Women Who Took the Long Way Home

Prodigal Daughters: Catholic Women Come Home to the Church edited by Donna Steichen

Ignatius Press, 1999 400 pages, $14.95

There's a ballerina in Prodigal Daughters. There's also a former New Age therapist. Read all 17 essays, and you'll even meet a one-time member of NOW. What could women from such disparate backgrounds have in common? All longed for home and weren't satisfied until they were securely settled in with the Catholic Church.

All of the prodigals in these pages write of a strong homing urge pointing to the Catholic Church — specifically its fullness as a timeless bastion of truth. This is a collection of stories about the return journey.

The book turned out, says the editor, to be “a portrait of a unique generation of Catholic women” — “reverts,” rather than converts, because the flame ignited in childhood never quite died out. Cradle Catholics born in the ‘50s and ‘60s, they left but made their way back. Compared with the women of their mothers'generation, some of whom are described here as “silent and smiling,” they are vocal witnesses of God's grace. Their hallmark is intellectual and spiritual clearheadedness. Perhaps not coincidentally, they also have a good sense of humor; Kathleen Brown Robbins’ account of popping former Boston Cardinal Richard Cushing's portrait into the closet whenever her faith ebbed is genuinely funny. (Eventually, he came out for good.)

Come to think of it, with their passionate opinions and eloquent expression, these women would make formidable opponents in debate with the outspoken feminists of their generation — the Germaine Greers and Gloria Steinems of the world. And, indeed, a number are now writers and speakers, as we learn from the updates added by the editor.

Who are the women? The ballerina is Diane Yelenosky Spinelli, born into a loving Catholic home in 1955. The discipline of dance kept her away from the temptations of the other prodigals — drugs, smoking, sex and alcohol — but as a teen-ager, she dropped out: “An emotional idealist, I craved knowledge of my ultimate purpose, a stronghold of convictions on which to base my life choices,” she writes. “I was ready to respond to heroic demands, but there were none in the diluted, spineless, ‘feel good’ religion being offered to me.”

During her time at the Royal Ballet in London and back home with the Houston Ballet, Spinelli was supported spiritually by various Protestant churches. Protestant contacts brought her to the pro-life movement, and it was in this way that she became reconnected with a more dynamic Catholicism.

Spinelli represents the daughters who did not wander quite so far, often using Protestantism as a sort of halfway house. New Age therapist Moira Noonan, however, wandered far. Her tale, “Ransomed from the Darkness,” is an eye-opener. Primed by her interest in Eastern religion and disabled after a car crash, Noonan was ripe for the “New Thought” she encountered at a pain clinic in Wisconsin. She subsequently became a psychic and, for a while, believed herself clairvoyant. Providentially, she never lost her love for our Lady.

Pregnant from a short-lived marriage, Noonan, on holiday in Paris, spontaneously consecrated her unborn daughter to the Blessed Mother at the Basilica of Sacre Coeur. This daughter brought Noonan back to the Church. Like other writers, she found she could not give her own child a stone instead of bread. While practicing as a New Age therapist and conscious of her paradoxical position, she sent her daughter to first-Communion classes. Her own “reversion” followed. Now repentant and active, Noonan helps others “escape from the darkness.”

If Noonan was far out, Constance Buck was far in. The one-time NOW member, once listed in Who's Who Among American Women, viewed the world through a feminist lens. Everything had to be redefined. “I began purging my life of both God and family,” she recounts.

Of course, this left her empty, so she took drugs and, as she puts it, “ate macrobiotically.” Crowned with academic honors, she went to work in the U.S. House of Representatives. By chance one Easter, she found herself at Mass. “[A]ll at once I saw my errors quite clearly. … [T]he fact of my salvation or damnation would not rest with me but with Him.” A number of the writers had similar epiphanies.

Most of the prodigals have a distinctly intellectual bent. Rosemary Hugo Fielding, for example, almost driven to despair in graduate school by the philosophy of deconstruction, values the principle of contradiction: “I saw at last that radical feminism contradicts Christianity; one was true and one false.” But the book's essence is spiritual. All the writers see clearly that it is only through God's grace that they are home. Their expressions of love and reverence for the sacraments, particularly reconciliation and the Eucharist, are deeply moving.

These women desperately needed forgiveness. They found it in the Church. Read the stories of Allyson Smith and Rachel T. Wiley, the prodigals who had abortions, and you will never take the sacrament of penance for granted again.

Smith writes that she had not been to confession for 20 years: “I walked out of the confessional feeling lighter than air. … From that day on, instead of dreading the Sacrament of Penance, as I had when I was a child, I have loved it, because now I understand its healing power.”

Each story is unique, yet each fits the prodigal archetype. These women sing a joyful chorus that rises in stark contrast to the sterile feminism exposed by Steichen in Ungodly Rage (Ignatius, 1991). Each can identify with Smith at the moment of absolution: “[M]y Heavenly Father welcomed His prodigal daughter all the way home at last.”

Thanks to Donna Steichen for a book rich not only in spirituality but also common sense and literary elegance. Her introduction and conclusion are gems of spiritual reading. This is a powerful book which should be read by dutiful and prodigal alike, for it will open the eyes of the former and comfort the latter.

Bridget Neumayr writes from Thousand Oaks, California.