Coming Home: Conversion stories help remind all Catholics of their own baptismal promises
By Christina Gray
The word “conversion” has at its root the verb, “convertir,” meaning “to turn around; to turn toward.”
You can hear this in the words of St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” in which he poetically laments the hedonistic life that blinded him to Christ before his conversion:
“You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.” 1
This Easter, as hundreds of thousands of new Catholics enter the Catholic Church worldwide, let us consider, as we read these local stories of conversion, our own call to lifelong conversion.
She doesn’t remember who first told her about Jesus, but it wasn’t anyone in her family.
Twenty-year-old Victoria Marcondes said the name of God “was never spoken” at home where she was raised in San Rafael. Her parents, Brazilian and French immigrants, were avowed atheists.
She was about 8, she said, when for reasons she still does not entirely understand, she became a believer.
“I immediately believed that Jesus was God and that I needed him,” said Marcondes.
Alone in her bedroom on her computer doing homework, she would secretly research Christianity in between assignments. She found herself particularly drawn to what she learned about the rosary, the Mass and the sacraments.
Unbeknownst to her family, the youngster began a private routine. She would slip into nearby St. Isabella Parish to pray.
“It was very intimidating, I’m not going to lie,” she said. “It is a huge church and it was dark during the day, but I fell in love with it.”
As much as it increased her desire to become a Catholic, she didn’t think it was possible.
“I knew my parents wouldn’t be supportive, and I didn’t know how to do it on my own,” she said.
Her parents were indeed, “not happy at all” when she told them. They said time would tell if it was just a phase.
By middle school, Marcondes had befriended a group of girls, most from Catholic families. They were supportive of her interest in their faith.
Every day, it seemed, she was given another article of faith: a rosary, a holy medal, a pamphlet or book of Catholic prayers.
“I began to fear that if I was not baptized by 18, the world would take me,” she said.
At 14, Marcondes told her parents it was not a phase; she had prayed every single day for six years that she could become a baptized Catholic.
At 16, Marcondes was baptized, received her first Communion and was confirmed at the Easter Vigil at St. Isabella Parish in 2019. Her parents were not in attendance.
“But all the girls from middle school showed up,” she said. “A whole pew of 16-year-old girls. I did have a support network; it just wasn’t my family.”
Marcondes began work last year in the parish office at St. Hilary Parish in Tiburon while she pursues a college degree in math.
Jim Key was raised a devout Episcopalian in Pittsburgh.
“I was about as devout as Episcopalians get,” joked Key, 52. He regularly attended Episcopalian services most of his life and served as a lector and Eucharistic minister.
But after much thought, he decided to leave his childhood church behind in 2008. He entered the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program at St. Dominic Parish in San Francisco and entered the Catholic Church a year later.
“What frustrates some people about the Catholic Church is that it doesn’t change,” said Key, a parishioner of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Mill Valley. “What I love about it is that it doesn’t.”
If one looks at the Episcopal Church through the lens of the history of America, he said, “it has had a very positive impact.” But he finds it difficult to determine its core beliefs.
“I can’t tell you for sure if the Episcopal Church is pro-life or agnostic on the subject of abortion,” he said.
Key said he believes the Episcopal Church and other Protestant churches are trying to find relevance by preaching cultural politics.
“I live in the Bay Area, so I’m already fully aware of what the worldly beliefs are,” he said. “I didn’t need the Episcopal Church to underscore those for me.”
The Catholic Church is like a rock, he said. “It says here we are, this is what we believe and what we are about,” he said. “If you’d like to join us, welcome.”
Jeff Yano got “Catholic curious” in college where he studied medieval European history.
He didn’t know too much of anything about Catholicism, but the art and architecture made an impression on him, he said.
“You’re seeing this thing from the outside, and it makes you wonder what’s on the inside,” he said.
Yano was born into a nonreligious, mixed-faith household. His father is Japanese and his mother a Presbyterian from Texas. Church meant occasional Buddhist or Christian family weddings or funerals. By the time he was 7, his family stopped going to church entirely.
“From that point on I was unchurched in every respect,” said Yano, 32.
After college and graduate school, he returned to the Bay Area to work in the tech sector. One day in 2017, he was invited to Mass.
“It was random, but I went,” he said. Mass was at Church of the Nativity in Menlo Park, his parish now.
“After this Mass, it just rose up within me,” he said. “I liked being in church. I felt this sense of goodness there and wanted to become Catholic pretty quickly.” He entered the Church in 2018.
He admits prayer was completely new to him.
“I basically started from scratch,” he said. “Do I kneel down to pray? Do I put my hands together? Do I just talk?”
Learning to pray the rosary changed everything, he said. Two years after being baptized, he went into priestly formation at St. Patrick Seminary & University in Menlo Park.
Yano said there is a continuing aspect to his conversion and vocational calling.
“You’re still walking forward, and progressing, but there is this change in the trajectory of your life,” he said. “This route that you’ve never been on before is ahead of you.”
Tuesday and Friday mornings are special for Herman Bracey. That’s when the 86-year-old retired postal worker and longtime St. Agnes Church parishioner brings the › Eucharist to the homebound in his neighborhood in the Haight.
“I’m still trying to go deeper in my spiritual life and get things all squared away before my time is up,” said Bracey, who entered the Catholic Church in 2003 at age 65.
Though he was raised in a Baptist family in Philadelphia, baptismal records could not be found for him, and he was baptized and confirmed after going through RCIA at the Jesuit parish.
“I couldn’t stop singing,” he said. “That’s how happy I felt.”
Bracey said he moved to San Francisco in 1967 in a self-imposed exile after a few short years of bad choices.
“I’d be remiss if I did not tell you that I had a problem with alcohol back then,” said Bracey, who’s been sober for 50 years. “I ran out of goodwill back there and came out here to start over.”
His problems put him at odds with his Baptist community who convinced him he was a sure bet for the fiery flames of hell.
There was no way he was going to avoid it, they told him. “I had racked up too many points,” he said.
In San Francisco, though, he got sober through Alcoholics Anonymous, got a job and continued his search for a new spiritual home.
At one point, a Catholic friend suggested he talk to the Jesuit priests at St. Ignatius Parish about its RCIA program, and he did. He learned St. Agnes, another Jesuit parish, was closer to his home, and he began attending Mass even before RCIA started.
“I thought it was warm and inviting,” he said of the parish.
Bracey’s Baptist relatives were incredulous he was becoming a Catholic. He admits he had some doubts too when the Boston sex abuse church scandal broke in 2002.
“I agonized over it for a while,” he said. “But it seemed right when I made the decision, and that’s the way it still feels.”
Vivian Dudro had a rare form of childhood cancer and was not expected to live to the age of 5.
Concerned for her daughter’s soul, her mother had her baptized at the age of 3 in the Episcopal Church, despite not belonging to it, according to Dudro. Her father “didn’t have a religious bone in his body.”
“My mother really planted the seeds of faith in my very young soul,” she said. “She was trying to carry me into the next world.”
But it was her mother who died only one year later. With a spiritually indifferent father, her religious education was left to kindly neighbors who took her to Protestant churches.
Dudro believes her mother’s imprint may have helped form her attraction to the sacred.
She recalls being in Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral when she was 16 and praying for her mother.
“No one taught me to pray for the dead; no one taught me to light candles,” she said. In another town, she chased after a small Eucharistic procession having no idea what the priest or bishop was carrying.
In college, though, she experienced a sort of spiritual whiplash. She lived in a commune, read Marxist literature and lived by a personal moral code of her own making.
The liberties of such a life wore thin, and she saw herself becoming a person she didn’t want to be.
Dudro called out to a God she didn’t really know for help.
“I felt as if my words did not just go out into the void of space,” she said. “Those words were heard by a loving God, and I was absolutely convinced that Jesus was real and merciful.”
She walked into a Mass at an off-campus Newman Center and “was swept away by the beauty of it.” She was drawn to the Catholic Church by the worship, the coherence of its teaching, and most of all by the mystery of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
“No other Western Christian denomination has the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist,” she said. “The Catholic Church has been the faithful guardian of this mystery.”
She entered the Church at the Easter Vigil in 1981 when she was 22.
1 F. J. Sheed, trans., The Confessions of St. Augustine (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943), Book 10, Chapter 27, p. 236
Christina Gray is the lead writer for Catholic San Francisco.