Questions about mysterious statue led to answers Erin Miller found in Catholic faith

Erin Miller, right, who recently was confirmed as a member of the Catholic faith at the Easter Vigil, stands with her sponsor, Christine Kaiser, at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit. Miller, a cathedral parishioner, says it was the parish staff’s willingness to answer her questions that convinced her to join — and then rejoin — RCIA. (Jeremy Bastyr | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Writer, animal lover’s long search for truth led her from Eastern religions and agnosticism to a home in the grace and mercy of Catholicism

This story is part of a series of profiles on new converts who entered the Catholic Church at this year’s Easter Vigil in Metro Detroit. For others in the series, check back weekly. 

DETROIT — Erin Miller was living on the West Coast, taking a trip up to Portland, Ore., to see a friend, when she had a minor brush with Catholicism.

She came across an outdoor grotto built into the side of a large hill, featuring a statue of a man in robes.

“I was at this grotto, and really moved by the whole experience,” Miller told Detroit Catholic. “Then I saw a statue at the very end, just as I was leaving. It was a statue of St. Francis, but I didn’t know anything about Catholicism. I just knew it was a statue associated with the Catholic faith.”

A freelance writer born in Metro Detroit, Miller bounced around for a bit, eventually settling in Los Angeles. She was raised Lutheran but had experimented with different faiths, including Eastern mysticism, and at one point considered herself agnostic. 

“When I was going through the first year of Lutheran catechism class when I was younger, I was really put off by the minister feeling very strongly animals didn’t go to heaven — that they didn’t matter, that they were here for us to eat,” Miller said.

That experience stuck in the mind of the vegetarian, animal-loving Miller, and prompted her exploration of other faiths. 

Statues of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Anthony of Padua flank a gate at Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo in Carmel, Calif. As a fellow animal lover, Erin Miller was drawn to St. Francis’ life and legacy as the patron of animals. (Gregory A. Shemitz | CNS photo)  

One day, after moving back to Michigan from Los Angeles, she was going through some old photos and found the photo of the mysterious statue in the grotto. She went to her computer and looked it up, discovering the likeness of a fellow animal lover.

“I discovered it was St. Francis, and he was the patron saint of animals,” Miller said. “That led me to learn about his life and learn more about Catholicism. I developed a genuine interest, and reached out to the Church.”

Miller began by exploring Catholic parishes in the Downriver area where she lived before eventually joining an Alpha class already in progress at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit.

She felt right at home in the parish, getting to know the cathedral staff and its rector, Fr. J.J. Mech, before deciding to start the RCIA process in December 2019 — before COVID-19 presented a slight change of plans.

“I actually stopped the RCIA process when (COVID-19 hit),” Miller said. “I felt I needed more time to learn about Catholicism on my own before making the leap and dedicating myself to a religion. So the pandemic provided extra time for me to do that.”

Erin Miller, center, stands with Deacon Michael Van Dyke, left, and Fr. J.J. Mech, rector of the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, before the Easter vigil Mass on April 4. (Jeremy Bastyr | Special to Detroit Catholic)

She sat down with Fr. Mech on March 12, 2020, a day before the pandemic began in Michigan, addressing her concerns with him. Miller said Fr. Mech was accommodating to her questions, offering her suggestions on how to continue her discernment.

During the first months of the coronavirus lockdown, she set out to read about the early Church fathers — as well as St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis and St. Clare. After the extra time studying and reading, and after completing the Alpha course, she decided to rejoin RCIA last fall, which was then being done virtually.

“It was really nice because it felt like I got to talk with more people than if we were to meet in person,” Miller said. “Some of those shyness barriers were broken down. Everyone was on screen together, and you had a chance to talk more intimately, I think, as opposed to sitting at different tables.”

It was during her virtual Alpha and RCIA sessions when Miller met Christine Kaiser, a parishioner at St. Anastasia in Troy who enjoys going to various Alpha courses in the Archdiocese of Detroit.

The two met virtually, and Kaiser eventually became Miller's confirmation sponsor.

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron anoints Miller’s hands during the rite of confirmation during the Easter vigil at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament. (Jeremy Bastyr | Special to Detroit Catholic)

“I asked for Erin’s email address, and we started connecting before the Rite of Election,” Kaiser said. “It’s been so nice; she’s just a sweet person, very, very intelligent. We finally met in person at the Rite of Election, because everything has been on Zoom. I gave her this prayer square, and she had a little medal for me that said ‘sponsor.’ We just hit it off, wanting to give each other something special to memorialize our journey here.”

Kaiser was impressed by Miller’s thought-out questions about faith, and it was the cathedral’s staff willingness to engage with Miller and her questions that convinced Miller she was making the right decision.

“They made all the difference, just the way everyone at the parish responded to my questions and doubts,” Miller said. “Fr. J.J. made the biggest difference in his response to me having so many questions and concerns. The way he responded was the way you should always respond. I think it made a world of difference. The whole team there were the best people I ever met.”

As Miller was asking questions and growing in faith, Kaiser noticed a change in her leading up to the Easter Vigil, where she would become a full member of the Catholic Church.

“I saw in her a genuine desire to be in the Church, to be part of the communion of saints,” Kaiser said. “She is in love with God, with Jesus, and it’s been quite a journey for her. She looked at doing this before, decided she wasn’t ready yet. But this past year, it was the way to go for her. She’s very secure in her decision.”

The quest for knowledge hasn’t left Miller. In fact, it’s been the catalyst for her continued curiosity about her newfound faith. 

“When I was exploring different faiths, I think a big thing was having such an emphasis on grace and forgiveness you see in Catholicism,” Miller said. “I think that gets overlooked a lot. It really sets Catholicism and Christianity apart.

“I’m excited to see other people coming into the faith, to see others be baptized,” Miller said. “I’m excited to be on this journey with them, to learn with them, to grow with them.”