“My Personal PhD: Philosophy of Heavenly Data” by Alice Smith in an interview with Anonymous

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Illustration by Beth Pukala

Leaving a shiny, white, cool car, she entered my house, and within seconds my female antennae observed a beautiful woman in a professionally laundered white blouse, chic blue jeans with a sharp crease in the middle of each leg and classy loafers carrying a Ralph Lauren original. She beamed a gorgeous smile while I took a step back to take it all in. Later, I noticed the golden highlights in her auburn hair, and I turned this beauty over to Jesus. Thank you for this outward beauty, Lord! Now, help me discover her inner beauty. Seated in my favorite spot, she told me her story…

I’m Polish through and through. Like Adele sings in The River Lei, being Polish is “in my roots, it’s in my veins, it’s in my blood.” Of course, it’s easy to be Polish in Milwaukee! With my four sisters and three brothers, I carry on Polish customs, songs, stories and food at all family events and during the holidays. I have been in many Polish homes, but mine had the most religious statues, paintings, pictures, books and knickknacks.

Adamant and vocal about the Catholic faith, my father reminded me that I had to be a good girl so that God wouldn’t punish me. Mom simply nodded with approval when Dad started with the “guilt lectures.” In 7th grade, I tested my independence by skipping a religious education class. What was I thinking? My brothers and sisters couldn’t wait to tell on me. For my entire 8th grade year, I was a prisoner in my own home, feeling constant vigilance, interrogated every time I wanted to go out. My guilty conscience was a giant mess. As a child, I didn’t have a choice with parents like mine, and now I’m glad that Dad was strict with me and my brothers and sisters.

If you knew me as a child, you would have seen a lot of pain, fear and intimidation in my home. Dad and my uncles were angry men, and it spilled all over the families. My grandfather, a tyrant, was so angry, I could hardly breathe when he was around. The pressures of owning a Polish deli helped fuel Dad’s explosive nature. He left the house at 7 a.m. and returned at 7 p.m. six days a week. Growing up with cousins that lived in fear of upsetting the men in the family left lasting impressions that would find solace, peace and forgiveness through Jesus later in my life.

When I tried to put a Jesus spin to my story, it really fell apart.

It was in accepting Jesus in my early teens that I survived in an explosive family environment. It was the safest thing I could do. I welcomed praying the rosary as a family in front of the statue of Mary. I liked my Catholic elementary education, and I gladly accepted my high school experience at Woodlands. My three favorite aunts attended Woodlands in the 1950s, and now it was my turn in the late 60s. Do you know that St. Madeleine Sophie Barat and St. Rose Philippine Duchesne attended Woodlands? I think the nuns were feminists; they pushed us to be leaders and to do great things for society in general.

All students at Woodlands are reminded that the statue of Mary is known as Mater Admirabilis. It all began when the young French girl and talented artist Pauline Perdrau, a postulant to the Society of the Sacred Heart, received permission to paint an image of Mary on a large wall leading to the Sisters’ cloister. Her mother superior exclaimed that the painting was too bright and directed Pauline to cover the fresco with a cloth to allow the paint to dry. After removing the cloth, the colors had muted and mixed to reveal perfect shades of pink, ivory and blue. For Pauline, it was a miracle. When Pope Pius IX saw the fresco, he shouted “Mater Admirabilis!” This title was accepted, and the fresco is seen today by those who climb the Spanish Steps in Rome and try to gain admittance into the monastery at Trinita

All students at Woodlands are reminded that the statue of Mary is known as Mater Admirabilis. It all began when the young French girl and talented artist Pauline Perdrau, a postulant to the Society of the Sacred Heart, received permission to paint an image of Mary on a large wall leading to the Sisters’ cloister. Her mother superior exclaimed that the painting was too bright and directed Pauline to cover the fresco with a cloth to allow the paint to dry. After removing the cloth, the colors had muted and mixed to reveal perfect shades of pink, ivory and blue. For Pauline, it was a miracle. When Pope Pius IX saw the fresco, he shouted “Mater Admirabilis!” This title was accepted, and the fresco is seen today by those who climb the Spanish Steps in Rome and try to gain admittance into the monastery at Trinita dei Monti.

I know my high school was famous for this story about Mary and for the two 20th century Saints who started Woodlands. I’m proud to tell others that I attended. The students always said the prayers to Mater Admirabilis for strength and love, peace and humility.

I should have prayed more for strength and peace because after high school I was confused. My aunts convinced me to attend a Life in the Spirit seminar. I was young and needed the Holy Spirit to fix things. A man at the seminar heard a message that said, “Look to someone from a large Catholic family, and you will have a chance to do the work of the Holy Spirit.” What this man saw was money leaving his pocket and coming to mine. Since I had no money for college and neither did Dad, this stranger paid for my first year of college. Does Jesus ever not show up at a bad time?

My first six months at the University of Wisconsin revealed a world I could not have imagined. No one wanted to hear about my miracle. “How many of you have a stranger paying for your first year of college?” When I tried to put a Jesus spin to my story, it really fell apart.

My guilty conscience also fell apart my first year in college. Shouldn’t I be working hard because a stranger was paying my way? But, I was away from home and my domineering parents. It was fun to be bad! Hateful, angry and mean described me back then. Now that I think about it, I was becoming one of the angry men in my family. But, Jesus loved me and never let me down. I felt he was always in the background during those wild, weird experiences at U of W.

I knew I couldn’t keep up the party life, so I followed my parents to Phoenix and attended the Technology Institute of Arizona. Rising from the road to hell at U of W was the Holy Spirit guiding me. I am so glad to have attended the Life in the Spirit seminar before starting college. After graduating in 1971, I made time to attend a prayer group in Phoenix. It helped me understand that the man I had been dating at U of W would be a good husband. After the wedding, we stayed in Wisconsin.

Then, my parents moved to Scottsdale and joined a Christian community. Talk about miracles and people totally committed to Jesus! My spiritual life was at an all-time low, and I remember a visit to Scottsdale when an Anglican man prayed over me. He was amazing. He voided the bad spirit in me, and it relieved my back aches and bursitis. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit all played a part in planting my parents in Scottsdale. Dad realized that he had been too angry with his children. He softened and accepted the Lord’s forgiveness for his misguided parenting and now lives a life surrounded by holiness.

Early marriage was a challenge because my husband and I were on different paths. My enthusiasm and joy for Jesus was too much for him. We went to church together, but I wanted more from him and never got it. I couldn’t visit Scottsdale enough to renew my spirit, so I found a prayer group in Cedarburg. What a good friend—that Holy Spirit of mine—leading me back to my faith.

We loved having children and welcomed our first son with tenderness and joy. It was a cruel test of faith when we learned that he had been sexually molested. I got so angry with God. Why me? My guilty conscience brought up all the bad things I had done in college and I was absolutely sure this punishment was deserved. I asked God to help but felt no resolution.

I turned to my prayer group. While they prayed over me in church, the organist was practicing Pachelbel, and I heard the high voices of angels above the organ. The women praying over me were out of this world, too. They were my guardian angels begging the Holy Spirit to heal me. I was 40 years old, feeling years of strife go away in my tears. I forgave the molester. Three more children joined the family, and I admit that it took me a long time to leave them with a sitter.

One child left the Catholic Church to join a missionary organization in Ghana, Africa. It was hard to see him leave the church that I love, but I’m proud that he is still working for the Lord. There is some tension between us, but now that he is an adult, this issue is in Mother Mary’s hands.

My son said that I knew very little about the Bible, the Catechism, the Mass and the traditions of the Catholic faith. And, he was right. Today, I am more of a scholar, and I can talk about my faith with confidence. I feel I earned my own PhD degree, which I call a Doctorate in Heavenly Data; it gives me a real sense of accomplishment when I tell others that this is serious.

I recently attended another Life in the Spirit seminar. After I was prayed over, I remained open and focused on how the Holy Spirit would show his strength. The next day at 4 p.m., I recognized a woman in a nearby park, said hello and continued to walk away. I had a clear message to stop and continue our conversation. Going around the park a second time, there she was! We roomed together at U of W, and I had been the bad roommate. After my apology, she scratched her head and indicated that this was serendipitous. Within the past month, she had cleaned out her attic and discarded all of her college keepsakes. She admitted that she had gladly dumped any memories of me. I said I was truly sorry and cried the rest of the way home. With one more step to resolve this burden, I placed myself in front of a mirror and said, “OK. Enough! Forgive yourself.” Can you believe how the Holy Spirit snatched a moment from my past to ascertain His power over me? Good-bye, guilt. It’s finally over. As I continue to pursue my personal PhD, I am blessed with a healthy mind, body and soul to live a life guilt-free and purposeful.

Note from Alice: Would this incredible woman be a good chess player? So many details of her story reveal she would never have won a match. Today, she plays to move her pieces forward in a position to say, “Checkmate.” Her master instructor is the Holy Spirit. I am not suggesting that Christians pick a favorite from the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; however, if it makes things less confusing, go ahead and pick one. As she left my home, we hugged, smiled and felt elated. She described the time it took to tell this story as cathartic and therapeutic. We agreed that it’s another way in which the Holy Spirit is directing us. 

Biblical Note: “Then Peter continued preaching for a long time, strongly urging all his listeners, ‘Save yourself from this crooked generation!’” Acts 2:40 (NLT)

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