Meet three of the Catholic Church’s newest faithful

Moira Cullings

As we approach Easter, catechumens and candidates throughout the Archdiocese of Denver are joining or coming back to the Catholic Church.

The Denver Catholic spoke with three men and women who have answered this call — a man who grew up attending a non-denominational Christian church but became an atheist, a Catholic who came back to the Church, and a former Lutheran.

Their stories of faith are different, but their common love of Catholicism brings a fresh perspective and new joy to the Church.

Candidate discovers ‘overwhelming sense of security and family’ in Catholic Church

Chase Carlson was only 13 years old when he started using drugs, and he didn’t stop until he was almost 22.

“I’ve overdosed twice,” said Chase. “I’m not dead. I’ve had a lot of things happen that should’ve killed me, and they didn’t.”

God had a greater purpose for his life.

After battling with drugs and leaving Christianity, Chase Carlson will enter the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Lakewood. (Photo By Moira Cullings)

Although Chase, a chef at Il Posto in Denver, had been baptized at eight years old, his family wasn’t devoutly religious. They attended a non-denominational Christian church, but as he grew up, Chase stopped believing in God entirely.

It wasn’t until he attended Alcoholics Anonymous for the second time that Chase opened his heart to believing in the possibility of a higher power. He began reminiscing on his upbringing as a Christian.

“I was still super adamant against religion,” he said. “You see the news — it’s pretty easy to judge the Catholic Church.”

But his boss at the time, who was a convert to Catholicism, asked Chase to go to Mass with him.

“That sounds a little intense,” Chase thought at the time.

But he was intrigued, and for the second time in his life, he stepped into a Catholic church to attend Mass. This time, he didn’t walk out halfway through the celebration.

Right away, “I had this overwhelming sense of security and family,” he said.

“I walked in. ‘I have tattoos on my face, on my hands,’” he thought.

‘“I’m going to get looked at weird.’”

But to his surprise, Chase had the opposite experience.

“At the end of Mass, all of these people are coming up. They’re shaking my hand. They’re like, ‘We’ve never seen you here before. It’s so nice to meet you.’

“For the first time in 10 years, I felt like I had a positive place to be, and I felt some sort of overcoming of God in my life.”

Chase started going to Mass every week.

“I really wanted to be a part of this,” he said. “I really wanted to learn more about it, and I wanted to understand the ritualistic aspect and where it comes from and why it is the way that it is.”

“I wanted to develop a relationship with God, instead of knowing that he exists and [simply] wanting him in my life. That’s how I found RCIA.”

Before starting his journey of becoming a member of the Catholic Church, Chase was still skeptical about some aspects of Catholicism, particularly because several of the Catholics he knew growing up claimed to be religious, but didn’t embody the Church’s teachings with their actions.

“I believe in God, but not that one,” said Chase. “That’s not what I think God’s about.”

Chase put those feelings aside and focused on the truth of the faith.

“Actually going to Mass, it was a whole different experience,” he said. “It just felt right.”

Chase used Google to find an RCIA program that met on Wednesday nights, which is how he found Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Lakewood.

“I love this place,” he said. “I got brought here for a reason.”

Chase has found help through both his sponsor and Christine Sullivan, who works in Adult Formation and Christian Initiation for the parish.

“Both of them were very much open-minded and really helped push me along the way,” he said.

Just like lifelong Catholics, Chase has faced challenges when learning about the Holy Trinity and frustrations when his prayers aren’t answered in the way he hopes them to be.

His favorite part of the faith is the ritualistic aspects.

“I love the sit, stand, kneel,” he said. “I love the prayers that we go through every time during Mass. I love the passion that comes out of the priest. It’s amazing to see so much energy and light come out of these guys.”

Chase has also been inspired by the universality and history of the Church.

“This is something that’s been happening for thousands of years,” he said.

“On Sundays, I always think about the fact that every hour of all Sunday long, everybody all over the world is hearing the same thing that I just heard in their own language.

“The teaching is the same for the day everywhere in the world, and it’s so cool to me that while I’m sitting there, somebody else is sitting at Mass on the other side of the world hearing the exact same thing.”

Chase is excited to become a member of the Catholic Church this Easter, and to feel fully a part of the faith he’s grown to love.

“I needed positive people to be around,” he said. “And I finally found somewhere to make that happen.”

After father’s death, sign brings Lutheran home to Catholic Church

When Lauren Josephson’s father passed away on Oct. 26, 2018, she traveled back to her home state of Pennsylvania to be with her family and help with the funeral arrangements.

Just three days after she returned home to Denver, something unexpected happened.

“A seminarian and a priest showed up to my door,” said Lauren.

Lauren Josephson grew up Lutheran but always felt a pull toward the Catholic faith. She was received into the Church at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Denver April 7. (Photo by Moira Cullings).

The two men asked her if they could pray for any of her intentions, and, unbeknownst to them, it was the sign Lauren needed.

Lauren had been considering joining the Catholic Church long before they came but hadn’t committed to it yet.

“There’s no greater sign than a seminarian and a priest showing up at your door,” she said.

Little did Lauren know that just a short time later, Austin Habash, that seminarian, would be her RCIA sponsor.

Lauren grew up Lutheran in a rural town. Her family sometimes attended Catholic Mass out of convenience, so Lauren was always familiar with the Catholic Church.

“I always felt most comfortable at Mass,” she said.

Lauren attended Mount St. Mary College and Seminary for two years before transferring to Colorado State. The Catholic faith had “always been on my radar,” she said.

In her 20s, Lauren focused on her career, and in her 30s, she settled down and started a family.

She had been attending Mass at various local churches up until the point when she received a visit from Austin and Father Geronimo Gonzalez. That experience solidified her decision to become Catholic, and after going through the RCIA process, Lauren received First Communion and confirmation on April 7.

“I’m just so excited to have gotten to this point, because it’s been so long,” she said.

One of the things Lauren loves most about the Catholic faith is having saints to intercede for her.

“To me, sometimes it’s easier to pray to a friend to ask for something if you’re in trouble,” she said. “The saints are incredible. Sometimes, they can be slightly more relatable depending on what challenges you’re going through.”

Lauren is grateful for the support of Laurel Eyers, who runs the RCIA program at St. Vincent de Paul.

“She’s amazing as a teacher,” she said. “She knows so much, and her love for God is infectious.”

She is also thankful Austin was her sponsor.

“He’s so amazing, so warm and welcoming,” she said. “He’s given me so many books to read. I don’t think you can get any better than a soon-to-be priest.”

Although the sex abuse crisis hits close to home since many of Lauren’s friends from Pennsylvania have been impacted by the state’s Grand Jury Report, Lauren sees more good in the Church than evil.

“Any company or organization always has some bad media,” she said. “There’s bad seeds, and I’m still understanding how it was dealt with.”

But Lauren is convinced this was the greatest time for her to enter the Church.

“I feel like now more than ever, there needs to be a better face and influence,” she said.

Lauren is excited to officially call herself Catholic.

“I always felt like the Catholic Church is the one church where all you have to do is love and ask to be forgiven,” she said. “That’s all that matters at the end of the day.”

‘God’s trying to tell me something’

When Steven Sisneros was about to receive confirmation on March 30, he was anxious — until he began to pray.

“When we got to the church, I was a little nervous,” he said. “I had gone to confession twice in the last 20 days — more than I had in the last 20 years. I didn’t feel guilt in my heart, so I was open to receiving the Lord.

Steven Sisneros was raised Catholic but grew apart from his faith after his teenage years. He came back to the faith and was confirmed  at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Northglenn March 30. (Photo provided)

“I closed my eyes, I began to pray and then I felt the love in the room of the sponsors and the children’s excitement,” he said. “I prayed some more, and God just told me, ‘It’s going to be ok. I love you.’”

Steven’s journey up until that moment was full of ups and downs — from going through the motions to becoming passionate about and dedicated to his faith.

Growing up Catholic, Steven attended Catechism class as a child, but as he got older, his mom gave him the choice to continue going or not.

“At the time, as a kid you’d think it was a burden,” he said. “We’d try to find ways to get out of it. So I opted out, which I regret now as an adult.”

It wasn’t until years later when religion came back into the picture for Steven.

“When I went to college, I was kind of lost,” he said. “I started going back to church on a regular basis with a friend of mine.”

But when he moved to New Mexico, he didn’t know any Catholics and didn’t belong to a church, so he stopped going.

“It will always be there,” he thought. “So, I can go back. Or maybe I don’t want to go back.”

While in New Mexico, Steven met his wife, Irene, who was also Catholic. But the couple didn’t go to Mass together until right before they got married.

“We really didn’t know where we stood,” said Steven.

The couple had two boys but still weren’t regularly practicing their faith. It wasn’t until Steven’s best friend asked him to be his son’s godfather when Steven’s interest in the Church peaked.

“I thought about it, and then I took it seriously,” said Steven. “If I’m going to do this, I need to do it the right way.”

Steven began taking classes to learn more about the faith and attended Mass periodically. Right after his first godson was baptized, he had another request to be a godfather — this time from his cousin.

“I was like, ‘God’s trying to tell me something,’” said Steven. “I need to be in these children’s lives in one capacity or another.”

At this point, Irene and Steven had moved to Colorado and began attending confirmation classes at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Northglenn.

“It’s been enlightening,” said Steven. “It’s sad to say this, but I’m glad I’ve done it at a more mature age than as an adolescent because I really can have a better grasp of what I need to know now, as opposed to when I would’ve been younger and going through the motions.”

Steven said that although he was nervous before receiving confirmation, he heard God’s call clearly and was ready to accept it.

“Going through confirmation was heart-opening,” said Steven. “It makes me more aware of what I’m doing and how I’m speaking to people and [makes me] appreciate the voice of the Lord when we’re at Mass.”

Steven is grateful for the staff at Immaculate Heart who have helped him on his faith journey, particularly Director of Faith Formation Calysta Kohlrust and the parish priests.

“They really give you an outlet to have a relationship with God on your own,” he said.

And despite the negative media attention the Catholic Church has received, particularly with the sex abuse scandal, Steven sees the bigger picture.

“The negativity that comes through the media or through people you encounter is all isolated incidences,” he said.

“Bad things happen to good people every single day. The media will do whatever they can to make sure that if something bad happens, they’re going to put that in the forefront.”

Steven is now on the path to be a strong role model for the young people God has placed in his life.

“It took me a lot of sinning and a lot of soul seeking to really come back to the Church and understand that as a man, I need to be an example to my children and my godchildren,” he said.

COMING UP: Working to make our schools safer

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By Carol Nesbitt

The issue of school safety is always on the minds of parents. Parents want to know that schools have a plan in place for all types of emergencies, from fires to intruders to staff or students feeling unsafe for various reasons.
The Archdiocese of Denver is excited to share that they now have someone directly supporting the safety preparedness and plans of the 37 Catholic schools under its watch and care.

Matt Montgomery is a former police officer and award-winning school resource officer (SRO). He’s also a chemistry and forensic science teacher as well as Director of Security and Safety at Holy Family High School. And, as of Nov. 13, he is the new Interim Director of Schools Security and Safety for the Archdiocese of Denver Catholic Schools. The position is new and the first of its kind for the Archdiocese of Denver, but important.

“As a Catholic school community we believe the safety and wellbeing of our students comes first. Time and again we hear our parents rate school safety as one of the top reasons why they entrust the care and formation of their children to our schools. As such, we believe we have a duty and moral obligation in our schools to ensure we are doing everything we can to ensure our children are safe from any type of harm,” said Elias Moo, Superintendent of Catholic Schools. “Historically, each of our schools has had to take on the crucial task of defining and implementing their own safety and security plans and systems. While our schools have certainly gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure the safety of their school community, we believe it is critical in our current reality that we provide our schools with the expertise and qualifications of someone like Matt to support them in really analyzing their plans and assisting them in ensuring best practices are being implemented. It’s the least we can do for our school communities.”

“My role is really to lead a task force with the intention of identifying needs around school safety,” said Montgomery. He says there are a number of great models for school safety around the area, so it’s more about bringing it all together. “All public schools have someone overseeing safety and security, usually with staff members doing threat assessments, suicide assessments and emergency drills, building security, fire drills, and those kinds of things, but there really isn’t a position like this in other dioceses that we are aware of.”

Montgomery says that his job will be taking the variety of practices at schools and helping to bring consistency in efforts across the Archdiocese of Denver Catholic School community. He also says that the term ‘school safety’ is more broad than people realize. “When people think about school safety, they always gravitate to school shootings, but I think we really have to step away from that and realize that school safety and security is an umbrella. It encompasses everything from events prior to an incident all the way through recovery (post-incident).”

The five areas Montgomery is focusing on include:

What do we do to create a loving and responsive Catholic community where students and staff feel safe and are empowered and given resources to report any behaviors or activity that is unsafe and counter to our values?

What systems and proceses do we have to vigilantly monitor for behavior or activity that is harmful to our Catholic community?

What procedures and policies are in place to mitigate issues?

If an incident occurs, how do we respond to that incident? How do we support that school from an archdiocesan perspective? What tools are we able to provide to that school? What relationships do we have with law enforcement and first responders in that community?

Recovery begins the second an incident occurs. How do we reunite students with families, provide counseling support and address staff issues in the case of a crisis?

Montgomery says his work will also help establish a plan for the archdiocese in the case of a larger emergency.

“What is our incident command structure going to look like so that we can respond to an incident, while also keeping in mind the unique structure of the various schools beneath the Office of Catholic Schools?”

He’d like to see the Standard Response Protocol — created by the I Love You Guys Foundation — used throughout the school system.

“One of the issues I noticed is that there are a lot of different agencies who respond to various incidents and they don’t know what the other ones are doing,” Montgomery said. “The crisis plan needs to be uniform, created for a specific age group. We need to standardize our crisis plans throughout the AoD and work with the schools to create private plans for each school that is specific to that school, simple plans that outline for administration on how they implement the plan at the moment of crisis.”

One of the biggest things Montgomery will be doing is identifying policies and procedures and training. “This is uniformly saying ‘This is what we’re doing, this is how we’re going to do it, and these are the amount of times we will practice it each year.’” This also includes training of staff on mandatory reporting, the importance of documenting things, and threat assessments that ask the right questions to get a non-biased, vetted approach to assessing threats. “There are a lot of things we can do to mitigate the chance of someone being hurt at a school. That’s by good training, good policies and procedures, and hardening our targets, meaning the physical security of our school buildings,” said Montgomery.

As a teacher, Montgomery says he has a unique perspective. “I’m not just some cop or just an SRO. My heart is in the classroom. I’m a Catholic educator who used to be a cop. My goal is to make sure kids can focus on being a kid and learning, not having to worry about being hurt at school or being bullied or having thoughts of suicide. I want them to feel that school is a safe place. That’s why I do it. I really love doing school safety.”