Exchange student’s invitation helped host mother become Catholic


A Thanksgiving Day feast foreshadowed the gift to come.

Judith Giger prepared a 30-pound turkey and all the trimmings for the two exchange students she was hosting, as well as several people who had been resettled through Refugee Services of Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO).

“We had six countries represented,” Ms. Giger noted. “We went around the table and had everyone tell what they’re thankful for. The people from other countries said it in English and in their own language. It was wonderful.”

A place at the table. A connection to people from all over the world. Sharing a meal. Giving thanks.

These are things Ms. Giger now experiences on a cosmic level every Sunday as a fully initiated member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Columbia, having received Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil this year.

Recognizance mission

Ms. Giger had felt drawn in many ways throughout her life toward being Catholic, but the act of hospitality is what finally brought it home for her.

She moved to Columbia from the state of Washington about three years ago in search of a change of weather and scenery.

She was working in a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital and began looking for a good place to transfer.

“I would get on the website to see where there were openings,” she said. “If I would see a job and didn’t know about where it was, I would research the area and look at the weather and the crime rate and the cost of living and things like that.

“Columbia sounded really good,” she stated.

Her ex-husband, who is a good friend, and her son were traveling back to Washington from a trip to Alabama. They drove through Columbia to check it out for her.

“My ex said it looked nice and he thought I would like it here,” Ms. Giger recalled.

So she moved to Columbia to work at the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital.

“I come from a pretty strong military family,” she noted. “My grandmother was one of 18, and all of her brothers were in the military. My Mom’s father was in the Navy. My Dad was in the Army National Guard. Two of my brothers were in the military, and so were two of my children.”

Ms. Giger began hosting foreign exchange students long before she moved to Missouri.

“These are my 31st and 32nd that I have now,” she said of the young women from Poland and Bolivia. “They’re high school age. They go to Hickman (High School).”

What’s in a name?

Although she was raised in a different faith tradition, Pope St. John Paul II has been one of Ms. Giger’s heroes for as long as she can remember.

She acquired a statuette of the beloved, long-serving pontiff in 2005, the year he died.

She displays it in a curio cabinet near the stairs in her home.

One of her current exchange students delighted in seeing it. She’s Polish and is named Karolina, after Karol (Charles) Wojtyla, the name Pope John Paul received at Baptism.

“She asked me to take her to Mass,” Ms. Giger recalled. “So we went.”

It brought back memories of Ms. Giger telling her mother when she was 3 that she wanted to be both a nun and a mother.

“I heard that nuns are married to Jesus, and that was just super cool to me,” she recalled. “My mom spent years trying to convince me that we weren’t Catholic, and I couldn’t figure out why she was so hung up on that.”

The part about being a mother did work out for Ms. Giger — her children are now 36, 34 and 31.

Welcome guests

Ms. Giger lives close enough to Our Lady of Lourdes Church to be able to walk there easily on a nice day.

“And interestingly enough, for our first Mass, there was a visiting priest,” she recalled. “We asked him where he was from, and he said he was from Poland.”

Karolina was able to go to Confession to him in her native language.

Ms. Giger said going to Mass that day planted in her a feeling of profound peace.

She told Karolina after that first Mass, “I just feel better.”

Karolina responded, “I always feel that way after going to Mass.”

The following Sunday, Monsignor Michael Flanagan, senior priest in residence and former pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, offered the Mass they attended.

“I asked him that day how I could become Catholic,” Ms. Giger recalled. “He said, ‘The guy you need to talk to is here today.’”

Dwaine Gelnar, the parish’s adult religious education and Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) coordinator, helped her sign up for the RCIA right away.

She needed a Catholic sponsor. Karolina volunteered.

“So I’m her host mother, and she became my godmother,” said Ms. Giger.

Midnight encounter

Ms. Giger had been to Mass several times previously. Most memorably, while she was working at an assisted-living facility in Great Falls, Montana, she took a group of residents to Midnight Mass on Christmas.

One of the people she went with died about a week later.

“I worked with her son, who was a doctor,” Ms. Giger recalled. “And when I was getting ready to move to Spokane, he hugged me and said, ‘I’ll never forget that you took my Mom to her last Mass.’”

Ms. Giger once read a book by Dr. Scott Hahn, who as a minister of another Christian faith set out to disprove Catholic doctrine.

His close reading of the Bible and other writings from the early Church convinced him that he needed to become Catholic.

“When I read his book, my interest was piqued again,” she recalled. “I had a lot of things going on in my life at that time, so I didn’t pursue it. But I think the desire has always been there.”

Her admiration for Pope St. John Paul II and for St. Mother Teresa of Kolkata stemmed from how she saw them put their beliefs into practice.

“Aside from being a good pope, John Paul was a good man — a good, kind, wonderful person,” she said.

“And Mother Teresa, in addition to being a saint, was also just a very good person,” she stated.

Dining with friends

Ms. Giger always stayed in the pew when others processed forward to receive Holy Communion.

Msgr. Flanagan told members of the RCIA class that they could come forward with their arms folded over their chest and receive a blessing.

“He said even though you cannot receive Holy Communion yet, you’re still part of the family,” she recalled.

Another member of the RCIA class had recently lost her mother and was looking for something different to do on Thanksgiving Day.

This was also the first time Ms. Giger would not be hosting Thanksgiving dinner for anyone in her own family.

Together, they decided to share the traditional feast with Ms. Giger’s foreign exchange students and with several recently resettled refugees.

“It was wonderful,” Ms. Giger recalled. “I highly recommend that for anyone who has room in their house to have company, because it really was an amazing experience.”

Never alone

This year’s Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion, which usually draws people involved in the initiation process in parishes throughout the diocese to the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Jefferson City, was held at Our Lady of Lourdes, due to renovations taking place at the Cathedral.

“It was wonderful,” Ms. Giger stated of the event, held on the First Sunday of Lent. “You realize you’re coming into a family and getting all these new brothers and sisters.”

She found the following weeks to be filled with excitement and anticipation.

“I had been hearing this expression, ‘born again,’ my entire life,” she said. “I never really got it until now.”

Being born again feels “like someone has lifted heavy weights off my shoulders,” she stated.

“Life still has challenges, but I don’t feel like I’m going through it by myself anymore,” she said.

Letting go

Throughout the RCIA, Ms. Giger enjoyed learning about what the Church teaches on a broad range of interrelated topics.

Themes of mercy and forgiveness were both challenging and enticing to her, having grown up in a very painful relationship with her mother, who is now deceased.

Ms. Giger was listening to a song called “The Only Scars in Heaven” on the radio while driving to work on a day leading up to Easter.

Thoughts of her mother’s mental illness and profound need for mercy suddenly filled Ms. Giger’s mind and heart.

“It sounds so weird, but I was able to forgive her in the car that day,” she said. “I was able to let it all go. I can think about her now and smile and not be angry. It’s pretty amazing.”

A proper response

After careful examination of a website filled with saints’ stories, Ms. Giger chose St. Flora of Beaulieu to be her patron saint for Confirmation.

“She is the patron saint of converts,” Ms. Giger noted. “She’s also the patron saint of the betrayed. And who hasn’t been or felt betrayed at some point in their life?”

Most people Ms. Giger has told about getting baptized at Easter have been supportive.

One person responded, “I don’t know what to say to that.”

Ms. Giger suggested, “How about ‘Congratulations!’”

Recognizing Ms. Giger’s joy and peace, a friend who left the Catholic Church long ago now sees the need to reconnect with God in some way.

Ms. Giger said she looks forward to gathering regularly with her fellow neophytes into June and to becoming an active member of her parish.

She asks for prayers for her and for all the newly initiated to remain grateful and joyful for the salvation they are being given, and for the grace to surrender their individual struggles into God’s hands.