Eucharist brings Pittsburg woman back to the church

Allison Keegan, right, and friend Tracey, stand in front of Malahide Castle in Ireland. Allison said Tracey served as a quiet and endearing inspiration during the week and was completely supportive of allowing Allison to reflect and rediscover her Irish Catholic roots.

By Christopher M. Riggs
Allison Keegan, whom many saw as the quintessential Catholic, left the church last year.
“I was always faithful and loyal to the Catholic Church,” she said, “I never questioned anything.”
Allison attended Our Lady of Lourdes grade and middle schools and graduated from St. Mary’s Colgan High School in Pittsburg before enrolling at Pittsburg State University. And when she began studying at PSU, she said, her faith became even stronger.
But in summer 2008 Allison began questioning her faith. By November she said she believed that the Catholic Church was getting in the way of her relationship with God, that she didn’t need a relationship with the Blessed Virgin and the saints, nor did she need the sacraments. She understood that Jesus was her Lord and Savior.
Leaving the Catholic Church would create waves in her family and parish, so Allison, a young woman who had attended Catholic school all her life and who had led rosaries before Mass for five years, kept her feelings to herself.
“I felt that if this is the path God has chosen for me, then this is the path I will take,” she said.
In February of 2009 Allison felt she had to tell her family. “It wasn’t very well accepted,” she said, but she took solace from a passage in Matthew that says that parents and family may reject those who follow Jesus.
“During this time, as much as I felt at peace with my decision,” Allison said, “I started to question everything else in my life.”
She said she questioned the relationships she had with family and friends and the direction she was taking in her life, studying towards a career in teaching and counseling.
“On the outside… I was trying to show people that although I wasn’t still Catholic, I was still Allison, I was still me,” she said. “But on the inside I was feeling that something was kind of shaken.”
The feeling continued as she began a summer of study in Finland, South Korea, Ireland, and Australia after a year of graduate school at PSU to study for a master’s degree in school counseling.
While in Finland she said she wanted to go to church. The areligious Nordic country has primarily two churches, Lutheran and Catholic, so after being urged by two fellow students, a Polish Catholic and a Mexican Catholic, the trio attended a Catholic Mass.
“Initially my thoughts were, ‘Wow! This is what I’ve known my entire life!’” she said, adding that it was odd because she was in a very foreign country.
That was just the first sign that Jesus was calling her back to the church he established, the Catholic Church.
Another nudge came during a science and religion course where the students learned and discussed the journeys that philosophers took to answering perennial questions such as “Why am I here?” and “Is there a God?”
“And I started thinking, where does faith come in here?” Allison said. “I would feel real chaotic in my life if I didn’t have that faith.”
She added that the student from Mexico asked questions in the class and had a very quiet confidence about her.
“She knew what she believed. She knew she was Catholic and she knew the purpose of why she’s here,” Allison said. “I remember looking at her knowing that I used to feel that way. I used to have that confidence.”
During an interim of 11 days between Finland and South Korea, Allison said she was fortunate to be able to book a trip to Ireland.
“Ireland has been my whole family’s dream to see, but it was one of those dreams that would never really come true,” she said. “When I realized it was feasible because I was already in Europe, I got another girl to go with me.”
While in Ireland she came upon a church named St. Mary’s, just like her church back home. “So I asked the girl with me if she would like to go to church the next morning,” she said. It was June 14, the Feast of Corpus Christi. “I don’t know why I wanted to go - but she said, of course!”
When Allison walked into the church she smelled incense and the thought that she was “at home” came to mind. “But I wasn’t at peace with that thought. I wasn’t sure what was coming over me.”
She sat down at the front of the church and Mass began. As the older, Irish priest stepped up to the ambo for the homily, he paused, and then said, “You say that you love me. But, do you miss me?”
Allison said she was sitting right in front of the ambo and started looking around because it seemed she was being addressed directly. The priest paused, and repeated his statement, tying it together with a homily about the Eucharist.
“I just started crying. I was filled with tears - I was so overwhelmed,” she said adding that the priest was probably wondering about her reaction.
After Mass she went to the priest and asked if she could talk to him before she had to leave in a week for South Korea. “What are you doing right now?” he answered.
Allison told him why she left the Catholic Church, why she thought it was wrong, but also how much she loved the church and wanted to receive Holy Communion.
“I expected him to make me feel bad – I wanted that actually – what I did was wrong, I was away from the church for so long,” she said.
Instead the Irish priest consoled her and told Allison that her actions were the result of her desire to serve the Lord. “But it feels good to come home, doesn’t it?” he said to her.
He then went to the tabernacle, took out one of the reserved Hosts, and gave Allison Holy Communion.
Allison said she felt like she was part of the calm after a Kansas storm. “When your foundation is shaken, nothing else is settled either,” she said. “The very heart of me is in the Catholic Church, my relationship with God through the Catholic Church. When I didn’t accept that, God was always there. But nothing else in my life seemed to make sense, either. It was like all of a sudden, I remembered who I was.”
Many other thoughts flooded through Allison. One of them was, “What if my entire purpose for the whole summer of studying abroad was for me to be there at that moment?”
Allison later learned that – because word travels fast in the Pittsburg-Frontenac area – many people had heard she had left the church. She also learned that they had been praying for her and about their joy upon learning that she had returned to the faith.
Allison advised those who are struggling with someone who has left the church not to close the door on them. “Help them realize that they are supported and loved in their journey.”
She suggested prayer for the person who has left the church but also prayer for the person who might lead them back.
“That priest in Ireland had no idea he was reaching me, but he was. Even that professor who was talking about science and religion - he reached me. Pray for the people who will touch your child and bring them back to the Catholic Church.”

Want to read more about Allison?
For more about Allison’s summer journey and her journey back to the church, visit her blog at http://allisonmkeegan.blogspot.com/2009/06/feels-like-home.html.
Allison Keegan on the Howth Peninsula in Ireland.

Allison poses in front of a Celtic Cross outside of St. Mary’s Church in Dublin, Ireland.