Oklahoma becomes home to more Catholics, and maybe a saint

By Josie Logsdon

While parishes across Oklahoma are opening their doors to more Catholics every year, the percentage of Catholics nationwide is declining. Amid this growth, the Oklahoma native Blessed Stanley Rother, is in the process of becoming a saint. 

According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Catholics in the U.S. fell from 24% in 2007 to 21% in 2014. While the Catholic population in Oklahoma stayed around a steady 4.6% throughout the 20th century, as of 2013, the percentage of Catholics in the state almost doubled to 8%.

The majority of the growth has been from Hispanics, said Diane Clay, director of communications at the Archdiocese of Oklahoma, as well as an increase of immigrants from Burma and Vietnam in the state. Conversion also accounts for the growth. 

“In other areas of the country – particularly the Northeast – they are closing churches; we’re building churches,” Clay said. The archdiocese broke ground on the 2,000 seat shrine for Blessed Stanley Rother in Oklahoma City last month. 

“It’s a wonderful challenge to have,” Clay continued, “and a blessing to have such diversity in the church in Oklahoma.” 

History of Catholicism in Oklahoma

The Catholic presence can be traced to the Indian Territory, modern-day Oklahoma, some 300 years ago. The Archdiocese of Oklahoma wrote that the French Benedictine monks established an official and permanent Catholic presence here in 1875.

At the time, the area was considered “inhospitable” and “unfertile ground for the Catholic Church,” according to the archdiocesan website. No Catholic clergy wanted the responsibility of the frontier land.

Isidore Robot founded the first Catholic Church in the Indian Territory in Atoka in the 1870s. He continued to establish churches along the railroads throughout the territory.

By the early 1900s, there were about 5,000 Catholics in the Indian Territory – one for every 14 square miles. In this era, many Catholics lapsed from the church due to mistreatment and ridicule. Nonetheless, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma was established in 1905, two years before statehood, with the creation of St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Oklahoma City.

After the Great Depression, the Church grew in Oklahoma. During the time Bishop Eugene McGuinness was in office, 40% more parishes erected and 33% more priests were ordained; only three counties in the state did not have a Catholic church.

The Catholic population remained steady until the Second Vatican Council in 1962, which renewed the church across the state.

The diocese split in 1973, creating a separate diocese for Tulsa. Archbishop John R. Quinn of Oklahoma City started a movement of Catholic outreach for Spanish speakers and the youth of the state. The following bishop, Charles Salatka, furthered outreach for immigrants. He devoted himself at 68 to learn Spanish and celebrate the Spanish Mass.   

The Hispanic population continued to grow in the state, a group that is culturally very Catholic. Parishes adapted quickly to the needs of the Spanish-speaking Catholic community.

“About 25-30 years ago, the presence of Hispanic people [in Oklahoma] became more noticeable,” said Deacon Angelo Lombardo of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Norman.

In 1994, St. Joseph’s became the first church in Cleveland County to celebrate the Mass in Spanish. About 60 attended the first Spanish Mass. Today, there are over 700 Hispanic parishioners who attend Mass every weekend at the parish, said Lombardo.

Not only is the Catholic population growing because of the increase in Hispanics in the state, but the Catholic community is becoming younger. Lombardo said the Spanish-speaking families led to an influx of youth and vitality in his parish. Other parishes have seen the same effect. 

Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Oklahoma City has had to move into the church gym during Mass for overflow space, despite celebrating nine Masses every weekend, Clay said. All but one of the Masses are in Spanish. Most churches only celebrate about four a weekend. 

“The shrine’s location will help alleviate the overcrowding,” Clay said. 

A saint for the state

Amid the growing Catholic population in the state, the first Oklahoma-born candidate for sainthood is going through the process for canonization. 

“Archbishop Emeritus Beltran asked me to come in his office one day,” Deacon Norm L. Mejstrik said. He thought he was in trouble. 

“He asked if I would be the coordinator for the Cause for Beatification of Father Stanley Rother.” Mejstrik took the role in 2007. 

The first thing he had to do was write a biography about Rother, send it to Rome, and have it accepted. Mejstrik’s team compiled everything written by and about Rother – interviews with witnesses, letters, documents – and created a book over 7,000 pages. They sealed it in a box with a wax seal and shipped it to the Vatican. 

Blessed Stanley Rother, born in 1935 in Okarche, OK, was a priest for five years in the state. He received permission to join a diocesan mission in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, in the late ‘60s.

Rother served the native tribe of the Tz’utujil. He devoted himself to learning Spanish as well as the indigenous language of the tribe so he could celebrate the Mass in their tongue.

Rother lived in extreme poverty in the midst of the Guatemalan civil war. When he became a target, he and his associates returned to Oklahoma.

But “the shepherd cannot run,” he said. He quickly returned to his community in Guatemala. On July 28, 1981, Rother was killed in his own rectory.

The Congregation for the Causes of Saints reviewed Rother’s 7,000-page biography and passed it onto the pope, who declared Rother a martyr in 2015. 

The next year, Rother became the first beatified U.S. born priest and martyr. The ceremony, held at Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City, was the second beatification ceremony on U.S. soil. 

Today, the Cause for Canonization continues for Rother. In order to become a saint, he must be attributed with a miracle.

Miracles are almost always medical because they are the easiest to verify, said Mejstrik, who is one of the first to examine an alleged miracle. 

They investigate what happened, what the diagnosis was, what the prognosis was, what therapy was provided and the end result. Was there a medical explanation?

“If there is, that’s good,” Mejstrik said, “it means the person lived because of the wonders of modern medicine.”

“If not – it could be a miracle,” he continued. Then they document the process – timelines, testimonies and medical records – and send it to the archdiocesan tribunal. From there, the documentation is sent to Rome, then to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, then the medical board. 

“If the medical board has any doubt there is a miracle,” Mejstrik said, “then it isn’t.” Once it passes the board, the pope gives a final review. 

Mejstrik has received dozens of calls of “favors”, or potential miracles, since the Cause opened. 

“There are a few that are pretty interesting,” he said. They are in various stages of information gathering. Some medical records have already been released to the Cause. 

“We actually got medical records last Saturday from a physician who said he was ready to release them to us,” Mejstrik recalled, “and we have the authorization of the person who was granted the favor, so we can continue.”

Mejstrik said being the director of the Cause for Canonization has been humbling.

“Who am I to be called to work on the Cause of a saint?” he asked. “To study about his life, to promote his cause – it makes me feel very blessed.” 

He also sees how Rother’s life has inspired others in the community. The same people who designed the Oklahoma Memorial Museum are taking on the project of creating the museum that will be at Rother’s shrine. 

“They are a really well-known organization and don’t take on every opportunity that comes along to tell a story,” Mejstrik said. “But when they heard his story, it was so compelling they couldn’t not tell it.” 

“Oklahoma doesn’t have anything like this,” Clay said about the shrine. “It will be something beautiful for the entire community.” 

Nestled between I-35 and Shields on S 89th Street, the 56-acre shrine will become a landmark in Oklahoma City. Both Clay and Mejstrik hope everyone – Catholics, non-Catholics and visitors – will come to learn about the life of Blessed Stanley Rother. 

“We’re all called to be saints,” Mejstrik conveyed. “Blessed Stanley Rother gives us an idea of what that means.”

St. Joseph’s Catholic Church bridges the Hispanic and Anglo communities

By Josie Logsdon

Norman is not a diverse city. Nearly 80% of the population is white, according to the 2018 census. But the Hispanic population in the city is growing, doubling from nearly 4% to 8% in the last two decades. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Norman is home to many of these Hispanic families.

The church that was 5 percent Hispanic only two decades ago is more than half Hispanic today, even though the number of parishioners has not changed. The percentage of Hispanic students in the religious education program has gone from 50% to 95% in just 5 years.

The parish unites the Hispanic and Anglo community, especially during a divisive political era. From leadership programs that tackle tough conversations to the Blessed Stanley Rother Hispanic Institute that sparks positive dialogue on Hispanic culture and history, St. Joseph’s is no stranger to integrating diverse communities.  

History

St. Joseph’s was the first Catholic parish in Norman. It was officially dedicated by Bishop Meerschaert in 1896, though the name had not been decided. German settlers in the area wanted the church to be named “St. Joseph’s” while Irish settlers favored “St. Patrick’s”. The parish was culturally diverse from the beginning.

In the 1960s, two new parishes were built in Cleveland County: St. Thomas More in Norman and St. Andrew’s in Moore. While this impacted the number of parishioners at the church, the following decades provided a further flux of families.

In 1993, the third Catholic parish, St. Mark’s, was established in Norman. St Joseph’s lost more families to the new church.  

The following year St. Joseph’s had 1,000 registered families. About 950 were non-Hispanic and 50 were Hispanic. Deacon Angelo Lombardo of St. Joseph’s recognized the need to begin offering Mass in Spanish, so he and his wife, Annie Lombardo, inquired about starting the Spanish Mass.

At the time, the current priest was getting ready to be reassigned, so he suggested going directly to the bishop to see if they could make it happen.

The two carried petitions with them requesting the Spanish Mass, asking fellow parishioners and community members to sign. They collected nearly 400 signatures. The archbishop responded promptly; he would consider the petition in his decision for reassigning a priest.

In the fall of 1994, the church secretary knocked softly on Angelo’s door.

“There’s a priest that wants to talk to you,” she said, poking her head in.

Ernest Flusche walked into his office. He was an older priest. He introduced himself.

“I understand that you have been contacting the archbishop about starting a Mass in Spanish,” he started. “When do you want to start?”

Angelo found himself rushing to find music and lectors. Annie searched for ministers.

St. Joseph’s celebrated the first Spanish Mass in Norman in November 1994. About 60 people came. 25 years later, about 600 attend one of the two Spanish Masses that St. Joseph’s holds every Sunday.

Bridging the communities

The parish kept the Hispanic and non-Hispanic communities parallel at first. The priority was to fulfill the basic needs of the Hispanic community through the sacraments.

“It’s easy to do these changes in a way that doesn’t affect the other groups,” Angelo said. But there was a need to realize the parish was one family and that the two groups could come together and celebrate things in common.

Angelo and Annie Lombardo, Maria Ruiz, former Spanish professor at OU, Ignacio Ruiz Sr. and OU Spanish professor Luis Cortest talked about what they could do to bring the two groups together. The stage was set to create the Hispanic Cultural Institute, now known as the Blessed Stanley Rother Hispanic Institute in 2008, and was approved by the archdiocese.

Cortest knew there was a good story to tell about Hispanic history, culture and community, in light of all the negative comments of the Hispanic community. He said today, more than a decade later, the image of Latin America is even worse. 

The institute’s mission was to “present a more positive and well-informed picture of the Spanish-speaking world.” They achieved this through the cultural teaching component followed by Spanish classes.

Every Tuesday evening, with the exception of summer and holiday recess, the Blessed Stanley Rother Hispanic Institute meets for two-and-a-half hours for the sole purpose of learning about the Hispanic community.

At 6:50 p.m., members of the institute file into a meeting room at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. Maria Ruiz , her son Ignacio Ruiz Jr. and Cortest are already standing by the tables of food. They encourage the students to overload their plates.

Familiar faces greet one another. Some have been attending these meetings for a decade, others started last month. Not all are Catholic – in fact, non-believers and Jews also gather around the tables to learn. The institute doesn’t just serve the church – it serves the Norman community.

By 7:15, everyone is settled in one of three rows of tables adjacent to a large screen. When Cortest walks to the front of the room, the crowd takes out their pens, notepads and binders packed with handouts. Then they stand for “Padre Nuestro.”

Cortest begins his lecture. Every week for 11 years he, or someone at the institute, has given a unique lecture. He may talk about the history of Mexico City, or invite a guest speaker to share their experience about growing up in Venezuela. Maybe the group will be treated to Peruvian music.

As the lecture continues, the crowd remains attentive. Some Google words they don’t know and ask for spelling clarification for obscure terms.

Ignacio Ruiz stands behind the podium and rapidly searches for images about the topics Cortest is discussing. When Cortest mentions an ancient landmark, Ruiz has it on the screen in seconds.

At the end, members compare notes to make sure they got every detail of the lecture. They have a 10-minute break before they divide into groups for Spanish classes.

The institute invited lecturers from Venezuela, to share the culture and history despite the turmoil in the country today. Professors from the University of Oklahoma have come to speak about topics ranging from the Cuban medical system, poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and flamenco dance.

“The presentations from Dr. Cortest are incredible,” Angelo said. “I learn things about my own culture that I never knew.”

As the Hispanic community in Oklahoma continues to grow, Angelo encourages clergy from around the archdiocese to attend the institute so they can better serve their parishes. 

Angelo and Annie continued to find other ways to integrate the two communities. They started hosting dinners and invited families from both communities. As relationships formed, Lombardo noticed that English speaking families became confirmation sponsors for young Hispanics.

Annie worked with groups of leaders in the parish. She selected six English-speaking and six Spanish-speaking parishioners per group. They met once a month to learn about one another’s cultures.

In the meetings, they would discuss controversial – and often divisive – topics.

“It’s important to realize the roots of behavior,” Annie said, “so you can be aware of issues of conflicts in multicultural communities.”

Annie and Angelo wanted to further their outreach and look beyond the walls of the parish and the borders of the United States. They started a missionary outreach in Saltillo, Mexico.

“People here think that missionary work is getting a hammer and nails and building something,” Angelo said, shaking his head. For St. Joseph’s, missionary work is getting to know people, praying with them and eating with them.

Several members of the missionary group attend the Blessed Stanley Rother Hispanic Institute so they can better serve the community in Mexico.

Members of the Saltillo community in Mexico come to Norman for the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe in December.

A novena, nine-day prayer, is traditionally said leading up to the feast day. The people from Saltillo will pray the novena with parishioners in the evening and visit their homes during the day.

On the feast day, everyone gets up early for mañantas, which are early morning sung prayers. Parishioners and the ministers from Saltillo meet at St. Joseph’s for prayer and breakfast.

After everyone goes to work and school, all return in the evening to pack the church for the Mass of Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

Before the Mass begins, Matachines dancers fill the aisles of the church. Their feathered headdresses sport a rainbow of colors and their skirts ebb and flow with their movements. At the end of the celebration, they lead the congregation out of the church and continue dancing at the fiesta that follows. 

The future of St. Joseph’s

Joseph Irwin has been the pastor at St. Joseph’s for about a year. Before arriving, he served the Hispanic community across Oklahoma for 13 years as a priest.

Irwin worked to understand the culture and the needs of the Hispanic people and their different expectations from their church and priest. 

“I feel blessed to be here because a lot of work was done before I got here to minister to the Hispanic community,” Irwin said. Hispanic immigrants come from a Catholic culture; it’s embedded in their daily lives. They bring that with them, Irwin said, and want to raise their children in the Church, receiving all the sacraments. 

The Hispanic community is young at St Joseph’s. Irwin performs seven baptisms in Spanish per one baptism in English. Annie, who teaches religious education, said 95% of the 400 kids in the program are Hispanic, compared to 50% only 5 years ago. 

Irwin also performs a quinceñera about every other month. The celebration has a strong religious context for Hispanics. It’s important for the families of a 15-year-old girl that she come to the church to celebrate and dedicate her life to God through the Blessed Mother. Irwin said that after the ceremony at the church, there is a huge fiesta that follows. It’s still a significant part of Hispanic culture. 

“It’s obvious who the future of the parish is,” Irwin said.

But Angelo hopes that St. Joseph’s remains multicultural, despite some backlash from the Anglo community.

“There are people who don’t feel comfortable around other cultures,” he said. “They make the decision to move elsewhere.” 

The need for the second Mass in Spanish required moving the times of other Masses. This led to tension and resistance with some members of the community, especially in the current political climate of the U.S. 

“It’s amazing how that can create havoc in a parish community,” Angelo continued. He admired former priest Scott Boeckman who made that decision. Boeckman also added bilingual signage, website content and bulletins so that parish messages get to all parishioners equally. 

Irwin remembered both communities coming together for a bilingual celebration of St. Joseph’s feast day in March. The Mass had music that spoke to both languages and cultures, he said. Parishioners participated in a potluck and brought food that they liked. 

“We had over 300 people came and it was the first time I saw a balance in the community,” Irwin said. “Typically it leans one way or the other, but that was one of the first events where we were looking around and going, ‘There are as many of our Hispanic community as there are Anglo.’”

St. Joseph’s continues to be a very diverse community, and Irwin says there is always the opportunity to experience different cultures through the fiestas, food and celebrations.

Father James Aubrey Goins leads growing parish to new home

By Josie Logsdon

It was the second Sunday of the fall semester and parishioners flocked to St. Thomas More. A newly added third row of risers elevated the choir in voice and spirit, and congregants crowded along the walls because the pews were so packed. 

During a final hymn, Nolan Reilly was playing full organ. As the wind burst through the pipes to fill the church with music, Reilly sat puzzled as never before. He couldn’t hear the notes he was playing.

“What’s happening?” a cantor in the choir asked.

“I have no idea,” Reilly responded. Then his eyes welled with tears as he looked around to see the congregation singing louder than the organ played.

That 2014 Mass was a turning point for St. Thomas More, when the labors of what Father James Aubrey Goins had been planting in the church began to bear fruit.

Goins was assigned to St. Thomas More Catholic Church four years before, when there was no choir, a cantor sat in a metal folding chair next to a mic, and student ministry was “a guitar and pizza.” Now, nearly a decade after Goins’ arrival, a once ponderous parish is so vibrant it will soon expand into new quarters that will house its flock long after the father who helped resurrect it has moved on. 

THE FAITH 

The first Catholic group on OU’s campus was created by students in 1920, according to the parish website. 

“The Catholic students who chose to come to OU were sort of ignored for a while,” Goins said.

The following year, the Knights of Columbus built Columbia Hall at 535 University Boulevard – today a private residence – as a dormitory to male Catholic students. In 1926, the Diocese of Oklahoma contracted with the Sisters of Divine Providence to build Newman Hall – now owned by OU and used for storage – for female Catholic students on the corner of Boyd and Chautauqua. The same year, the first Catholic chapel was dedicated to serve the University of Oklahoma. The chapel was named Mater Admirabilis, or Mother Most Admirable, per the request of a Chicago woman who made a considerable donation to the chapel. The “graceful little Gothic building,” which is now privately owned, still sits at 717 West Boyd in Norman and is commonly referred to as “The Chouse” by locals.

All in all, OU’s Catholics remained largely ignored, Goins said. 

A religious congregation took charge of the chapel until the first chaplains arrived. In 1959, Father Ernest Flusche requested the chapel’s name to be changed to St. Thomas More, honoring a saint who was a scholar and attorney, more fitting for the university setting.

In the 1960s, university housing began to grow south of campus. The diocese began plans to establish a parish and relocate St. Thomas More closer to students. In 1977, the parish contracted with OU architecture professor Raymond Yeh to design a new parish on the corner of Jenkins and Stinson.

The building was completed in 1979 when about 56,000 people lived in Norman, 17,000 students attended OU and about 2,000 of those identified as Catholics.

Forty years later, all those numbers have roughly doubled, and when the additions to St. Thomas More open soon, so will the seating in its sanctuary.  

Still, a Catholic parish on a secular campus in the heart of the Bible Belt presents a unique set of challenges, but Goins also sees those as blessings. 

“The fact that we are a minority has helped Catholics,” said Goins. “We have always been a tight-knit community.”

Other things, however, have changed. 

“Drinking, smoking pot, promiscuity – those are not new temptations,” he said, speaking of today’s college students. “But in my day, you could do something, and it would be swept under the rug. Now, it’s probably going to be filmed and posted for all to see. It’s much more punitive in that way. I feel sorry for students in that regard.”

Additionally, atheism in Oklahoma was just getting started when Goins was in college. Now, Goins has to work harder to show students why it’s reasonable to be Catholic. 

“We’re not psycho, superstitious or clinging to fairy tales,” Goins said. “It’s more work now – discipleship and conversations are more crucial.”

Goins himself needed a conversation with a priest himself to spark his interest in the church. As a young college student in the 70s, he knocked on the door of the priest at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in Chickasha.

“I’m looking for God,” Goins, then a freshman at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, remembers saying, “and I was wondering if I could talk to you.” He had never talked to a priest before.

“Well, you are looking for God,” came the response. “You don’t need to worry too much because God has found you and will show you the way.”

He would never forget that conversation, the exploration it prompted in a young college student who would go on to meet countless priests throughout the next years before converting to Catholicism, entering the seminary and becoming a priest himself on June 5, 1992. 

THE MOVEMENT

From the start at St. Thomas More, Goins had big ideas and surrounded himself with other big thinkers.

Goins found Reilly, an undergraduate at the American Organ Institute at OU. Then an organist at St. Phillip Neri in Midwest City, he left to help with Goins’ plans to revamp the parish.

Reilly inherited control of the music ministry. He started a chant schola, a university type of program that brings singers to learn together. He built a choir. They launched the Choral Scholars program that offered scholarships to voice students to sing in the choir, giving students experience while making money doing what they train to do professionally.

“About one-third of the choir is non-Catholic,” Reilly said, “but a few of the scholarship singers have gone on to become Catholic. One of our paid singers went to seminary for a brief period.”

Reilly sees this – a major part of Goins’ initiative to help the parish grow – as a way to connect the arts and serve the university.

“Father Jim came here to spark something, to enable the parish to see its own gifts and to use them to infinity and beyond,” Reilly said.

Goins swore that anything you put into a music program, you get back.

“You’re never wasting money or time into something of quality,” Reilly said, echoing Goins’ teachings to his church family.

The lessons learned revealed themselves in an increase of weekly churchgoers. The Sunday evening Mass used to be the largest because it was the student Mass. When the full choir started to shine at the 11 a.m. Mass, students – and even non-Catholics – started showing up.

“They heard about the music. They heard about Father Jim’s speaking,” Reilly said of how the investments began to flourish. 

“The numbers on any given Sunday – overflowing with people. On an Ash Wednesday Mass, we stopped counting at 1,000. There were people standing in the hallways to the bathroom.”

Now, as the parish expands, Goins was adamant about keeping the music and the arts at the forefront. The new church will have an old, traditional model. The choir will be in the back loft.

“The sound comes out through the top of the roof, not straight into the bodies,” Reilly said, speaking of the acoustics in the new building that will complement the voices of the choir and the sounds of the organ while removing the distraction of a 30-person choir. It’s all a design meant to keep “the people focused and the music beautiful.”

“Father Jim supports the staff, the art and beauty all within the context of liturgy,” said Dr. Damin Spritzer, an organist at the parish.  

THE MISSION

Beyond music, missionaries have been central to Goins’ plan at St. Thomas More, young adults right out of college, who devote a few years to serving the students on campuses.

One of the first people that former OU student Moses Llauder connected with at St. Thomas More was one such missionary. Llauder was a successful business student who thought he had his life planned out.

But after countless nights of battling stress and uneasiness, Llauder decided to start working on his spirituality.

“I left the Church earlier on, but I never really intellectually pursued the Church’s knowledge,” he said.

He called the St. Thomas More’s office, and the next Wednesday showed up for dinner and discussion.

“I had very immature expectations going in,” he said. “I had this idea in my head that everyone was going to be obsessed with Jesus and overly awkward.”

Then he met Dorian Arellano, who had a cap on backward and wore clothes that Llauder would wear. 

“He understood my situation,” Llauder said of the young missionary. It wasn’t “awkward” or “weird.” The community was welcoming and understood where Llauder was in his faith.

Soon, Llauder came to the church offices to hang out after class.

“I think Father Jim is in his office,” one of the students told Llauder, “if you’d like to go talk to him.”

“That’s kinda weird,” Moses thought, “Do priests just talk to kids?”

He walked into Goins’ office. Frasier, Goins’ golden retriever, was sitting on the floor. Llauder didn’t know where to start.

“I used to be Catholic,” he remembers starting. “I don’t want to go to Mass though, because I don’t want biases of my experience in the church to interfere.” He felt going would be disrespectful to those who are Catholic when he was used to going through the motions and not trying to really understand what was happening.

Goins understood. 

“As a priest of the Catholic Church,” he remembers Goins saying with a solemn yet authentic voice like a father to a son, “I just can’t in my good conscience advise you not to go to Mass.”

After that, the two talked weekly – about life, the church, the rosary and what true love is.

“I asked him a really difficult question once,” Llauder said. “It was gnawing at me to know what true love is.”

“God calls us to love one another as we love ourselves,” Llauder remembers saying to Goins. “I find that hard because I feel like I don’t love myself the way I should or the way God wants me to.”

“Oh. Huh. Wow,” Goins slowly responded. “You started really difficult.” But after thinking for a moment, Goins gave a straightforward answer. “It’s simple.” And he left it there, a seed planted for the future.

“He was perfect for relating to a kid that is trying to seek the truth,” Llauder said.

Goins’ work as a father figure plays out in other ways. 

Reilly remembers Goins once preaching the same homily for the third time at the 11 a.m. Mass on a particularly moving Sunday when a baby in the front row would not stop crying. Goins, mid sermon, walked over slowly to the pew, picked up the child and started gently rocking the baby in his arms.

The child fell asleep. Goins finished his homily with the baby in his arms.

“If it were anyone else, I would have thought it was a publicity stunt,” Reilly said. “But watching it happen – it was the most genuine reaction. We were all focused on what was happening.”

Goins develops close relationships with the students at the parish as well.

Llauder recalled how Goins would talk about Zak Boazman, a former student and now priest.

“When Zak came in and did his first homily… you could see Father holding back tears,” Llauder said. “He looked like a dad. It was the coolest…Those are my favorite moments, to see him in the act of love.”

Llauder married his bride, whom he met at the church, on June 22, 2019, St. Thomas More’s feast day. Goins officiated the ceremony. Llauder was excited for his family to see the man who led him back to the church. 

Llauder remembers Goins speaking about him at the altar.

“Whenever he was talking about the people he loved, I remember his face. As he was talking about me, while looking at me, I just recall that face; just a reflection of Jesus’ love.”

THE FUTURE

Goins loves to officiate weddings. He lets the bride do almost anything.

“It’s your day, do whatever,” he said. “You’re the bride.”

The moment he loves the most?

“When the doors of the church open and the bride walks in – everyone sees the bride walk in. I watch the groom’s face as he sees his beautiful bride. It’s a great moment… And the brides are always beautiful, simply because they are the bride.”

Spoken like the father of the bride.

Goins wanted to build a bride’s church, a church where young people would want to get married, a church with a long aisle to extend the bride’s walk to her groom.

The metaphor is deeply woven into Catholic theology. In the ancient world, the bride waited for the bridegroom. Christians believe that the church is wedded to Christ, waiting for Him.

Goins lives this metaphor, laying down his life for his church, his bride.  

“They were functional, but not beautiful,” Goins said of churches built after the Second Vatican Council, but speaking in a way that resonates with the sense of mission he’s brought to St. Thomas More. “The world needs beauty. The faith is beautiful, and it needs beautiful churches to express it.”

Accordingly, Goins wanted to build the most beautiful church the parish could afford. Donors from across the country funded construction of the new building. Students took part in “Ten Buck Sunday” where they could donate a little of their own money weekly, too.

When it opens, slated for Christmas Eve Mass, the church’s new ceiling will wear a veil of Marian Stars. A statue of St. Thomas More will stand out front, pointing at students who feel called to enter. The design will mimic the Great Reading Room in the Bizzell Memorial Library, blending anew staples of the parish and the university, the spiritual and the scholarly.

“Just as brides are beautiful,” Goins said, his house full of warmth, music and love, its future secure, “so should churches be beautiful.”

Emily Schwing – Reveal News

By Josie Logsdon

Emily Schwing sat by the radio crying moments before her story broke the air in December 2018. Her 19-month investigation on a scandal in the Catholic Church was about to become public. She questioned every bit of information in that story.

“I just hope I got it right,” she thought.

Schwing’s investigation proved the theory that the Church used Native communities as “dumping grounds” for problem priests.


Schwing worked at the NPR office in Washington DC out of college. While she enjoyed her time there, she knew she wanted to get out of the office and report on the field.

The recession hit shortly after in 2008, so Schwing decided to go to the University of Alaska Fairbanks to get her master’s degree in environmental science. She wanted to write stories on national resource management and climate change in the far north.

Around this time, stories started coming out about sexual harassment cases by priests in western Alaska.

“It was always in my peripheral vision,” Schwing said, “But I never paid too much attention to the details.”

Her degree took her around the world, from Germany to Idaho. Eventually, she took the job as a news director at KNOM in Nome, AK in 2016. It was one of the only stations in western Alaska, and she wanted to report out there.

“I had some reservations because of the station’s affiliate with the Catholic Church,” she said. KNOM was founded by James Poole, a Jesuit priest.

Schwing enjoyed her time at the station. She grew the team and initiated projects. But she always knew something was “off.”

After less than a year at KNOM, Schwing moved to Spokane, Washington. Within a few months, she discovered that Poole was living in the Cardinal Brea House on the Gonzaga campus. That suspicious finding sparked her investigation in collaboration with Reveal News.

She was pointed to the Catholic Directory, a big, red book that resided on campus. Schwing looked up Poole and traced his addresses backward by year. She did this with every other priest in the directory.

It was a tedious process; Schwing took a photo of each page in the directory, typed every name into a Word document and transferred the information to a spreadsheet for 20 years worth of information. She cross-referenced her data with the Jesuit Catalogue for accuracy, and then searched the names in the Bishop Accountability website. The website is the main source for priests with allegations of sexual misconduct.

The numbers were shocking. Schwing found that at least 20 Jesuit priests with credible sexual abuse accusations had lived on Gonzaga’s campus since 1986. Across Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, 80% of 92 accused Jesuit priests worked in indigenous communities at some point in their careers, a rate that is 3.6 times higher than anywhere in the US. More than 100 indigenous communities were impacted in the region.

This was the beginning of Schwing’s data trail. She found sources to help her navigate the Catholic Church. An ex-priest helped translate Latin documents and navigate Canon Law. Other sources led her to letters that were sent all the way to Rome regarding Poole. In each step of the investigation, Schwing uncovered scandal and misconduct in the Church.

Poole, the founder of KNOM, abused at least 20 women and girls – some as young as six years old, and many worked for the station. More explicit details about other priests arose. It was all written down – all known by the superiors of the Church.

Elsie Boudreau became the spokeswoman for many of the women in Native communities that were affected by priests’ misconduct. She worked at KNOM with Schwing. She was a victim of Poole’s abuse. 

“I knew you were coming,” Boudreau told Schwing, “and when I met you, I knew it was you who had to tell the story.”

Schwing took her former coworker’s comment seriously.

“Coming from a leader of the Alaska Native community, that was really meaningful,” she said. “This story chose me.”

There was a lot that was hidden in darkness before this story. Schwing said that while Poole’s story – and others similar to his – was known, people kept quiet out of shame, embarrassment or respect for the Church.

“I know for a fact that every single person I worked with at KNOM knew this story,” Schwing said. Today, the station denies that they were even founded by the priest.

This story caused backlash on the station. Schwing said she regrets that she hurt people that she otherwise respected, but her job as a reporter was to tell the truth.

“People are always mad at reporters,” she said, “but I call it fan mail.”

A Catholic priest told Schwing that she didn’t get some things right in the story. When she asked him to clarify, he said it wasn’t worth “splitting hairs.”

“Then why bring it up?” she asked. “I’m never gonna be able to tell this story as a Catholic priest, but I did the best I could.”

Aside from the tedious investigation, deciding how to write the story about priests and Native women was one of the biggest challenges for Schwing because she would never know what it’s like to live those lives.

Schwing had reported tribal affairs over the years and respected the Alaska Natives and Native Americans. She could only report the story as a “white lady,” she said, and do her best to give the Native women a voice.

Schwing was disappointed in the public response to this story. Many blew over the fact that hundreds of Native communities were affected and paid more attention to the priests living on the Gonzaga campus. She believes this shows how discrimination toward minorities is instilled in our country – especially in the media.

Schwing has since moved back to Alaska and regularly produces stories on Arctic research, science and resource development. While this investigative story was outside her intended beat, she put forth the effort and learned how to navigate an unfamiliar organization. Schwing said any investigative story will take longer than you think it will.

“You’ll wanna give up,” she said, “but it’s at those times you get these information bombs in your email or your voicemail.” Patience and diligence are crucial in investigative journalism.

Q&A: Vladyslav Alforov

By Josie Logsdon

A Global View on Local Politics

Vlad knew he wanted to get out of Ukraine, to discover other parts of the world. Vlad calls Cherkasy home, a decent city in central Ukraine. Since he was 17, Vlad had been studying around the world to understand different cultures, politics and economics.

Josie Logsdon: How old were you when you first moved away from home?

Vladyslav Alforov: I moved from home when I was 17.

JL: To Oklahoma?

VA: No, I went to an international boarding school in Armenia, so I pretty much finished high school back home then did two more years of high school, just because it was a very different environment, very diverse, very open-minded, very tolerant. My parents first thought it was some sort of trap, they were like, “You’re going to a cult, they’re gonna make you build that school.” But I said, “It sounds like I actually got a scholarship for something that will give me an opportunity to actually study abroad later.” That’s sort of the predominant desire back home – to get out of the country because it’s stagnant in some economic ways, socially it’s very depressive in some ways.

JL: Do a lot of students go abroad?

VA: So I would say around one-third of my peers study in Poland because they believe that Poland – you know, European Union – it is more financially secure, there’s more opportunity. But I wasn’t interested in Poland. I decided to find some other ways to get out of the country – which I’m not proud of right now. I wouldn’t say that it was a good move to just be ignorant of any kind of positive change I can implement in the country. But back then I was like, hey, in order to find my voice, I need to get out of here. So I managed to into the program United World College. After two years in Armenia, I had to apply to college, and Oklahoma was one of the schools that sent agents to the boarding school to advertise the college. Oklahoma ended up being one of the two colleges that gave me good scholarships.

JL: What was the other school?

VA: It was Bennington College in Vermont. It’s very artsy, very “no curriculum, here’s your advisor do whatever you want.” I chose Oklahoma. I’ve never regretted it. I really love the university with the amount of extra-curricular involvement, and the vigor is really excellent here. I may have some issues with the state of Oklahoma, as a non-driver, I’m a person who may have some issues with the perks of capitalism. But I’m really grateful for my experience at OU.

JL: What do you want to do next?

VA: I think I wanted to be a journalist even before – even back home I was interested in writing. I was more creative and artsy as a kid. I think the academic pressure takes that away. The more I learn, the more interested I am in journalism. I want to be specifically involved in investigative journalism. When I was in Armenia, I learned about their, like, it’s not a war, it’s more of an armed conflict. There is the region on the border that they’re fighting for, and I didn’t even know about it. Although I lived only a two-hour flight away, not even across the world. And it’s crazy people are fighting, dying, and in the West, we can do more with information on those conflicts. I mean, in the US, how many people know about the Armenian conflicts – many people just know Armenia because of the Kardashians. I would like to make people more aware of critical situations across the globe. So, human rights violations, corruption, armed conflicts, stuff like that. That’s why I wanna get involved.

JL: So is there any draw to take what you’ve learned abroad back to your home country?

VA: Yes, especially with the current political state back home. We chose a new president and new parliament, and now I can sense this sort of political and social upheaval. It seems like people are once again motivated to work for the benefit of their country. They are actually inspired and they were made to believe that the change for better is possible. And it is. I believe that Ukraine is one of the most promising democratic powers in the western world, let’s say, because I see that people want more transparency and less corruption. They want more proper governance and control over the governmental actions.

JL: So what have you learned that can influence what you can do in Ukraine?

VA: I took this course online on corruption over summer. And they talk about two different natures of corruption. One is institutional and one is exceptional. So in the US, when a politician is corrupt, it’s very easy to get rid of that one broken element in a chain. That works most of the time. In the Ukraine, corruption isn’t an exception in the chain, it’s the nature of the system. Its institutional corruption. You can’t change things by switching one person for another, because that person is going to likely be just as, if not more, corrupted. So how do you go about it? That’s where media comes. I feel an urge to come back and contribute as a journalist, especially being schooled abroad, because there is such a need for transparent reporting in journalism. News should be more analytical than anecdotal. There is the growing need for more sincere and professional journalism. So yeah, I want to come back. Maybe a couple years ago, I would have seen that as a failure. Like, yeah, I managed to get out, but now if I come back – that’s a complete disaster. But I don’t think like that anymore. It’s more of a continuation of the logical circle. I grew up there, my heart is always there. You know, I always say “There’s only one country that’s better than Ukraine, it’s Ukraine if it was a bit better.” That makes me want to come back. If not us, who.

JL: How did the corruption affect you as a kid?

VA: It’s very interesting; the corruption is from the bottom-up. Of course there are politicians accepting bribes, but back home, let’s say you want to put your kid in a public kindergarten. Well, there’s this line of kids waiting to get in. By the time your kid is one or two years old, they should already be in line so that by the time they have to go to kindergarten, there’s a place for them. But if you want to move a little bit ahead in line, you just have to bribe someone. If you want to get preferential treatment in a public hospital, you have to bribe someone. The thing is healthcare is free back home, but not really. School is supposed to be free. I went to a public school, but my parents still paid, not really bribes, but I don’t know how lawful that was. Like “parents contribution for the cleaning of a classroom,” or “parents contribution toward textbooks” or something like that. So corruption is everywhere. It’s just so widespread. And people always give crap to the government, about the bad roads or something, but nobody wants to pay taxes. Nobody pays taxes. 50% of business is illegal in one way or another. You receive your salary in an envelope, and that paycheck isn’t taxed. You get that cash, but it doesn’t get taxed. My mom is an entrepreneur – I know half of her stuff isn’t “clean” or not as legal as she would like. But she influenced me in that way, she doesn’t participate in what she considers immoral. She lost several jobs because her bosses would ask for her to cross the line dealing with taxes. Unfortunately, we have to deal with it on a daily basis.

JL: Have you ever bribed anyone for better treatment?

VA: We did pay someone off one time. When I was supposed to go to Armenia, I needed a new passport. The names on my birth certificate and my passport didn’t match up, so I couldn’t get a new passport until that new name was in there. So we went to the agency responsible for renewing my birth certificate and they said their official was on paid leave until August, so they couldn’t do anything. And I had to leave by July. So my mom went to talk privately to that person and they ended up resolving it – I don’t really know how.

JL: Do you feel bad for family or friends that still leave there now that you’ve experienced different places?

VA: Well, traveling is one of my biggest passions in life. The more I travel, the more I understand it’s not better here or there. It’s just very different in many ways. I cannot claim that I’m so mesmerized by the United States because it’s prosperous and everyone lives so freely. Like back home, nobody knows what student loan debt is. There are different dynamics. I don’t feel bad about my friends and family that still live back home. I sometimes feel bad about their choices or their worldview in general. I go back home every time I get into arguments with my friends, saying, “If you want better roads, how come you can park where ever you want and not pay anywhere and nobody will fine you.” And they tell me to imagine that some guy is gonna park illegally and even if he does get fined, he’s not gonna pay it. So when I was at the court clerk last week and I asked someone what happens if someone ignores their letter for jury summons, she just said it’s really bad, they’d send the sheriff or something, but that doesn’t really happen. They don’t ignore it. That was a culture shock for me. People know here the system works. That is so weird for me. Because at home people get letters to join the army, and they just ignore those letters because they know there will be no enforcement. It’s sad to see that my friends and family seem not ready to do something about it.

JL: Did you get one of those army letters?

VA: I did.

JL: Did you ignore it?

VA: I did not ignore it. As far as I understand, you get a waiver when you go to a higher-education establishment. I read the constitution and it seems like it applies to when I study abroad. So I told my mom to bring documents to the office proving that I go to university because I didn’t want to break the law. She said she talked to her boss who used to work at that office, and he said that it’s better to just avoid dealing with it. They’re not gonna do anything about it. They physically summon people two weeks out of the year. The rest of the year, they’ll send out letters but they won’t come looking for you so it’s just easier to ignore it. Eventually, I made my mom give them the letter. They’ll send me another summons when the document expires.

JL: Will you go to the army then?

VA: I don’t think so because I’m planning to do a masters. I mean, the thing is, even if I’m back home and I’m not at university and I’m just working, the odds are I’ll just find a way not to go to the army. I’m trying to be frank here. I don’t wanna waste a year of my life. I don’t feel like there will be anything good coming out of that.

JL: What’s one thing you’d bring from Ukraine to the United States?

VA: Let’s see. I’ll have to think about it. If I was to share one thing with Americans, it would be a passion for travel. A passion for embracing the culture, embracing the difference. I’m often saddened by how culturally isolated this nation is. America is very self-sufficient. Ukraine is not. I grew up listening to French music, watching Russian and British TV shows. I grew up learning four languages. And it’s just very different. So I would bring the passion for discovering other cultures.

Essay: Two Years in a Mexican Convent

By Josie Logsdon

My dad cried the day I stood next to the altar reading from the book of Ezekiel.

I was speaking God’s Word in Spanish during the courtyard Mass in front of the thirty-something women – all dressed in long, gray habits, veils that covered their hair – in front of my fellow aspirants and their religious families. It was the first time he saw me all week after dropping me off at the little convent in Guadalajara. He was the only atheist in the pews. 

I didn’t know that he cried that day. I didn’t know until a year later, the next spring break I spent at the convent I hoped to join.


My dad and I walked into the 7-Eleven at Plaza Guadalajara on a summer night in late June after I graduated high school. It was the first trip we’d taken together since he announced he wouldn’t be married to my mom anymore. I still hated him for that.

Martina was working the night shift at the convenience store. As she rang us up, my dad and I introduced ourselves and prompted conversation. We had an ongoing competition to see who could practice their Spanish most.

I was wearing the diamond cross on my neck. It’s the Tiffany’s cross my dad bought me two months before the announcement, and it’s clung to my neck since. I usually hid it under my shirt when I was walking the streets of Mexico. But the cross gleamed proudly on my chest that night.

“She’s gonna be a nun someday,” my dad said, pointing to my cross. Martina hadn’t been to church in years. We talked about the different ways we were raised Catholic. She wanted to take me to the convent in her neighborhood, Huentitán Abajo, when she knew I was serious about entering religious life. The next day, we were on the train with Martina to visit Las Hijas de Jesús Buen Pastor (The Daughters of Christ the Good Shepherd).

I knew I wanted to be a religious sister – not a nun, as my dad said. Religious sisters aren’t cloistered; they live in the city and work daily with the surrounding communities. I had known for a couple years at this point. But I hadn’t decided where. I applied to college per my parents’ request. The gift was my dad’s way of showing acceptance for my decision, but he and my mom agreed that I had to have a plan for after high school.

It didn’t look like a convent, not from the outside. The tall, stucco walls crowned with electric wire were anything but inviting. Martina pressed the call button next to the massive steel doors and explained who we were. Sor Lilia opened the door and invited us in.

Her habit brushed her ankles and her sleeves were rolled up to her elbows. The gray in her tunic was two shades darker than her veil. Short-cut hair poked out of the coif that brimmed her face. Her belt drooped loosely around her waist. There was a pocket on either hip to fill with rosaries, a pocket watch, prayer cards and whatever else needed safekeeping throughout the day. It was almost impossible to see her bright blue eyes because she squinted every time she smiled. She always smiled.

Sor Lilia showed me around the convent. We sat and talked in the garden for hours. Other sisters who were watering the flowers and sweeping leaves introduced themselves. A Marian statue guarded the garden. She was beautiful, carved out of white stone. Her soft smile was inviting and comforting.

Classrooms and a playground lined one wall of the convent. They taught children up to fifth grade. 

The kitchen and dining room were situated on the adjacent wall. Three sisters cooked three meals for the convent of 35 – and whoever was visiting. They cooked for the school children. But only the sisters and postulates – who lived full-time in the convent, but had not yet taken their final vows – could eat in the dining room. A photo of Pope Francis blessed the wall above the dining tables. There was a TV across the room so they could listen to the pope’s speeches and announcements. On Wednesdays, they spoke only in Italian to ensure they could understand his words.

The other wall housed the sisters. Only they knew what it looked like inside.

I’ve said the rosary countless times with the sisters around that statue. I’ve taught those kids math and religious education. I’ve sang songs with them, dug holes in the playground with them. I’ve eaten in the dining room with the sisters. My hands have cleaned seemingly infinite dishes in that kitchen. I dreamed of living in the sisters’ quarters.

For a year I was under Sor Lilia’s wing. We talked weekly and went over the homework she assigned to me. I spent evenings in the chapel in Oklahoma reflecting on the questions that the homework provided. I dug into my prayer life, my history with depression and past boyfriends.  I was completely transparent. I craved to be back in the convent any time I wasn’t. I craved the joy that the sisters had. I craved religious life.

I visited the convent on weekend trips throughout the semesters my first two years of college, and stayed for whole weeks when I had breaks in school. Sor Lilia was moved to a convent in Veracruz so Sor Latziry took me in and helped guide me through my discernment, the period of time I was contemplating religious life. But I missed Sor Lilia. I missed her messages every week. I missed the blue eyes always hidden by a smile. 


“You’ve never used a mop before?” Karla asked. We became close friends as aspirants. We had the same birthday.

“Never. We’ve always used a Swiffer Wet Jet.” Karla, who grew up just down the road from the convent, didn’t know what that was. She critiqued how I wrung out the water and dragged the soppy mop around the tile. That became my new regular job there – and a joke between the girls.

When a sister had a birthday, the convent threw a party. At the last party I was at, there was wine. Lots of wine. Enough wine for 35 sisters, the six postulates who lived there and me. Enough wine to get me to teach all the sisters the two step and the Cotton Eyed Joe. Enough wine that the veils came off, and the women’s short hair – hidden since their final vows – bounced as they moved. Enough wine to keep us awake 30 minutes later than usual. We’d been up since 6 a.m., and we’d be up at 6 a.m. tomorrow. And every day after that. The next morning, we regretted losing those 30 minutes. 

The next evening, the sisters, the postulates and I gathered for dinner one day after evening prayer. There were stacks of dozens of fresh tortillas scattered across the table to accompany the chile verde stew I helped prepare.

Sor Laura asked how my family was, especially my dad. He’s the only family member any of the sisters had met. I explained that I was hesitant about him dating again – he had a girlfriend he hid from me for months. I explained that my brothers and I felt he had no regard for our feelings – that he didn’t care that he tore the family apart, and could carry on unscathed.

“He cares, Josie,” Sor Laura said. I shrugged. 

“A year ago when you were reading at the Mass, I sat next to your dad. He cried and cried while you were up there. He cares.”

My dad? I hadn’t even seen his eyes water before. The only time my mom saw him cry in the twenty-something years they knew each other was when his own dad was taken to prison.

I was silent. I didn’t know what to say, how to react to something I couldn’t imagine. Crying? Why? What moved him? What was he feeling? Was he proud? Was he reflecting our family’s recent years?

I never dared ask any of those questions. I would rather dream of an explanation than try to pry it out of him. But he cried. My dad cried.


The night I learned that my dad cried was my last night at the convent. It was the beginning of my last month as an aspirant. It was the last night I would see the sisters. The breakup was a month later.

For years, the convent was my plan, my dream. For years I was “the girl that’s gonna be a nun.” The sisters had given me the best years of my life at that point. They showed me the joy of obedience, taught me the beauty of poverty and living humbly and strengthened me to live chastely.

But, suddenly, I  began to dread the convent, the prayer, the assignments. I was overwhelmed with the idea that maybe I stayed an aspirant because it was easy. It was comfortable and reliable. It began to feel selfish. So it was decided, after talking with Sor Latziry, I would take a break.

I didn’t doubt God or His plan for me. But the pain of losing the sisters as my forever plan pierced me.

The next Sunday, one of my mentors at church asked how the sisters were. My eyes turn red and fill with tears.

“We broke up,” I told her, crying into her shoulder.

“I’m so excited for you,” she said. I tried to show her my confusion, but she wouldn’t unwrap her arms from my body. “You were so happy, filled with so much joy in your time with the sisters. Whatever God really has planned for you will be even better.”

I didn’t know something “even better” existed. I didn’t understand that moving to Mexico and becoming a religious sister was not my ultimate path to a joyful, fruitful and worthwhile life. All I  understood was that I had to find key elements to take from the convent and implement them in my new, secular life. 

Those two years have helped me never desire wealth, because I lived the freedom of owning nothing. Start dating, but never love a man that loved me any less than the sisters. Somehow forgive my dad for marrying a woman I had met only once. And celebrate all my birthdays drinking wine and dancing until bedtime.