From Non-Denominational to Catholic: One family’s faith journey

Apr 4, 2024
Chase Chapman is baptized by Father Josh Swallows, pastor Most Precious Blood Parish in Oviedo, March 30, 2024. Chapman’s sponsor, Andrew Smith stands behind him as a sign of support in helping him live out his baptismal promises. This year 20 Elect of the parish became members of the Church. (GLENDA MEEKINS)

OVIEDO | The Chapman family had been anticipating the Easter Vigil for months.

Gathered around the Easter fire, Caleb, Ashley and Chase Chapman joined 13 other elect at Most Precious Blood Parish in Oviedo. Soon they would receive their Sacraments of Initiation — Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Communion. It was a continuation of a year-long journey of familial love and the search for truth.

As they processed behind the Paschal candle they were surprised by the darkness of the church, slowly being extinguished by the light of individual candles held by the body of Christ, into which they would be welcomed.

Exposed to Christianity when he was young, Caleb recalled going to church with his grandmother. “Living in Tennessee, in a small town, you can’t really avoid Jesus,” he said. Despite the exposure, he admits he never took it seriously or felt a strong connection.

“We’ve lived pagan lives this whole time, and even before,” Caleb continued. “God was an afterthought at best. There were probably times throughout the years I’ve even questioned His existence. If you could say we had any religion at all, it was sports,” he said. All of that changed in the spring of 2023.

Rummaging through things at home, he found the bible his grandmother gifted him as a child. For a reason Caleb cannot explain, besides a prompting by the Holy Spirit, he began to read it every day, sharing Scripture passages with his wife, Ashley. Later, they would spend time discussing what they read. He prayed every morning, often sitting in his truck in the gym parking lot before a workout.

Meanwhile, wanting to learn more, Ashley purchased her own bible and reflected on Scripture in the evenings. After a while, she approached Caleb and said, “You keep sending me this stuff, then we talk about it. Why don’t we go to church?” He replied immediately with a hard “No”.

He recalled his initial reaction — fear. “I just want to keep it to myself and talk about it. I don’t know if I’m ready to go to church,” he explained. Hesitantly he agreed to go, plunging them both deeper into their exploration of faith.

Because he and Ashley had occasioned a nondenominational church with their children, that is where the couple’s search began. A few weeks later they invited their four children, ages seven to 20. Caleb said he was nervous approaching them, since they never discussed religion before. To their surprise, all were eager to join them.

Unfulfilled, they visited a Baptist and a Presbyterian church. “But it wasn’t it,” recalled Ashley. They acknowledged the dissatisfaction left them confused as to how to proceed.

Sitting at his computer one day, Caleb recalled something Catholic popping up. He began watching conversion to Catholicism stories, many of which resonated with him. He read about the Church Fathers, and it slowly began to make sense.

But Catholicism was still an unexpected discovery. At one point, he remembers thinking Catholicism was a mistake and “a huge detour” in their search. Yet the more he tried to figure out why “Catholic wasn’t the way”, the more he realized it was.

He told Ashley they should consider it. She was fully on board. “Okay, let’s do it. Let’s not leave it out,” she said. Again, he was hesitant, but agreed to go to Mass at Most Precious Blood.

The Chapman’s eldest son, Chase, went with them. At first, the trio found it uncomfortable. Caleb recalled, “We felt a little out of place because we didn’t know what was going on. But for the first time, I actually felt something. There was a presence there. I’d read about the Eucharist, the Presence of Jesus. This was the feeling I got.”

Ashley agreed. Both she and Chase appreciated the tradition and order of the Mass, the congregation responding as one. They wanted to know more. The next time, the entire family went.

Two weeks later, they met with Donna Scimeca, director of adult formation, and shared their desire to become Catholic. “Praise God. We’ll be with you every step of the way,” she told them. Then they went home and invited the children to follow suit. They all said yes.

“We’re excited about becoming Catholics and putting the Lord first in our lives,” Caleb said. “And the challenge is just beginning. There are going to be bumps and bruises along the way. But we’re really excited about the challenge ahead and living for God.”

The Chapmans are the first Catholics in their family tree. Although family is supportive, Caleb says there are still some difficult moments. “I’m trying not to keep our faith to ourselves. We’re called to evangelize. So, stepping out of my comfort zone and doing that around people who may not understand has been challenging.”

Father Josh Swallows, pastor of Most Precious Blood Parish in Oviedo, anoints Ashley Chapman, center, as she receives the Sacrament of Confirmation. Sponsor, Sandra Leiss places her hand on Chapman’s shoulder as a sign of support. Ashley’s husband Caleb and son, Chase also came into the Church at the Vigil. Next year the Chapmans three other children will enter. (GLENDA MEEKINS)

Ashley found it awkward to share their journey with friends who do not go to church. Eventually she told them, “We’re joining the Catholic Church. We’re in this program and we’re loving it.” She’s accepted any response she might get and doesn’t “beat around the bush anymore.” “I’m proud of it, so I talk about it and share it,” she said. She hopes their story might impact someone else. She called it, “another form of surrender”.

The challenges for the children have been different. Shelby recalls life before her family was Jesus-centered. She was a competitive gymnast, lacrosse player and runner. Chase played baseball through high school. Caden plays football and is on the weightlifting team. Macy enjoys singing, acting, and playing the piano. All of that took up a lot of time.

“The most challenging thing is trying to go to practice and faith formation,” said Shelby. She goes straight to practice after school then right to faith formation. “You get home very late, but it’s definitely worth it,” she said.

Also new is a daily family rosary. “We barely see each other throughout the day so it’s guaranteed time together while praying,” she said. She looks forward to it as does her brother, Caden. He says he likes praying for other people.

Caden said he never thought about God much before. “We were really busy and made no time for it,” he said. “I always knew I believed in God and Jesus. But it’s not like I knew them. I had no relationship with Him.”

The history of the Church attracts him. “I like the Apostolic succession which really validates it for me,” he said. “I enjoy (church) more. It’s more traditional… It’s more real.” And he was surprised to find so many friends from school at Mass. He said now has a keener awareness of what he says and does. “I’ve changed as a person. I see it and other people have seen it. It’s definitely had an impact on me and who I am,” he said.

Chase, the eldest and a sophomore at the University of Central Florida (UCF), appreciates the order in the Catholic church. He cites its universality – that everyone is on the same readings every day for example. “It holds a lot of meaning,” he said. He acknowledges living this new life, infused and guided by faith, is challenging, but it’s helping him make better decisions. “I just want to become a better person,” he said. “And I think it has an influence on some friends when they see you stop doing things you used to do or start doing new things.” He recently began attending Catholic Campus Ministry at UCF and hopes to join a men’s group next year. When he has a family of his own, he plans to raise them Catholic.

Pastor of Most Precious Blood Parish in Oviedo, Father Josh Swallows gives Caleb Chapman his First Holy Communion, the last of the three Sacraments of Initiation that welcomes Chapman as a member of the Catholic Church. Guided by the Holy Spirit, Chapman led his family to the Church on a journey that began in 2023. (GLENDA MEEKINS)

Though Caleb wishes he had given his family a spiritual foundation much earlier, its effect shows God’s timing is perfect. The entire family feels even closer than they were before. It is that love of each other and God that brought them to the Easter Vigil.

Sitting in the pew, Caden, Shelby and Macy watched wide-eyed and happy as they witnessed their brother and parents welcomed into the church,. They look forward to their own initiation next year, especially receiving the Eucharist.

“The Vigil was absolutely beautiful and heartwarming,” Ashley said. “It was something I never experienced before. I expected a traditional Mass. No one told us about the lights being off or the candles. It definitely exceeded my expectations.”

For Caleb too the experience was one of amazement. “I was overwhelmed with joy and happiness, not only for myself, but for Ashley and Chase.” Even days later, he is still feeling that joy.

If you are considering becoming Catholic or have questions about the faith, reach out to a parish near you. Visit here for a full list of parishes.

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, April 04, 2024