Meet the men becoming priests this May

Denver Catholic Staff

On May 19, five men studying for the Archdiocese of Denver will be ordained to the priesthood. Interestingly enough, none of the men being ordained are from St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, and the average age of the five men is 41 years old.

Deacons Angel Perez-Brown, Roberto Rodríguez and Tomislav Tomic all hail from different parts of the world and have been studying for the priesthood at Redemptoris Mater Missionary Seminary. Deacons Darrick Leier and Shannon Thurman have been studying at St. John XXIII Seminary in Boston, Mass., a seminary specifically for men who discover a vocation to the priesthood later in life.

Get to know Denver’s newest priests, and pray for them as they prepare to be ordained next week.

 

Deacon Darrick Leier

Deacon Darrick Leier is 42 years old and spent several years working in the software and civil engineering fields before discovering his vocation. After college, he became a fallen-away Catholic, but that changed 6 years ago, when his mother Marvelyn died from cancer. “Through this sorrowful and life-changing event, the Lord pierced my heart and poured out his love an mercy upon me,” he hold the Denver Catholic. The Lord led him to join Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Northglenn, and after a year and a half of prayerful discernment, it became evident that he was being called to the priesthood. “Jesus has set my heart on fire, and as a priest, I most want to share that fire in others I meet,” he said. “The Lord has given me this great gift, and I can’t wait to be his alter Christus!”

 

Deacon Shannon Thurman

Deacon Shannon Thurman has spent most of his life in Colorado, and comes from a blended family. He was adopted by his stepfather at age 11 and had a pretty regular upbringing, he said. Throughout his life, he always felt tugs from the Lord that he was being called to the priesthood, but he largely ignored them up until 2012 when, after a period of absence from the Church, he felt the Lord calling him back and became an extraordinary minister of communion for the homebound. He finally answered the call of the Lord and entered St. John XXIII Seminary in Boston at the age of 43. When speaking about his vocation, Thurman cites St. Teresa of Calcutta’s famous line. “God draws straight with crooked lines. That would describe my journey to the priesthood,” he said.

 

Deacon Roberto Rodríguez

Deacon Roberto Rodriguez, originally from the Dominican Republic, has served at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Denver for a year, and will begin his priestly service at Ascension Parish upon ordination. Although he admits being “a bit nervous” before the big date, he is mostly excited for the mission he will undertake. “It will be a time of learning, adaptation and change,” he said. “I am looking forward to see how the Lord will ask me to serve him and his people.” Some of the biggest treasures he keeps from his time at St. Anthony of Padua Parish include “growing closer to parishioners, sharing in their joys and sorrows,” walking with grieving families and mostly, “growing closer to the Eucharist,” which he awaits to celebrate after his priestly ordination. Some of his favorite saints include Saint Therese of Lisieux, St. Theresa of Calcutta and St. John of Nepomuk.

 

Deacon Angel Perez-Brown

Deacon Angel Miguel Perez-Brown has served at St. John the Baptist in Johnstown and St. Nicholas in Platteville since his ordination in 2017. There he will continue his mission as parochial vicar upon priestly ordination. His pastoral work will focus on serving the immigrants who arrive to work on the fields. “I’m very excited. [There] I will find people who are thirsty, who want to encounter Christ,” he said. “They are like the people of Israel who left for Egypt, to an unknown land.” Originally from the Dominican Republic and a member of the Neocatecumenal Way, the deacon values the “warmth” of both parishes and communities, Hispanic and non-Hispanic. “I see the greatness of my vocation as something unattainable,” he said. “I went on a retreat two months ago and the Lord spoke to me clearly, saying that it is he who does all things.”

 

Deacon Tomislav Tomic

Deacon Tomislav Tomic was born and raised in a village in Bosnia. He is the youngest of nine children, and comes from a large family with several priests. Around the time he graduated high school, the Bosnian War had broken out. Four days after graduating, he enlisted in the military for a period of three years. After fulfilling his military duties, Tomic found himself feeling extremely isolated in his life. Around that time, the pastor of his parish invited him to a Neocatechumenal Way gathering. This had a profound effect on him. Tomic eventually submitted to the Lord’s call for him to the priesthood. Entering seminary was the biggest risk he’d taken in 34 years, Tomic said, and now, at 43, Deacon Tomic God has restored his human dignity and completely changed his life. “Now that I am here, I see that God transformed my life completely,” Deacon Tomic said. “God is incredible. What he doing with me is a miracle.”

COMING UP: From Columbine to Christ: “Not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

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Every school day for almost two years, Jenica Thornby would spend her lunch hour in the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Every day, except April 20, 1999.

“I was sitting in my art class when all of the sudden I had this urge to leave school. I remember thinking, there is no way I am going to be talked into staying.”

Thornby found her friend that she always studied with and talked her into leaving too. As they drove away in a car her father had bought her just a week earlier, behind them they saw hundreds of other students running out of the school. Thinking it was maybe a fire drill, Thornby kept driving.

Back inside the school, two students had entered with guns, where they would kill 12 students and a teacher, and wound over 20 more people before taking their own lives.

In the days that followed, Thornby would learn that many of the casualties took place in the library, where on any other day she would have been sitting.

“I remember thinking, I always went to the library, and the only reason I wasn’t there was because I had this urge to leave. That was really hard to wrap my mind around, and so I really wondered, ‘What gave me that urge, why wasn’t I there?’”

Two decades later, Thornby is now Sister Mary Gianna, a religious sister of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and on the 20th Anniversary of the Columbine massacre, she shared her story with the Denver Catholic of how God led her out of her high school that day, and through a series of events, led her into a deep relationship with Christ.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

SEARCHING FOR FULFILMENT

Sister Mary Gianna said growing up in Texas, California and then Colorado, she had loving parents, but as a family they did not practice any religion or faith.

After the school shooting, like many of her classmates, Sister Mary Gianna struggled coming to grips with what had happened. Coupled with emotional scars from bullying in her teenage years and other insecurities, she said she tried desperately just to fit in.

“I started drinking and going to parties, thinking if I was in a relationship, then I’ll be happy,” Sister Mary Gianna recalled. “I was searching for fulfilment.”

But near the end of her junior year a classmate of hers who seemingly had everything going for him committed suicide, and Sister Mary Gianna said her senior year she hit rock bottom.

“If he was in so much pain and suffering and took his life, what do I do with all my suffering and all my pain?” Sister Mary Gianna said she asked herself. “I thought I was going to take my own life by my 18th birthday.”

It was that year that a friend invited her to come to a youth group at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, where Sister Mary would meet a youth minister named Kate.

“I remember seeing something different in (Kate),” said Sister Mary Gianna. “She was so bright, so full of life. I could tell that she had something in her life that was missing in mine.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Kate and the youth group introduced her to a God that loved her, and that had a plan for her life.

“I felt like I was junk to be thrown away, and (Kate) would tell me you are made in God’s image and his likeness, and if God created you, how can you call yourself junk?” recalled Sister Mary Gianna. “I realized God did have a plan, and I love the words of St. Augustine: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” and I realized not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

RCIA, NET and DLJC

After high school graduation, with the support of her parents Sister Mary Gianna chose to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, where her freshman year she went through RCIA and was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2002.

After college, she spent a year with NET (National Evangelization Team), sharing her testimony with teenagers across the country. At the same time, through the encouragement of others, she began to consider religious life.

“I felt God wanted to use me to lead others to Christ as my youth minister had led me to Christ,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “And I felt God was calling me to share how he had worked in my life, my personal testimony.”

Sister Mary Gianna said words in a book by Father Benedict Groeschel really impacted her.

“He wrote, ‘Instead of asking God why something happened, ask him, what would you have me do?’” Sister Mary Gianna said. “So instead of reflecting on my life and why did this happen or that happen, I began to ask God, ‘What would you have me do?’”

In 2010, Jenica Thornby entered religious life as a member of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, was given the name Sister Mary Gianna, and last year on August 4, 2018, took her final vows. She now serves at The Ark and The Dove retreat center in Pittsburgh.

CHAIN REACTIONS

Standing in the center of the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park, Sister Mary Gianna is drawn to the plaque that remembers Rachel Joy Scott.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Rachel was one of the first students shot on April 20, 1999, and after being wounded, one of the gunmen reportedly asked her if she still believed in God, to which Rachel replied, “You know I do,” before the gunman shot her in the head.

“Unfortunately the two boys talked about how they wanted to start a chain reaction of death and violence and destruction,” Sister Mary Gianna said. “However, Rachel had a theory that if one person could go out of their way and show compassion and kindness, we would never know how far it would go, it just might start its own chain reaction.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s story has become an inspiration to her, and coincidently, Rachel’s family played a role in her own conversion. Sister Mary Gianna said the day after the shooting she was at a friend’s house and her friend’s mom told Rachel’s aunt about how she had left just before the shooting began. Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s aunt replied, “God must have a plan for your life.”

It was one of the first seeds planted in Sister Mary Gianna’s heart, that started to grow, and as Sister Mary Gianna continued to say ‘yes’ to God, led her to the life she has today.

“Even when I didn’t know God that day at Columbine, he led me out of school, he protected me,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “He loved me so much that he drew near to me and has shown me this path of life.”

“Even in the midst of tragedy, God can bring good, God could bring life out of death. The worst tragedy was Jesus being put to death on the Cross, and it led to our salvation. And even in the midst of this tragedy of Columbine, God could bring good.”