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Jillian Shen lights a candle held by Gayahtu Fahnbulleh during the Easter Vigil at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington. (ANDREW BIRAJ, CATHOLIC STANDARD | CNS)

ST. PAUL, Minn.  |  Everybody has a story. But not every group of people going through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults together has traveled such varied paths to the Catholic Church as those who prepared for the Easter Vigil this year at St. Mary and St. Michael parishes in Stillwater, Minnesota.

Twenty-five children and adults prepared for full communion with the church through those parishes’ shared RCIA process.

That number — a fivefold jump over last year — included a 9-year-old boy whose family didn’t practice any faith. Yet he said he has known “since before he was born” that he wanted to become Catholic. He even influenced his mother to join the church with him. “I’m his first convert,” she said.

The class also included a Mormon who survived a frightening bout with COVID-19, a young man who found God on a solo camping trip to the North Shore of Lake Superior, the daughter of a retired Lutheran pastor and the Przybylski family of five.

Luke Przybylski grew up Presbyterian in Stillwater. His wife, Beth, grew up Lutheran about 20 miles north in Scandia, Minnesota. The two met in their early 20s while working at the same restaurant. Their paths crossed again when Luke moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where Beth was going to school, and they started dating.

During college, Luke said both lived a fairly secular life, and afterward they shared a sense that something important was missing in their lives.

“We were trying to figure out what’s right for us and why we were feeling this way,” Luke told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, in an interview ahead of the Easter Vigil.

They explored various church denominations and read about beliefs and differences. They read books by Christian authors, including C.S. Lewis, an Anglican, and G.K. Chesterton and J.R.R. Tolkien, both Catholics.

“That really showed me that there is a lot more intellectual heft behind everything,” Luke said. But he reached a point in what was becoming an exhaustive process to find “the right thing” when he didn’t think he could intellectualize it anymore.

“There’s so much material, so many arguments all over the place ... and I kind of reached a point where I was like, I can’t really be my own priest,” he said. “I don’t want to (have) a nonintellectual approach, but I did a lot more prayer.”

Luke said he also kept thinking about his Polish Catholic grandmother in Milwaukee, whom he visited every year or so throughout his childhood. That visit including attending Mass together. “I just felt that there was something speaking to me through her and through that experience about the church.”

Beth said the Catholic faith just felt right. “I was always drawn to it and I just felt at home.”

In fall 2019, when she was still in Wisconsin, Beth often listened to Relevant Radio on her 50-mile roundtrip commute through the countryside. She “really connected” with it, she said. With its phone app, she would listen to and pray the rosary.

“I didn’t even know what the rosary was at the time,” she said.

Another factor in their decision to become Catholics is having three children. The two oldest had attended public school, but Beth and Luke decided to move them to St. Croix Catholic School. “It just all became clear that this was the right thing to do,” Beth said.

Going through the RCIA process confirmed for them that they made the right decision.

“We both are overwhelmed by feeling like this is the right thing — which is amazing for me,” Luke said. He added how loving and vital are the parishes of St. Michael, St. Mary and St. Charles in nearby Bayport, and how the community drew them in and made them feel so at home.

“It wasn’t a matter of me ... putting the pieces together,” he said. “It was more about submitting to the process and then feeling like we were receiving a blessing.”

Their two oldest children, Lina, 11, and Penny, 9, also joined the Catholic Church this spring. Walter, 2, will be baptized on Mother’s Day, which is May 9.

The road to entering the Catholic Church runs from Minnesota to Washington, D.C., for mother and daughter Natoyia Johnson and Autiyonna Johnson.

Natoyia lives north of St. Paul and Autiyonna lives in Washington. On April 3, they each received the sacraments of confirmation and their first Communion at their respective churches — Natoyia at St. Odilia Church in Shoreview, Minnesota, and Autiyonna at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington.

As they prepared to become Catholics, they reviewed their RCIA classwork together — virtually.

“I think it’s so cool we get to share what we are both learning in our own RCIA sessions,” Autiyonna told the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington. She and her mother would call each other and discuss what they were learning about the Catholic faith.

“It’s been an awesome journey,” her mother said. “I’ve learned a lot. ... It opens up more conversations for us.” And she added, “I think it’s awesome we’re doing this together.”

Their joint journey in the faith began when Autiyonna — who works in health-related research projects and serves in the National Guard in the Washington area — came home to her native St. Paul and invited her mom to join her for Christmas Mass at a Catholic church there.

“I invited her, and she came,” Autiyonna said, noting that her mother joined her with no hesitation, attending her first Mass. “After my short visit, she continued to attend.”

Autiyonna, who is her mother’s only child and has two half-sisters, said: “I’ve always admired my mom’s grace and willingness to keep an open mind. ... As a child growing up, she allowed me space to ask questions and have my own journey.”

“It’s amazing, the questions I’ve always had that no one could ever answer, when I came to the Catholic Church, all those questions were answered. It connected the dots of all the things I was unsure about,” Natoyia said.