DOVER – Years of spiritual seeking ended at the Easter vigil April 7 at Holy Cross Church as Michel and Lisa Kasday entered the Catholic Church. For the Camden-Wyoming couple, it wasn’t really that simple. In their lives, few things are.
Like many couples in this part of Kent County, the Kasdays are a military family. Mike, 40, is a staff sergeant and an engine mechanic at Dover Air Force Base, and his wife is studying nursing at Delaware Technical Community College. They have dealt with deployments and work schedules that are anything but 9-to-5.
Unlike others at the base and fellow candidates in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), they also have had to incorporate respite care for their two sons – Julian, 12, and Jonathan, 11 – both of whom are special-needs children.
Julian has Asperger’s syndrome, a pervasive development disorder that is manifested in a number of ways, such as a lack of social skills, repetitive behavior and communication difficulties. Julian also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Jonathan is a low-functioning autistic. Autism is another pervasive development disorder.
The state pays for respite care, but finding a qualified provider has often been a challenge, the Kasdays said. There were nights when one parent would attend RCIA class and the other would stay home with the boys. On top of that, Mike works 12-hour shifts at the base.
“My shifts would be changing all the time. To line that up with the respite, and then me trying to get available, it’s been challenging,” he said at Holy Cross a few days before the vigil Mass.
“I’ll pick up Jonathan out in the parking lot and then go home while she goes to class, and then we reverse that the next week,” he added.
Lisa, 36, said the RCIA staff at Holy Cross went above and beyond in helping them learn the material. If they had to miss a class, their teacher often offered to catch them up on a weekend or another night.
“He knew we were serious,” she said.
Neither practiced faith
Both Mike and Lisa have Catholicism in their backgrounds, but neither practiced the faith growing up. Mike was born to a Catholic mother and Jewish father, but he was never baptized nor had a bar mitzvah. If people asked, he said he was Jewish.
His mom had a rosary, and he thought, “That’s interesting. I may look into that one day. I always felt I was kind of spiritual anyway, but I just had too many questions and not really the answers, so I just didn’t pursue anything.”
Mike, who grew up in Las Vegas, started considering Catholicism while deployed to the United Arab Emirates. He has a background in music and asked a chaplain if he could use the piano in the base chapel.
“The chaplain there said, ‘Hey, could you play for this service?’ I said, ‘I’m Jewish, is that going to be a problem?’” Mike said. The chaplain said it would not, and Mike liked what he heard at the Masses.
Lisa, raised in Oregon, Nevada and California, arrived at the same place but took a different route. Her father’s relatives were cradle Catholics but didn’t practice. Her mother’s side is split between Catholicism and Buddhism. Her mother is a Buddhist, but she had aunts who were Catholic and would take her to Mass. Lisa considered herself a Catholic but was never baptized.
She really started looking toward the church after what she said was an “angry period” in her life.
“I went through this angry period. I didn’t understand. I thought we were good people; we don’t get speeding tickets, we don’t lie on our taxes. And here, I thought, look, we had one special-needs child after another, and I didn’t understand what we had done, or what had my children done.
“That was the longest period, several years, the toddler and preschool years. And then I went through that phase of being embarrassed. I wasn’t angry anymore but now I was embarrassed because I was so angry at God. It was like the scenario of the little kid realizing he had done wrong and just embarrassed to face their parents.”
Things came to a head on Easter Sunday 2011. Before he became a mechanic, Mike was a flight engineer, and he was away from home that day. Lisa heard the news that a friend’s husband had died, and she was driving around Dover crying.
“For no reason, I pulled into the Holy Cross parking lot,” Lisa said. “And I just sat in the parking lot. It was raining and I was crying. I was scared to go in, I’ll be honest. Then I went inside, and I can’t express how calm it felt when I came inside and I sat down. I had forgotten what I was supposed to do when you come into the sanctuary.”
A feeling of calm came over her, and Lisa said she felt “every emotion possible.” The overwhelming one was peace. There happened to be a sign advertising the RCIA program hanging up at Holy Cross, and that evening, after Mike had returned to the base, she called her husband and asked if he would be willing to give it a shot. A year later, the Kasdays were baptized and confirmed and received first Communion.
Through a terrible experience of a friend’s loss, Mike said a miracle happened. He had been hoping for this since his return from the desert.
“When I came back this big change was happening inside me. There was a part of me that was hoping an interest in faith would blossom. I didn’t want to put any pressure on Lisa and continued to keep things as they were prior to deploying. Then this (friend’s husband’s death) happened. It is a terrible situation for any family. This, I think, really moved Lisa to deepen her spirituality.
“So, from this extremely negative situation, my hope that she would want to seek out Christ as I had came to pass,” he said.
‘Why not you?’
One of the reasons the Kasdays sought to be stationed in Dover nearly three years ago was for Kent County’s Charlton School, which serves special-needs students. Lisa would like to see the Diocese of Wilmington offer religious education for youngsters like hers, as it does in New Castle County.
She is very sensitive to nonverbal behavior, especially when people might pull their kids closer when Jonathan runs by.
“I feel that there’s so much that could be done down here. There have to be other parents like me, whose children are at home and they’re not saying anything. So if I stay here and keep working on it, maybe they would benefit, too.”
Her duties as a mother and her nursing classes left her wondering at times if she had the strength to get through RCIA. When her children are awake, she gives her time to them, putting off studying until late at night. She talked about her dilemma with a deacon at Holy Cross. His response reinforced her decision to become Catholic.
“My adviser says, ‘Well, why not you? God, for a reason, gave you two special-needs children. They had to be born at that time, why not you? What can you give back? What can you bring to your church? What can you bring to nursing?’”
“It was just like the most profound thing I had heard,” she said. “Why me? Everyone asks that. You’ll be in traffic. Why me, today of all days? It’s never been turned around to me before. Why not you? What does God see in you? It’s not easy. I’m not saying RCIA has been easy, or life in general, with our kids and not having to say something mean to someone else when they’re staring or make a comment.”
They have had that experience in other churches, but not Holy Cross. The Kasdays said they have made many friends at the parish, which feels like a second home to them. Married since 1996, they hope to have their marriage blessed, and their boys baptized.
The Kasdays encourage others who may be seeking a spiritual home to give RCIA a try.
“RCIA has taught me so many things about myself, about our family,” Lisa said. “It’s been a learning experience.”