She saw the meaning of her painful personal situation for the first time when it was lit up by bolts of lightning, literally. The experience has fueled her music. She spoke with Register features correspondent Tim Drake from her home in Treasure Island, Fla., where she now lives with her husband, David, and three sons.
Tell me about yourself. Was your family musical?
I grew up in a Catholic home in Indiana as the fourth child in a family of eight children. My mother had a strong devotion to Our Lady and named me Mary Ann after the Blessed Mother. I was nicknamed Annie. My first memories of family prayer time were kneeling before a statue of Mary every night and praying the rosary.
My mother was a homemaker and my father was an engineer for General Motors. My mother was also the organist at our church. Whenever our family traveled together my parents would sing duets that were famous in their time. There was always so much joy in their singing. That was a real blessing for me. The only way my dad could get me to sleep was to sing to me on the front porch.
I understand that you faced many challenges as a young adult?
I left home right after my senior year and married my high school sweetheart. I had my first child at 18 and my second at 19. My husband was in the Navy and was an alcoholic. On the birth of our second child, my parents came to see us. When I answered the door my father didn't even recognize me.
It was a devastating time that ravaged both my spirit and my body. We were divorced after six years, and then I remarried outside the Church. Each time I would begin the annulment process I wouldn't carry it through because I didn't want to face the past. I was delaying my healing and knew that something was not right with my life.
After our move to Florida, my new spiritual director, [Salesian] Father August Bosio, told me that I was not to receive the sacraments until I had gotten my marriage annulled. Here I was singing about the sacraments, but I could-n't receive them. I would cry at every Mass over the poor choices I had made in my life. I wondered how my life could end up so broken into pieces. I had to wait two years before the annulment came through fully and I could return to the full embrace of the Church.
I knew that even if my annulment did not go through, I would continue to go daily Mass and eucharistic adoration because the graces we receive are in direct proportion to the desires in our heart to receive Jesus. In that way, spiritual communion can be edifying and grace-filled.
The reason that I sing with such passion is because the Lord's divine mercy saved my spiritual life and brought me back to the full embrace of the Church. The magisterium does not make these laws for punishment, but because the role of the Church is to prepare our souls to be the bride of Christ. We need to be purified in our journey.
I witness to those Catholics who feel alienated. I tell them that it might be an arduous and painful journey, but it is worth every effort they can possibly endure because the truth will set them free and the reward is eternal. There is no greater gift than to receive the Eucharist.
It was a storm, wasn't it, that helped bring about your conversion back to the faith?
Yes. I was visiting my parents in Arkansas in 1989. They lived on top of a mountain in the Ozarks, just a few houses from the Little Portion Hermitage Retreat Center. My mother had invited me to take part in a Divine Mercy devotion and eucharistic adoration at the retreat center chapel. While there, a storm rolled in.
I was unable to take my eyes off of Our Lord in the Eucharist through the thunder and lightning. I was riveted to his presence and felt that every wrong choice and sin was exposed and completely known to him. At first I felt ashamed and wanted to leave the chapel, but my mother was sitting in the last pew and I didn't want to have to go past her. I had a longing to be whole, and so I asked for forgiveness for my sins. Rather than a harsh judgment, I felt a river of mercy flood my soul. It swept away all the brokenness in my life.
Didn't that experience also bring about your first song?
Yes, when I returned home to Indiana I asked the Lord what that experience was all about and asked if he would help me put that experience to music. He put words and music together for my song “Divine Mercy Flood My Soul.” That started me on the music ministry path of spreading the Divine Mercy message through song and witness. Six months later I came out with my first album.
How did your first solo album come about?
From 1989 to 1998, I went through a lot of healing. While singing in a trio with two Protestant brothers I sought to use my talents for the Lord's will. During that time the Holy Spirit revealed to me that he wanted me to use and focus the talents he had given me to stir the flame in his Church — the Holy Catholic Church. That revelation was very important to me. We had been singing in many denominations, but I really wanted to use my talents for the Catholic Church. I released my first solo album, Hidden God, in 1998. Many of my songs are about the sacraments.
Explain how your latest song “You are a Priest Forever” came to be.
While home visiting family in the summer of 1998 I picked up a fictional book titled The Last Mass of Brother Michael. After reading it I wept rivers of tears. Over and over, all I could say was, “Thank you for the gift of the priesthood.” Afterwards, I went into the living room and the melody for “You are a Priest Forever” came to me simultaneously.
The following year, while in a Catholic bookstore, I saw the book A Priest Forever: The Life of Father Eugene Hamilton by [Franciscan Friar of the Renewal] Father Benedict Groeschel. I was amazed, having just written a song with such a similar title. I purchased the book and could not put it down.
Father Eugene Hamilton was a young man who had cancerous tumors in his chest and who gave his very life and death to be a priest. As he lay dying in his mother's arms, the bishop ordained him. Just before his death, three hours later, he traced the sign of the cross on his best friend's palm. He remains a priest forever.
I was even more surprised to discover that Father Eugene mentioned my spiritual director, Father Bosio, in the book as being an influence in his life growing up in New York. After mentioning my song to Father Bosio he called Father Eugene's mother and told her that I had a very special song that I wanted to dedicate to her son.
What is your hope for this song?
The Lord wants to use Father Eugene's life and beautiful death to draw young people to vocations. That is why I dedicated the song to him. I wanted not only the priests to be encouraged in their vocations, but I also wanted to draw young people to listen to the call that comes from the Shepherd through Father Eugene's influence and life.
Pope John Paul II says that “The priesthood is the nerve center of the Church's whole life and mission.” That is why it is so important for the lay people to intercede. If the nerve center is not doing well, the body will not do well. We lay people need to support, fast and pray for our priests and the priesthood. We have a very important role to play.
Your song was nominated for liturgical song of the year for the Unity Awards by the United Catholic Music and Video Association. Did that surprise you?
Yes, it came as a big surprise for me. The song has been playing globally on EWTN and on a few Catholic radio stations across the country, but I did not realize the impact it was having on priests and the laity. The Unity Awards are like the Dove Awards, but for Catholics.
There were more than 100 Catholic artists in attendance.
Many of your songs are focused on the Divine Mercy. Can you explain the attraction of that particular devotion?
Divine Mercy is more than a devotion, it is a way of life. If you think about the saints, particularly Mary Magdalene or St. Paul — those saints whose lives were converted by the mercy of God — you discover that what propelled them to share the mercy of God was that they had received mercy themselves. That changed their entire life. No matter what a person has done, God's love and mercy are greater.
Tell me about your involvement in the lay apostolate, The Eucharistic Apostles of the Divine Mercy?
After hearing me sing “Divine Mercy Flood My Soul,” Dr. Bryan Thatcher invited our family to come to Florida to meet his family one Christmas. That began our association with the apostolate. We later became members. After my husband, David, was hired as a teacher we moved to Florida and became more involved in the ministry.
Its mission is to spread the message of Divine Mercy, to promote the truth about the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, to spread eucharistic adoration, to promote the recitation of the Divine Mercy chaplet for the dying, and to pray for the priesthood. Cenacle groups gather to pray, study Scripture and the Catechism, and read from the Diary of Sister Faustina. It's a wonderful way for Catholics to learn more about their faith.
What do you have planned next?
I have had several priests and a producer tell me there should be a visual to accompany “You are a Priest Forever.” I believe this would be a powerful impact for the priesthood and vocations. With God's grace and direction, I would also like to complete a 10-song project.