Msgr. Kenard Tuzeneu, pastor of St. Mary Parish, Barnegat, baptizes 16-year-old Allison Martinez during the April 3 Easter Vigil in St. Mary of the Pines Church, Manahawkin. Rich O'Donnell photos
Msgr. Kenard Tuzeneu, pastor of St. Mary Parish, Barnegat, baptizes 16-year-old Allison Martinez during the April 3 Easter Vigil in St. Mary of the Pines Church, Manahawkin. Rich O'Donnell photos

Jay Pappas used to think that “Sunday was for football.” He had no interest in religion, and he described himself as an atheist.

That all changed last year, when his place of employment closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. During the time he would have been working, he instead found himself reading the Bible and learning all he could about the Catholic faith. Eventually, he realized he wanted to do more than just increase his knowledge. He wanted the faith to become part of him – he wanted to become Catholic.

“I fell in love with the stories of the Bible and Marian apparitions,” Pappas said, adding that last summer, he was reading upward of three to six chapters of the Bible a day.

Photo Gallery: Easter Vigil in St. Mary of the Pines Church

Pappas was confirmed and received First Holy Communion during the April 3 Easter Vigil celebrated by Msgr. Kenard Tuzeneu in St. Mary of the Pines Church, Manahawkin. In all, six women and men completed their Sacraments of Initiation, including two of Pappas’ family members – his wife, Lisa, and son, Connor.

In addition, there was 85-year-old William Guderian and sisters Madison and Allison Martinez. A seventh candidate, Jeff Grover, was not able to be present for the Vigil due to health concerns.

However, Sue Eggert, coordinator of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in St. Mary Parish, Barnegat, said it’s her hope that Grover will receive his Sacraments during the Easter season or on Pentecost Sunday.

“Jeff was certainly remembered in our prayers during the Vigil,” she said.

All in the Family

William Guderian, who received Confirmation and First Eucharist, noted that ever since he married his wife, Katherine, in 1963, he always considered himself a Catholic. “Now I’m making it official.”

Guderian was baptized Lutheran and attended a Presbyterian church with his family while growing up. He said his religious upbringing was in stark contrast to that of his wife, whose family were devoted parishioners of St. John Parish, Lakehurst, where Katherine also served as an organist.

The couple married in St. Joseph Church, Toms River, and raised their two children Catholic. While Guderian attended Mass with the family and supported their receiving the Sacraments, it was not until last year when he learned about the RCIA that he decided to become Catholic as well.

“I liked learning the faith’s history. Sue was a great teacher,” he said.

Nineteen-year-old Madison Martinez, meanwhile, said she was encouraged to join the RCIA by Msgr. Tuzeneu, parish pastor. Already baptized Catholic, she would be preparing for Confirmation and First Eucharist.

Attending Mass with her father, who is Catholic, motivated Martinez to become Catholic, too. Martinez’s enthusiasm about the faith then inspired her younger sister, Allison, 16, to join the RCIA as a catechumen. Allison was baptized, confirmed and received First Eucharist at the Easter Vigil.

“I am amazed how God opens up to people in prayer, and learning things I didn’t know about my faith has brought me closer to him,” Allison said.

Of her RCIA experience, Madison said she was heartened to learn about God’s forgiveness. “I like that God forgave Peter for denying Jesus,” she said.

Life Changes

Lisa Pappas said it took time before she arrived at her own decision to become Catholic, although she supported her husband and his journey to the Church.

“He was going to Mass, reading the Bible. He wanted to share all he learned with me,” she said. “As Jay learned, so did I. We began going to Mass and praying together. … When RCIA became available [in October], I was ready.”

The couple’s first three sons were baptized Methodist, but as the parents prepared to enter the RCIA, they asked their fourth son, Connor, to join them and prepare for Baptism.

At first, 16-year-old Connor admitted he was uncomfortable with RCIA but agreed to attend. As he persevered, he said he started “feeling better about” the RCIA.

“My dad and Grandpa talk about the Bible and make it interesting,” he said, adding that the RCIA process had a positive impact on his family’s life. He said regular Mass attendance has led to more frequent talks with his parents, and he has also begun to help in the community, especially the elderly.

Connor said he has reached “a happier place” through his faith journey, and his mother shared how the experience has transformed the family.

“We pray together daily,” she said. “Our home is so much happier.”

Added Jay Pappas, “My sons have seen me change my life. I pray to St. Joseph to make me a better father and to show my sons how to be better men.”