This September marks the Twentieth Anniversary of St. Mary’s Life Teen in Dedham, Massachusetts. It’s a significant milestone for the program and for myself. I feel like it was just yesterday that I was pregnant with Sophia and attending the Tenth Anniversary dinner. Here we are another ten years later and I wasn’t able to attend the dinner and I won’t be at the Anniversary Mass but I still hold the program close to my heart. Simply put, I would not be the woman I am today if it wasn’t for this program.
Twenty years ago I was 13 years old. I was about to enter into my Freshman year of high school. I had attended high school orientation to go to Watertown High School in New York but just before the first day of school my parent split and my mother and I moved to Dedham, Massachusetts to live with my Nana and Bumpa.
Let me put in a little disclaimer here – this is my story. I do not at all judge my parents for divorcing. I love them both and have amazing relationships with both of them. I don’t ever remember being angry at them for separating and in no way blame my troubles on their decisions. I will never fully understand why they chose to get divorced but again that was never my decision and I do not hold any of it against them.
As a child I don’t ever recall a weekend when we didn’t go to church. My mother is a devout Catholic and made sure I attended Mass every weekend and pretty much all of the Holy Days of Obligation as well as the Feast of Saint Blaise for the Blessing of Throats. We were very active at every church we attended. My mom continually volunteered with the Religious Education program, and was even my Catechist a few times. I was one of the first female alter servers at the chapel in Fort Drum, New York. Over the years I have served as a reader, cantor, choir member and Eucharistic minister. I confess though, since we left Virginia I have not been as active in the Catholic church as I want to be. I have struggled with the church but that’s another story. I will say that I am trying. All of our children have been Baptized and are going through Religious Education. We also recently started attending Mass on a regular basis again. Yet again, a story for another day…this story is about twenty years ago.
Twenty years ago I was the new kid in town. I was tiny – under 5 ft tall and not even 100 lbs (I was a late bloomer in life). I was a dorky kid who was thrown into a new world. Even though we had visited Dedham many times, it was not somewhere I thought I would ever live. I found myself in a new environment and my mother being the person she is immediately turned to the Church. My mom jumped through hoops to get me into High School on such a short notice and I know people at St. Mary’s helped play a role in making sure I could start school in time.
Twenty years ago my mom took me to Mass at Saint Mary’s of the Assumption in Dedham. After Mass she introduced me to Father Chris Hickey – the Hickey Family and the Baronie Family (my mom’s family) go back to being neighbors in the projects. Father Chris then introduced me to the Youth Minister, Sean Flynn. Sean-o then invited me to attend a back-to-school Luau later that day. If I could pinpoint a major turning point in my life this would be one of them – actually, I’m pretty sure I wrote about it for my College application essay and spelled Luau wrong too but thanks to homework days and Sean proof-reading that essay I got into all but one of the schools I had applied to [Boston Conservatory was the only school I didn’t get into by the way – I blew that audition but again – another story].
Twenty years ago I reluctantly put on a Hawaiian shirt. My Uncle Doug drove me to the Luau, gave me a little tough love sort of pep talk because that’s just the sort of guy he is, and told me when he would be back to pick me up. We didn’t have cellphones back then so I was pretty much stuck there for the next couple of hours and I was nervous as heck. I wanted to throw up. Those nerves quickly went away when Sean and a couple of upperclassman girls approached me and hugged me! HUGGED ME! ME! They hugged me! My glasses wearing, petite, awkward, dorky self [y’all there are pics somewhere to prove how awkward looking I was] was immediately welcome with literal open arms! I was also instantly dubbed “Lil’ Liz” since there were two other Liz’s already. By the end of the night when my Uncle came back to pick me up I didn’t want to leave. It was the most amazing feeling in the world.
Twenty years ago I was the new kid in town. Although I was warmly welcomed at St. Mary’s that wasn’t the case at school. I had a very difficult time at school. I was nicknamed “Brooklyn” just because I had moved from New York [even though Watertown is way closer to Canada than it is to Brooklyn]. I was made fun of a ton – I was even shoved into my locker – oh and had received some death threats too. It was a miserable transition for me. There was a lot of uncertainty in my life. Yet one thing was always certain – being welcomed with open arms at St. Mary’s Life Teen. Even though I was mercilessly picked on at school, at the end of the day I could walk into the Life House and know that I was loved.
Twenty years ago, when I was starting high school my mom was starting a new life for herself and those years were not financially easy. When I say that Life Teen fed me and clothed me I literally mean it – especially the feeding part, I knew at least once a week I would be having dinner there, Monday night: Pizza and Prayer. Through Pizza and Prayer I was fed body and soul. In my darkest days as a teenager going through some difficult stuff, that very few people realized because I have always been a pro at smiling through most of the sadness, Life Teen was there as my light, my reason to smile.
Twenty years ago I met one of my best friends, Christina, through this program. One day, when I was stuck by myself, in the rain with no way home and nowhere to go, she literally took me in and brought me to her house to dry off and her family has been my family ever since.
Twenty years ago my world as I knew it was falling apart but thanks to the amazing parish that is Saint Mary’s and the Life Teen program it didn’t. It crumbled a bit for sure but it also formed me into the woman I am today. Without those difficulties back then and without the love and guidance and power of prayer I simply wouldn’t be who I am today. When people ask me today how I do it all I know it’s because of the many experiences I had back then. The retreats, the deep connection to God (even when I struggle with the Church I know He’s still there and well, Mary is my home girl too). St. Mary’s Life Teen taught me to know my worth. So even though I would be shoved into lockers, picked on, etc…thrown down literally and figuratively through the years, I knew my worth and that I couldn’t be kept down.
So why this story now…why a glimpse into my life back then? Well, the program can’t happen without the generosity of others. I am hosting a thirty-one gifts fundraising party over the next few days as my way to give back to a program that gave me more than I could ever repay them. Fundraiser details can be found on my Facebook VIP group page. Or you can go directly to the St. Mary’s Life Teen Go Fund Me Page and make a donation. This program literally saves lives – it saved mine.