journey back, hearts broken over Lillian.

Jess called Ben, back in Arvada, taking care of the other children.

“Can we adopt her?” Ben asked.

“I don’t know. I’ll find out,” she said, thrilled that he had asked.

Following a complex process of permissions, approvals and legalities, in September 2013, they received confirmation they could adopt Lillian. Spirit of Christ Parish provided additional support of $10,000.

“I’ve never seen Joselyn so happy,” Jess said. “God needed them to be together.”

The entire family traveled to Africa to bring Lillian home last June. The Wiederholts grew from a family of five to a family of nine in just three years. Their new additions are learning the culture and language—plus subjects such as math, history, reading and religion—along with their siblings, through home-schooling.

At this point, under the care of their parents and Denver doctors, HIV is “undetectable” in Abiti, Joseph and Joselyn.

“They’re on the right meds and the right nutrition,” their mother said, “and the right love and prayer.”

HIV treatments have significantly changed the course of the infection since the early days of the epidemic, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. With daily medication, regular monitoring and lifestyle changes it can be manageable as a chronic disease.

“So many people still have a 1980s idea regarding what HIV is, what it means,” Jess said. “We want to help end that fear and stigma for our children.”

In the U.S., HIV is spread mainly by sex with someone with HIV, sharing drug equipment such as needles, or at birth from an infected mother, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Wiederholts share their experience regularly and encourage people to respond when called to adoption, no matter the circumstances.

“If called, you have to listen,” Jess advised. “Our kids were already waiting for us. It was just a matter of us finding them.”

November is National Adoption Awareness Month.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”