Converting to Catholicism

Sara and Justin Kraft

Here are 10 of the Most Unexpected Catholic Conversion Stories

God works in mysterious ways, sometimes converting individuals to Catholicism through truth, goodness and beauty. He comes in search of each one of us and calls us each by name. Here are 10 famous, yet unexpected Catholic conversion stories to inspire us all toward deeper conversion to our Lord.

1. St. Augustine

St. Augustine was born in 354 AD in Africa.  His mother, St. Monica, was a devout Christian, who raised her son with a Christian education; however, he was not baptized.  Augustine’s father was a pagan who did not convert to Catholicism until on his death bed and he had taught his son to be more concerned with worldly goods and pleasures.  At age 16, St. Augustine stole fruit he did not want from a neighboring garden simply because it was forbidden, as described in his autobiography, The Confessions.  "It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own error—not that for which I erred, but the error." (Confessions 2:4).

St. Augustine's friends were boys that bragged about their sexual conquests.  He himself had a lover for fifteen years and fathered an illegitimate son.  Throughout these experiences, St. Monica continued to pray for the conversion of her son and husband.  At the age of 32, St. Augustine heard a young voice tell him to take and read St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.  St. Augustine was converted.  He received baptism from St. Ambrose, returned home, and gave all to the poor.  He was consecrated Bishop of Hippo in 395.

St. Augustine’s story reminds us first and foremost, that hope is never lost.  God can work and move in the most hardened of hearts for conversion, perhaps when we least expect it.  All sin, no matter how grave, can be forgiven if we repent.  This is especially good to remember in this year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis.  Like St. Monica, we should never tire of praying for the conversion of family members, friends, and acquaintances just as St. Monica prayed unceasingly for the conversion of both her son and her husband.  St. Monica’s prayers were eventually answered.

2. John Wayne

The man we know as movie star John Wayne was born as Marion Morrison in Iowa in 1907.  In 1914, his family moved West, and Marion began to be called “Duke.”  In the height of the Great Depression, he worked for movie studios as a prop man, and eventually became an extra and later starred as the cowboy Breck Coleman in the 1930 film, “The Big Trail.”  He was renamed John Wayne by the studio to help craft a larger showing.

In the 1940s and 1950s, John Wayne starred in major Westerns and War pictures.  He had four children with his first wife.  In 1964, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and lost a lung and several ribs.  He had two more marriages, one ending in divorce, the other lasting until his death and resulting in three children.  Though he was raised Presbyterian himself, all seven of his children were raised Catholic by their mothers.

When his end was near, Wayne was in agony, succumbing to stomach cancer.  A priest was called, and Wayne was baptized and the priest administered last rites. That night, Wayne fell into a coma. “I don’t know the technicalities of the Church or what constitutes a conversion,” said son Michael. “But Dad did die in the Church." In 1979, he died of stomach cancer at the age of 72.

Fr. Muñoz, Wayne’s grandson, said that his grandfather expressed a degree of regret about not becoming a Catholic earlier in life: “that was one of the sentiments he expressed before he passed on,” blaming “a busy life.”

From Wayne’s example, we should learn that it is never too late to embrace God’s forgiveness.  We should not allow a busy life, no matter how important we think the work is, to keep us from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  Receiving the sacraments and especially weekly Mass attendance can help foster that relationship.

3. Alexis Carrel

Alexis Carrel was born in 1873.  He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912 pioneering blood-vessel surgery in humans, organ transplants in animals, and in keeping alive tissues from warm-blooded animals.  Additionally, with the assistance of Charles Lindbergh, he developed the heart pump making bypass surgery possible.

For most of his life Carrel was an agnostic.  In 1902, a colleague, when unable to make the trip at the last moment, convinced Carrel to go on a “white train” to Lourdes.  The white train carried scores of sick from Lyons to Lourdes.  Twenty-three year old Marie Bailly was dying of tubercular peritonitis and through the ruse of a nurse she was snuck on board a few seconds before the train departed.  During the night, Carrel gave Bailly morphine injections so she would not die.

When Marie Bailly was taken to the grotto and baths, she was literally dying. After her hugely swollen abdomen had been washed three times with water from the baths, she began her spectacular recovery. By the evening she was sitting up, talking, eating, and not vomiting at all, although she had hardly been able to keep any food down for the past five months.

On the next morning, she got dressed and, a day later, with no one's help, she boarded the train back to Lyons, getting better and better on the 24-hour train ride. On arriving in Lyons, at noon on May 31, she walked through the station without leaning on anyone, took the streetcar to the home of her relatives who could not believe that it was Marie Bailly—and threw herself in their arms.  There was no medical explanation for the change.  Carrel had witnessed a miracle.

By 1942, Carrel had expressed his faith in the Catholic Church.  He had experienced a miracle, but it took years for him to profess a belief in God.

From Carrel’s example, we should learn to discern the miracles that occur in our own lives.

4. Buffalo Bill Wild Cody

William F. Cody was born in Scott County, Iowa in 1846.  At age 14, Cody joined the Pony Express for the advertised position: "skinny, expert riders willing to risk death daily." After serving in the American Civil War, he began buffalo hunting to feed crews building railroads which gave him his nickname, Buffalo Bill Wild Cody.  He estimates he killed 4,280 buffalo in just over a year and a half.  He became a national folk hero because of the dime-novel exploits of his alter ego, “Buffalo Bill.”

In 1883, Cody founded his own show, "Buffalo Bill's "Wild West," which was a circus-like show that toured for three decades in the United States and later in Europe. Besides Buffalo Bill himself, the Wild West show starred sharpshooter Annie Oakley and, briefly, Chief Sitting Bull.

When Chief Sitting Bowl was hired in Buffalo Bill’s show, the two men became friends and their relationship became quite close based upon mutual respect.  Buffalo Bill was intrigued by Chief Sitting Bull’s own conversion to Catholicism a few years earlier through the courageous Jesuit missionaries to the Sioux Indians.  A few years after leaving the Wild West Show the Famous Indian chief was shot dead in a tussle on the reservation.

Twenty-seven years later, while visiting his sister, Bill Cody lay dying outside Denver, CO.  The day before he died he converted to the Catholic faith.  He told the priest that he had always believed in God but wanted to die a Catholic. He was inspired by the faith of Sitting Bull in his conversion and the example of his family.

Buffalo Bill’s conversion to Catholicism teaches us the power of authentic Christ-like witness through friendship. Time is not the measure of the good that comes from being a true witness. The simplest action and example today can be the means to another's salvation tomorrow.

5. Norma McCorvey ("Jane Roe")

In 1970, Norma McCorvey, under the pseudonym "Jane Roe," filed a law suit challenging the Texas laws that criminalized abortion. Eventually, the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court as the now-famous Roe v. Wade.  She is described as a pregnant woman who "wished to terminate her pregnancy by an abortion 'performed by a competent, licensed physician, under safe, clinical conditions'; that she was unable to get a 'legal' abortion in Texas. . . She claimed that the Texas statutes were unconstitutionally vague and that they abridged her right of personal privacy. . ." (Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), 120)

Norma McCorvey describes herself as having been relatively ignorant of the facts of her own case, and claims that her attorneys simply used her for their own ends. She was pregnant with her third child and wanted end her pregnancy, but she was not aware of all the implications of abortion or even what the term itself meant. She did not fully realize that this process would end a human life. In the end, Norma never had an abortion. She gave her baby up for adoption.

In the 1980's, she became involved in the abortion movement. Around 1992, she began to work at abortion clinics.  In 1995, a pro-life group moved into the same building as the abortion clinic, leading to a series of encounters between Norma and pro-life activists. Over time she became friends with many of them and began to have serious doubts about the morality of abortion.

Emily Mackey, the 7 year-old daughter of one of the pro-lifers, particularly affected her. Eventually, she started going to church, and began to reject her past involvement with the pro-abortion movement.

Since her conversion she has dedicated herself to pro-life work, starting her own ministry, "Roe No More," in 1997, and continues to speak out against abortion and for life.  In 1998, she became a Catholic convert and has worked to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Norma McCorvey teaches us that we need not be defined by our past. Sometimes the lessons we learn from our past prepare us to minister to others in the future.

6. St. Paul

St. Paul was born of Jewish parents in 10 AD and was originally named Saul.  When Saul was a young man, those who were about to stone the martyr Stephen laid their coats at his feet, and he guarderd the garments, approving of their violence. He devoted himself to persecuting the Disciples of Christ.  On his journey to Damascus to unearth and seize any Christians that might be hiding there, a light from heaven struck him to the ground from on top his horse and he was temporarily blinded.  He heard a voice ask "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?"  He then saw an apparition of Jesus.  For three days he saw nothing more.  When he awoke from his trance, he was a new man.  He carried the Gospel to the outermost limits of the earth.  At first, Jesus’ apostles were frightened of him because of the zeal with which Paul used to hunt them.  St. Barnabas could see his sincerity and brought him to Jesus’ disciples. He became the Apostle to the Gentiles.  His own countrymen sought his life.  He risked his life by both land and sea to spread the Gospel.  At last, he gave blood for blood.  He left us his Epistles, which are found in the New Testament.

Instead of describing Christ’s life on Earth, Paul's work mainly concentrated on the nature of Christians' relationship with Christ and each other.  In particular, he focused on Christ's saving work and how Jesus gave up his own life to save us from our sins.

He is now known as one of the earliest Christian missionaries because of the zeal with which he spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  St. Paul’s conversion reminds us that we should never forget our personal encounter with Jesus. Rather, it should be ever present in our minds. Our encounter with Jesus must be the pivotal point of our lives which shapes all of our future actions.  Like St. Barnabas, we should always be willing to look for and accept the sincerity of others’ conversions in Christ.

7. St. Constantine the Great

Constantine’s journey to Christianity began far from home and amidst great intrigue.  The Roman Empire was in transition.  After series of successions in which rule was passed from one Caesar to another primarily as a result of murder, Emperor Diocletian devised a plan of divided rule in which power was split amongst four rulers.  However, the peace would only last so long.

Constantine was son of Constatius the co-emperor of the Western Roman Empire and heir to the Western throne (located in modern day Britain).  Constantine was a gifted leader and soldier serving far from home on the Eastern edge of the empire when the co-emperor Galerius attempted to seize power.  Suddenly finding himself in grave danger, Constantine requested permission to travel home to see his sick father.  For reasons which we do not know, Galerius granted the request.  Perhaps he never intended to keep his promise.

Seeing his opportunity, Constantine waited for Galerius to go to bed.  He then proceeded to the stables, jumped on a horse, and departed at break neck speed.  All through the night, he rode his horse at top speed from outpost to outpost.  At each stop, he would select the best horse and hamstring all the other horses in the stable so that he could not be followed.

Galerius awoke at noon to find Constantine gone.  There was little he could do, Constantine had a 15 hour head start and the only uninjured horse at the Roman outposts.  Constantine fled across the whole Roman Empire (at that time nearly the whole known world) and made his way to his father in Britain.

Constantine returned to Italy a short time later at the head of an army. On the way to conquer Rome, he looked into the sky and saw a cross and the words “In this sign you shall conquer.” He took the cross as his standard.

Constantine united the Roman Empire under his rule.  He legalized Christianity and ended the period of Christian persecution in the Roman Empire.

Before his vision, Constantine had no great love for Christians.  His subsequent conversion, rise to power, and role as protector of the church are largely unexplainable apart from his own explanation, that Christ Himself chose him. (Account adapted from Carrol, W. The Founding of Christendom: A History of Christendom vol.1, Christendom Press, 1985)

We can learn from Constantine that God has a plan for each one of us.  We each have a specific role to play in the Kingdom of God.

8. Takashi Nagai

Takashi Nagai was a Japanese doctor who survived the atomic bomb during World War II.  He was born in 1908.  He was sent to school in the city at age 12, and his classes in science helped form his atheistic ideas.  He was also becoming known for enjoying the pleasures of college life.  In the beginning of his third year of college, he was unexpectedly sent home to say goodbye to his dying mother.  As he gazed into her dying eyes, he knew the human spirit lives on after death.  For the next five years, he wrestled with his thoughts. Nagai decided to live out Christian beliefs like a scientific experiment by boarding with a Japanese Catholic family, who had had many martyrs in the family.  He was baptized in June of 1934, realizing that this would cause separation from his Shinto father.  In 1945, he was diagnosed with incurable leukemia.  On August 9, 1945, Dr. Nagai was in the radiology department of a hospital in Nagasaki when the bomb went off.  He organized the nurses and students into a mobile medical unit.  On September 8,  Dr. Nagai showed severe signs of radiation sickness, and prepared for death.  After praying to Fr. Maximillian Kolbe, who had met Dr. Nagai before his death, he was miraculously healed within a month.

We can learn from Takashi Nagai that there is more to reality than the material world, what we can see, touch, and feel. We live in a world that contains invisible realities. The material world can be obliterated in a moment (just like Nagasaki was by the atomic bomb). Only spiritual realities are lasting. We must live with this in mind. 

9. John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman was the oldest of six children born to a middle class Protestant English family in 1801.  He entered Oxford at the age of 15, and was ordained as an Anglican at 23.  Newman was raised to believe that the Catholic Church was evil.  In 1836, he began to edit an English version of the writings of the Fathers of the Church.  Little by little, his objections to Roman Catholicism were breaking down under this extended examination.  He was coming to see it as the true faith taught by the apostles.  In 1843, he left his position at his church to spend more time in prayer and study. At age 44 in 1845, John Henry Newman was received into the Catholic Church, making great personal sacrifices.  He gave up a comfortable position and many lifelong relationships which were abruptly ended.  During his early years as a Catholic, former colleagues called him a traitor and many Catholics considered him a closet Protestant.  One of his most famous works is his spiritual autobiography,  Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

In addition, this prayer is one of his most popular:

The Mission of My Life

God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.

We learn from Cardinal Newman to follow the words of scripture and “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” (1 Peter 3:15)

10. Elizabeth Ann Seton

Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first native born American to be canonized by the Catholic Church. Among the many beautiful shrines in the United States, several are dedicated to this American saint. She was born just two years before the American Revolution, and grew up as part of the upper class of New York society.  She married William Seton in 1794, and they were deeply in love.  William’s health soon suffered, and they sold all their possessions to go to Italy and hopefully cure William’s ailments.  Because of the yellow fever in New York, they were quarantined for 40 days in horrible conditions.  Elizabeth tended the sick there, and William died during the quarantine.  While waiting to return to America, Elizabeth attended Mass with some Italian friends and was deeply impressed by the Catholic belief in the Real Presence.  When she returned to New York, she was poor and lived with friends.  In 1805, she converted to the Catholic Church at great personal cost, losing friends and being completely ostracized from her society.  In 1809, she became a nun and started what was going to become the American foundation of the Sisters of Charity in 1811.  A board school for young girls, a school for poor children, and an orphan asylum were founded.  At her death there were more than twenty communities of Sisters of Charity, conducting free schools, orphanages, boarding-schools, and hospitals, in the states of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Delaware, Massachusetts, Virginia, Missouri, and Louisiana, and in the District of Columbia.  She died a slow and painful death of tuberculous in 1821.

St. Elizabeth wanted nothing more then to be a happy wife and a mother to her children, but God had other challenges planned for her.  She allowed the trials in her life to help her grow in faith and virtue.  With each trial that was presented to her, St. Elizabeth found that God revealed resources, strength, and courage that even she didn’t realize she possessed.

Like St. Elizabeth, we should allow our sufferings and struggles to help form us into better disciples of Jesus. 

What incredible conversion stories do you know?