DETROIT — In late 2001, news that a well-known Pentecostal preacher had converted to Catholicism electrified the Catholic Church in the United States.
That one minister had converted was not necessarily newsworthy. Protestant pastors come into the Church every year.
What caught people’s attention was that Pentecostal preacher Alex Jones came in with his wife, Donna, and nearly their entire flock at Detroit’s Maranatha Church.
Sadly, Jones — who later received ordination to the diaconate — died of a heart attack Jan. 14 at age 75. He is survived by Donna and their three sons.
“He was having some problems on that Saturday [before his death and complained of] not feeling well,” said Jones’ friend and autobiography ghostwriter Diane Hanson. “They took him to the hospital, and after running blood tests, the doctors thought he had some kind of leukemia. Later that day, he had several heart attacks.”
“He was a brilliant man,” Hanson said, the “kind of person I would want to live next door to.”
“His mother was a very strong personality,” she continued. “And he was raised to be a good Christian. He didn’t like going to church, but he always went, and his mother told him that if he wanted to learn to drive, he had to drive her to church.”
His attitude toward religion changed after he attended a revival one summer: His experience there was so moving that, from that “point on, during his teen years, he was a very strong Christian,” Hanson explained.
But, like a lot of Pentecostals, Hanson said, Jones “heard a lot of anti-Catholic things” along the way.
As a result, she said, “He would talk about [how he used to call Catholics] the ‘frozen chosen.’ He did not have a good view of” Catholicism.
Inspired by the Church Fathers
Coming into the Catholic Church was probably the last thing that Jones, a retired public-school teacher and minister from 1975 through 2000, would ever have imagined.
But in 1998, he began a study of the Church Fathers in order to create a worship service at his church that mirrored that of the earliest Christians.
The more he studied, the more he began to see that early worship greatly resembled what he knew of the Catholic Mass. He approached his congregation and asked if they would like to join him on this journey of discovery. Part of that journey was a sort of field trip the flock made as a group to an Easter vigil Mass, which many left many profoundly moved. Thus, while some left because they didn’t want to follow where Jones was leading them, the majority agreed to have their minister teach them what he was learning — which led him to the Church.
One of his former congregants who converted to Catholicism, Gloria Yarber, called Jones her “spiritual father,” and she contended entering the Church was not contentious.
“I think that it was a friendly thing,” she recalled for the Register. “It was put to us [as an option]. The church [i.e., Maranatha] was being sold anyway, so the people who decided to come into the Catholic Church came. Others who were not going to come, there were other churches with which we were associated. So the people who decided that this wasn’t what they wanted to do, they went elsewhere. Some people started their own ministry. But it was a brotherly situation, and I didn’t come [across] any negativity.”
Asked what Jones offered to them that persuaded them to make this monumental move, she replied, “The love of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacraments and the Church. That’s what was added when we came into the Catholic Church: the traditions. A lot of us knew the Bible like the back of our hands. It was the traditions of the Church — there’s so much to be learned in the Church, that I’ll never learn it all. To go from a Bible-teaching church to the whole of the Church, that was something.”
As Jones told Register correspondent Judy Roberts about his conversion in 2001, “How can you say, ‘No’ to truth? …
“It would be [a] mortal sin for me to know what I know and not act on it. If I returned to my former life, I would be dishonest, untrustworthy, a man who saw truth, knew truth and turned away from it, and I could just not do that.”
After reception into the Church, Jones eventually pursued the diaconate.
Hanson, also a convert, recounted a conversation with Deacon Jones, where he stated, “You know, I don’t know why God brought me into the Church so late. I might have been so” much more effective of an evangelist for the faith as a priest. She told him that his entry may have been late, and “you would have made a great priest,” but “think of how many souls you have been able to touch.”
Indeed, from the moment he became Catholic, Jones began appearing at conferences and parishes, giving missions, enabling him to touch thousands of lives. He also hosted a series on EWTN, Wisdom From Above, focusing on the Epistle of St. James. And he told his conversion story on The Journey Home.
“I saw him this past summer at a men’s conference in Modesto,” said Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, his friend, fellow speaker and EWTN guest. “I told him, ‘I looked at your speaking schedule, and I notice you’re kind of slowing down.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m leaving it up to you young guys now.’”
In interviews with the Register, each person who knew Jones reflected on the courage he displayed in coming into the Church.
“Older people, [as] you get into your 50s, you move toward 60, you don’t need to risk as much anymore,” said friend and Ave Maria Radio host Al Kresta. “You can get by. You have your friends. You have your family. You’ve found your place. You’ve achieved some measure of success. You can kind of hold on to the end. Alex wouldn’t have it that way. [Regarding] the ecclesial culture gap between where he came from and the Catholic Church: The only thing I can compare it to is like a hippie all of a sudden deciding he’s going to go work for a Fortune 500 company. And he has to get all cleaned up, change his habits, change his manner, his communications skills, and, at the same time, bring his little company into it. It’s a real shock, a real culture shock, and Alex, he did his best to bridge that gap. I don’t know anyone who has done anything quite like this.”
Indeed, that is what Deacon Burke-Sivers believes will be Deacon Jones’ legacy: He exemplified what it means to “have courage to follow Jesus wherever he leads,” a fortitude alluded to in the title of Jones’ autobiography, No Price Too High.
Hanson said the example he left is his gift to the Church.
“We have to be [like] Alex was. He set a fire for the rest of us,” and just like he was, “we have to be on fire for the Catholic Church.”
Register correspondent Brian O’Neel writes from Coatesville, Pennsylvania.