After lifelong searches, two men say Jesus found them through the Catholic Church — and they couldn't be happier to be home
ROCHESTER — When Harold Haftka thinks back to his baptism a year ago at St. Andrew Parish in Rochester, he can’t keep himself from beaming.
“It was just absolutely thrilling,” Haftka said. “The smile on my face spoke volumes about how terrific it was. It was just so joyous — I felt a little like I was cheating, to be honest with you, to get the slate wiped clean in your 60s.”
As the Catholic Church prepares to welcome this year’s crop of candidates and catechumens into full communion at the Easter vigil, those who came into the Church last year say the experience has been life-changing, marveling at the goodness of a God who welcomed them home with open arms.
“That experience was probably one of the deepest, most meaningful experiences of my life,” David Gardner, another convert who entered the Church last year, told Detroit Catholic of his baptism, which also took place at St. Andrew. “There was just a peace that came upon me like I’ve never felt before.”
Both men, who took different paths to the Catholic faith — Haftka from a lifelong Jewish background and Gardner from a non-denominational Christian faith — still carry excitement in their voices when talking about their conversion experiences.
Honoring the family matriarch
Despite being married to a Catholic for 41 years, Haftka, who grew up Jewish, never really considered becoming Catholic himself, despite what he described as a lifelong respect for the Church.
When he was a child, Haftka’s family was affiliated with synagogues in Detroit, and later in Toronto and in England, where the family moved during his younger years, but his religious involvement was mostly limited to the training he received in preparation for his bar mitzvah.
“I was never very strong in the Jewish faith at all. My parents divorced when I was in college, and I never really was very grounded in the Jewish faith,” Haftka said. “Although I considered myself Jewish, I met a woman, who became my bride 41 years ago, who came from an Italian Polish Catholic background.”
Harold and Cathy married at St. Mary Parish in Royal Oak, the same church where their two daughters would eventually celebrate their own weddings. While Haftka occasionally joined his wife and daughters for Mass, becoming Catholic wasn’t on his radar.
It wasn't until Haftka's mother-in-law, Clare Verras, whom he considered to be a rock in his life, died in 2021 that thoughts about his own conversion began to surface.
“We had a very special, close relationship, and I saw how comforting her faith was to her later in life,” Haftka said. “I started thinking, ‘What happens to me when I pass? Where am I beyond this life? Where do I go?’”
Haftka said his mother-in-law’s Catholic faith had always been an example for the family and a particular inspiration for him.
“My mother-in-law didn’t wear her faith on her sleeve, but it was important to her,” Haftka said. “Her first husband died of a sudden heart attack in his 50s. She was a single woman with three kids just about at college age, and her faith helped her persevere through those challenges.
“There was always a shining smile on her face, and she was always happy and appreciative of her lot in life. She was a very loving individual, and as much as I fell in love with her daughter, the family vibe that emanated from her was an equal attraction.”
After Clare's passing, Haftka felt compelled to consider the Catholic faith as a way to honor her impact on his life — but he discovered much more.
“I started the journey somewhat primarily to honor my mother-in-law, but as I went through it, I saw that this was something that was filling a gap that was lacking in me as a person,” Haftka said. “It was filling a void that I didn't know I had in my life.”
Haftka joined the RCIA program at St. Andrew Parish in the fall of 2021, but after a few weeks, he began to experience doubts, and scheduled a conversation with St. Andrew’s associate pastor, Fr. Grayson Heenan.
"I wasn't sure I was feeling what I was supposed to be feeling, but Fr. Grayson reassured me. He said, 'You know, this isn't really happening on your schedule. It's happening on God's schedule, and there's no right way you're supposed to feel,'" Haftka said. "And that was just what I needed to continue the journey."
As he learned about the Catholic faith, Haftka discovered similarities to the Jewish faith of his childhood, which appealed to him.
“I’ve never really been a religious person, but I believed in the golden rule, ‘Do unto others as you want them to do unto you,’ and the Ten Commandments, the basic fundamentals of being a good human being, but there’s more than that (to Catholicism),” Haftka said. “That’s part of what I learned in RCIA. Catholicism, in particular, is very fundamental, and it ties back into the Old Testament.”
In April 2022, Haftka was baptized, confirmed and received his first Communion at St. Andrew, with his wife, Cathy, as his sponsor. In the months after his baptism, the family was able to take a two-week trip to Italy to honor Clare’s heritage, where Haftka got to see the Vatican and visit the tomb of his parish’s patron, St. Andrew, which he said was the “cherry on top of the sundae.”
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” Haftka said of his conversion. “I wasn’t looking for a new faith; I was looking for the real faith. And the deeper I get into it, the more that seems to ring true.”
Walking through the open door
Gardner, for his part, found the Catholic Church through an open door — literally.
Raised in a non-denominational church, Gardner attended Bible school as a youngster, but as he grew older, he found himself increasingly disengaged, longing for a deeper spirituality.
“For years, I was kind of disconnected from that particular church style,” Gardner said. “My family would go, but I just wasn’t being fed or getting much out of it.”
Gardner wasn't done with God, but he knew he was searching for something more — even if he wasn't quite sure what it was or where to find it.
Years earlier, he attended a Christmas Eve midnight Mass at a Catholic church, and remembered being moved by the beauty and majesty of the experience.
“That was my first foray into the Catholic Church. I really didn’t know anything about it,” Gardner said. “I had no idea about the sacredness (of the Eucharist). I was just starting from scratch, but it led me on a path where I wanted God in my life again.”
Yearning to recapture that feeling, Gardner started looking for Catholic churches to visit — not necessarily to talk to anyone, but just to casually drop in — and he found one whose door was literally wide open.
“I travel around a lot, so I would go over to the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak and just start praying and lighting candles, saying prayers,” Gardner said. “The nice thing about Shrine is it’s open all day, so I would sometimes go and just pray for a bit and enjoy the church by myself.”
After a while, Gardner found himself returning to the Shrine “maybe once a month” to pray, and before long, he began attending Mass. Despite the Royal Oak parish being 40 minutes from his home, Gardner found himself returning over and over again, convinced he’d found something rare.
“I had no idea that all Masses around the world are the same,” Gardner laughed. “I just thought, ‘Wow, the Mass is incredible.’ It would draw me in, and I just kept going back (to Shrine), not knowing that my local parish was having the same Mass.”
Gardner began sharing his experience with his wife, Juliet, who was baptized in the Maronite faith but had also been attending the non-denominational church where the couple met. After discerning together, David decided to join RCIA at Shrine, while Juliet slowly began rediscovering the Catholic faith of her youth.
After a few weeks, Gardner’s RCIA leader at Shrine suggested he check out St. Andrew in Rochester, which was closer to home. He did, and was baptized, confirmed and received his first Communion at the Easter vigil in April 2022.
A year later, Gardner says he’s still a “work in progress” but is thrilled God led him to seek out the Catholic faith, which he says provides structure and keeps him accountable.
“The more I learn about the Catholic faith and how it applies and the sacraments and the Eucharist, it just all made sense to me,” Gardner said. “What I like is that there’s levels of accountability on your daily walk with God. As someone with a computer-based background, dealing with binary ones and zeroes, that made sense to me.”
Although he’s been Catholic for a year, Gardner isn’t finished with RCIA (now OCIA) just yet. This year, his son, Tyler, and one of his cousins are catechumens at St. Andrew, preparing for their own baptisms at this year’s Easter vigil.
With the perspective of a man who's found a treasure, he advises his son and others walking the same path to trust God’s nudging — even when the destination seems unclear.
“For me, it was about letting go of my preconceived ideas and walking through this experience by letting God touch me how He wants to touch me,” Gardner said. “Being able to partake in the Eucharist and in Mass is something I look forward to each week. It continually brings me peace.
“One of the beautiful things about the Catholic Church is that there’s already a framework there,” Gardner added. “And God can guide you every day, even after your baptism and confirmation.”