It all started with a lost birth certificate. The Holy Spirit was at work that day and hasn’t slowed down since.
My aunt Jan has always known she was adopted, and the many mysteries surrounding that reality had never haunted her. She raised her daughters near St. Paul, Minnesota, her husband’s hometown, and cherished her Catholic faith. Now 56, she is an empty nester who volunteers often and paints religious icons.
Last summer Jan was applying for her enhanced driver’s license and the Transportation Security Administration and couldn’t find her birth certificate. Finally she resolved to send for another one from Pennsylvania, where she was born and raised. The state website noted that it would soon be issuing original birth certificates.
Eventually she applied, and the following month a copy of her original birth certificate arrived, bearing two revelations: her birth name, Theresa Anne, and her birth mother’s name, Judy. The unusual maiden name prompted an online search, and within minutes, White Pages churned up a 1940 census showing that Judy had grown up — of all places — in St. Paul! She is 80 and still alive, living in Florida.
Within a week Jan was mining Ancestry.com. An obituary of her mom’s brother listed his children, including one distinct name: a member of Jan’s parish, St. Odilia, a thriving Catholic community in Shoreview, Minnesota.
Jan has known and worshipped alongside her first cousin for years!
The two have since forged a warm new friendship, meeting and texting regularly. Though her birth father’s identity remains unclear, Jan has determined that she has five half-siblings, including one in Duluth, Minnesota. Many cousins live nearby, and Jan recently met an uncle in another St. Paul suburb.
Jan’s spiritual life proved just as active as her adoption research. She took three icon classes and began the lay formation process for the Third Order Carmelites.
Reconnecting with her birth mom was never her goal, but suddenly it seemed prudent to reach out before someone else mentioned Jan to Judy.
And so, on a Friday night in August, Jan sat at her kitchen table and wrote a letter to her birth mom. The words and tears poured out.
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the gift of life and the gift of adoption,” she wrote. “Thank you for having me baptized Catholic. I know God has been with me from the very beginning.”
She expressed a willingness to meet but left it up to her.
“I have prayed in thanksgiving for you and my siblings and birth father for years,” Jan wrote in closing. “I will continue to do so.”
The letter was written in one sitting and in the mail the following morning.
Initially, Jan hoped for an immediate reply.
None has come, but she’s OK with that.
“God is so amazing to allow me to see these connections this side of heaven,” she said. “He is working through me more and more!”
It’s evident in her art: She has completed seven icons this year. Normally, she’d finish one or two. It’s also evident in her abundant prayer life, including a daily rosary and many Masses offered for her birth parents and siblings.
“You have to be in motion for God to act,” she said. “Prayer is action.”
As the year draws to a close, Jan has a peaceful acceptance of the many remaining unknowns — and a joyful optimism for the future.
She’d love to paint icons full time to give to churches in need. She plans to learn the violin after retiring and eventually walk the Camino de Santiago. She’s dreaming big and believing, like never before, that anything is possible in God.
“I am living it!”