Ponoka teacher on becoming Catholic through a tragic diagnosis, Mother Mary, and teaching at a Catholic school

23 May 2024

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Heather Harrison is a Grade 4 teacher at St. Augustine School in Ponoka. She was received into the Catholic Church this past Easter Vigil at her local parish, St. Augustine Catholic Church. Heather shared with us her story of conversion and how being a teacher in the Catholic schools inspired her to become a Catholic.

What were some of the reasons that you were intrigued by Catholicism? 

I’ve been working in a Catholic school for four years now, and throughout the last four years I’ve seen a lot of wonderful things. I’ve seen within my students really beautiful moral values. I wanted to be a good role model for them. In order for me to do that, I had to ‘walk the walk’ and make the commitment [to be Catholic]. 

For so long, there was something holding me back in my heart. But I was longing for a deeper relationship with Jesus. I had a bit of a relationship with Christ, but nothing like I do now. I knew that I wanted this—a closer relationship with Christ—and after four years it was time to finally make this decision.

I’ve always wanted to have faith as part of my life. I had grown up Lutheran, but then “fell off the bucket” when I was in high school. So faith has always been a part of my life, but I wanted it to have more of a meaning, more of a closeness with my faith. It matters to me to have a closeness to our Lord and I’ve found that in the Catholic Church. 

Within the Catholic faith, when you talk to someone who’s Catholic, so many Catholic people are just so strong in their faith; that’s what initially intrigued me. I love the community, too, within Catholicism. 

[But what ultimately led me to the Catholic Church] was a mixture of things. I have been working at a Catholic school for quite a while and then my Mom was diagnosed [with a brain tumor] and I found myself turning to God in that struggle. Working in a Catholic school and experiencing everything with my Mom led me to examine my conscience and see that I wanted to start the process of becoming Catholic. 

With students at St. Augustine Catholic School, Ponoka.

Last summer, your Mom was diagnosed with a severe brain tumor that was potentially life-threatening. Can you describe what happened and how this impacted your journey into the Church? 

I felt a lot of comfort in knowing that I wasn’t going through that experience alone. I had my family, but they were obviously going through the struggle as well. And honestly, there were so many times that when things started going downhill with [my Mom] and I felt so much comfort. I really needed somebody and I had [Jesus]. 

I felt a lot of comfort, knowing that God’s plans are not in my hands. I’m just going to pray. And I know that whatever will happen is in God’s hands and he has a plan for all of our lives. 

[When my Mom was diagnosed], it also changed my Mom. She grew up Lutheran. But, as it is with a lot of us, she had strayed away, or got caught thinking that “I’m too busy right now.” But then when my Mom got really sick, she had a “come to Jesus moment” where she was like, “faith is really important to me because I’m really scared and I don’t know what else to do.” And I was like, “I’m really scared too.” It was time to start the journey of becoming a Catholic, or practicing my faith. I also had a “come to Jesus” moment and that led me to starting the process of becoming Catholic. 

At the Rite of Election at St. Joseph’s Basilica with Mom, Spring 2024.

How did Mother Mary accompany you in that time of suffering and uncertainty? 

I remember driving to the hospital with my Mom and Dad, after my Mom was diagnosed. My dad was driving, and I was sitting with my Mom in the backseat. I said the Hail Mary like 30-40 times over. I didn’t know what else I could do! I felt so comforted and I had a sense that my Mom was going to be okay. 

And honestly, from that moment saying the Hail Marys until after surgery, I just knew that my Mom was going to be cared for. I knew she was going to be ok. I believed in a miracle! 

And now, my Mom is now doing really well. It’s pretty amazing. She had surgery and she is so much better. 

That is one thing I find really beautiful about the Catholic faith: the emphasis put on Mary. You don’t hear about it as much in other Christian denominations. I really love that.

Before you became a Catholic, what was something that impacted you about teaching at a Catholic school? 

Before becoming Catholic, I had the pleasure of being a part of a “living Rosary.” That was a powerful experience. Being raised in a fairly Lutheran household, we didn’t really use rosaries. Each child was given a bead, like a really big bead of a rosary, and then we stood in the form of a rosary and each person would pray the prayers as we came to them. So in that sense it’s not just symbolic, it’s tangible. The kids can realize that “Okay, this is my prayer, and I’m putting it with all the other prayers.” It is also a community-building experience, where we’re all praying together. 

With students at St. Augustine Catholic School, Ponoka.

Why has it been so important to you to be a witness of faith to the children who you teach? 

As I’ve been on this spiritual journey, it has put me in a position of seeing life through a totally different lens. For example, another teacher called me into the hallway to tell me something really quick. And when I left the room, everything was beautiful, but then when I left the kids alone, the kids were everywhere. 

So I asked the kids “even if I’m not in the room, who do you need to be accountable to?” And one kid immediately said, “I need to be accountable to God, because I want to follow in the path of Jesus and I want to be a good person, even when nobody’s watching me.” And I was very like, taken aback honestly, by the profound answer from a Grade 3 student. 

That inspired me. And so I want to continuously model behavior [of a Christian] so that they can make all of those connections and so I can lead by example, which is really important. 

Did you have to overcome any fears as you were getting close to entering the Church? 

It was not so much fear as much as thinking, “Am I worthy? Is this really my journey?” I had to get over the mental hurdle of feeling that I wasn’t meant to be Catholic, because I wasn’t born Catholic; I was making this choice for myself. But I’m grateful! I’m blessed that I have chosen this. I’m really thrilled to be in this position. I’m not going to lie. I feel really good!

Heather receiving the sacrament of Baptism.

How was it for your parents, when you entered the Church? 

Both my parents were there on Easter Vigil, when I entered the Church. 

My mom grew up Lutheran; my dad grew up Protestant. They were a little bit hesitant on some things. It’s a little different for everybody, but they were really proud of me and they were happy that I made this choice for myself, because they know that I have always wanted this journey of faith and to have that closeness. I found it to be a beautiful experience. My parents really enjoyed the Mass. 

What has been your relationship with the Sacraments, as you’ve come into the Church? 

So Baptism was something that I was really looking forward to. I’ll be honest, it was never something that was super-important within my family. But after learning about the importance of the sacrament, I really wanted to be fully initiated into the Church. 

And then receiving my First Communion, it was a really beautiful experience, and I felt very at peace, and I felt very taken care of.

Heather receiving her First Communion with Father Liju Jose, pastor for St. Augustine Catholic Church.

Can you explain why you felt “very taken care of”? 

Yes. So being non-Catholic and attending Mass consistently, I would go up for my blessing during Communion, but I never got to fully be a part of everything. I didn’t get to experience the fullness of the Mass. Receiving Communion was important to me, so I also felt like I was part of the community, and I was also receiving the body of Christ.

What was the experience of RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) like for you? 

So when moving [to Ponoka], I needed to find a sponsor. I met this beautiful couple here named Murray and Rhonda McLaughlin—they’ve been parishioners at St. Augustine’s for over 25 years—and they offered to be my sponsors. They attended every meeting with me, and they would be there to support me, which is a huge time commitment on their end. They are both already Catholic, so they don’t need to be there for themselves, but they came every week. 

Again, that’s something that I find in the Catholic community. A lot of people are willing to be generous with their time, and that doesn’t happen everywhere. Also Deacon Rollie [Comeau], who led our RCIA meetings, he’s outstanding. He was super well-spoken and he presented with such kindness. 

Heather with her sponsors, Rhonda and Murray McLaughlin, and Deacon Rollie Comeau.

What was something that you learned in RCIA that surprised you? 

There are a few things! Our Lady of Guadalupe and so many of the different miracles [that have happened] within the Catholic Church. Also the miracle of Buenos Aires.* Where the host turned  into the blood of Christ. We watched a video on that; I just thought that was the most amazing thing.

Yes, I was just like “well, if anyone doubts [the Eucharist], watch that!”

Was there anything that you found difficult about entering the Catholic Church? 

Well, most of the people who are in my inner circle are very supportive of me, but it is sometimes the people who don’t know you as well who are asking the hard questions, wondering what I am doing. 

Having to defend and explain that I need to do this for myself. I need to do this for my students. I need to live a more holistic life. 

A lot of this goes back to my experience of being a teacher in a Catholic school. In a Catholic community, I really believe we focus on the dignity of the child. We want to have them develop emotionally, physically, and spiritually. We want to ingrain that love of Christ within the students as well, in a holistic way: Mind, body and spirit! 

With Archbishop Smith at St. Joseph’s Basilica at the Rite of Election, Spring 2024.

Can you describe the experience of receiving the sacraments for the first time? 

So before the Easter Vigil my sponsors invited my whole family and I over for dinner. That was really wonderful of them…[being received into the Church] with a community, rather than all alone, is so much better. 

When I received my First Communion, I remember walking up there and just feeling almost like a sense of bliss. “Wow, I’ve been learning about this now for so long and been intensely studying this for five or six months. And this is the moment I’ve been waiting for!”

What would you say to someone who is drawn to the Catholic Church, like you were, but they haven’t decided to become Catholic yet? 

Something that really stuck out to me at the Rite of Election, at St. Joseph’s Basilica, was what Archbishop Smith said. “We have all been called to the faith, and there is a place for everyone in this faith.”

That really stuck out to me, as well as my mom. So I would say, if you feel the calling and you feel that this faith is something that you love, just keep coming to the Church and surrounding yourself with people of faith. The beautiful friendships around me have made all the difference. It took me four years! Put your faith in the Lord, you will be OK!

Stay tuned for more stories of conversion in our upcoming For the Sake of the Call series, coming May 30!

To hear more stories about the Catholic faith coming alive in the Archdiocese of Edmonton, subscribe to our weekly newsletter, The Window.

Jenny Connelly – Archdiocese of Edmonton