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Photo: Felix Carroll

Through tragedy and loss, Ann Marie and Gerald Johnston continue to hold St. Joseph near. This statue serves as a reminder to them of the saint entrusted by God to care for and protect Jesus and the Blessed Mother.

The Feast of St. Joseph — March 19

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By Felix Carroll (Mar 17, 2014)
Within a three-month span in 2001, their 22-year-old son Matthew died unexpectedly from a heart condition and their 16-year-old daughter Faith revealed a priest had raped her.

Twelve years later, sharing these painful experiences in their home in Haverill, Mass., Gerald and Ann Marie Johnston explain how, in no small way, St. Joseph has served as their comforter, friend, and role model. It was his example, born of trust in God, that helped build the Johnstons' resolve to serve Christ and His Church at a time when others might have fled.

"Saint Joseph was helping us through," Ann Marie says. "The grief of dealing with Matthew's death and then the ordeal of a criminal trial — at the time we didn't really know what was going on around us."

What we know
At times oversentimentalized, at times overlooked, St. Joseph stands as an elusive figure in Scripture.

"We don't know a lot about him, but what little we know is profound," says Gerald, a convert to Catholicism who chose Joseph as his Confirmation name.

A carpenter by trade, a man of modest means, St. Joseph was chosen by God to be head of the household for the Holy Family and, eventually, Patron of the universal Church.

We also know that St. Joseph, whose feast day we celebrate March 19, serves as powerful intercessor, continuing to live up to his reputation as "comforter of the afflicted," "protector of families," and "patron of a happy death" — three attributes to which the Johnstons can attest.

"I've been in situations in my life," says Gerald, "where I have asked myself, 'Well, what would St. Joseph have done?'"

So what would St. Joseph have done in the case of a son's untimely death? What would he have done when a daughter fell prey to a sexual predator?

He would love them and safeguard them, first and foremost. Then, he would tender his fears, frustrations, and struggles to God, trusting He has a plan.

Entrusting their son
Matthew, the eldest of their four children, collapsed in the Johnston's dining room on July 1, 2001. While emergency personnel labored to save his life, the Johnstons sought to save his soul.

Ann Marie fled to the front yard, knelt down, and prayed the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. The Johnstons then contacted a priest who offered a Mass for Matthew within an hour of him going unconscious. They ensured he was administered the Anointing of the Sick before he died at the hospital hours later. They also ensured a brown scapular was placed around his neck before he drew his last breath. They were comforted that he had received the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Holy Eucharist the day prior.

And they trusted God was giving them a sign simply by the location where Matthew collapsed. Their son — who loved to laugh, loved sports, was a good student, gentle and kind — collapsed in front of the family's cherished statue of St. Joseph.

"We're not superstitious," says Gerald. "We don't believe that if you collapse in front of a statue of St. Joseph you are assured a place in heaven. But perhaps it was God's way of giving us some reassurance, some comfort that everything would be OK."

'Lord, to whom do we go?'
As they reeled from the death of Matthew, their daughter Faith broke down before them and confided about a series of sexual attacks she endured in 2000 while she worked part-time in the parish rectory.

Gerald and Ann Marie walked every step of the way with her through a grueling trial that lead to the conviction and imprisonment of the Rev. Kelvin Iguabita in 2003.

Faith was not alone in feeling betrayed by a Church she had held in high regard. Gerald and Ann Marie, too, felt they were being tested nearly to the breaking point. Yet, looking back, the Johnstons equate these struggles to the episode related in the Gospel of St. John (6:66-71) when many of Jesus' disciples began to abandon Him.

"Jesus said to His apostles, 'Are you going to leave me, too?' and St. Peter said, 'Lord, to whom do we go?' That's where we're at," says Gerald. "As much as our faith has been tested, and as much as we're confused and hurt and at times angry about some things that have happened, what's the alternative?"

They can't walk away. Saint Joseph wouldn't have walked away.

Their daughter Faith, now 28, went public with her identity following the trial. At a time when the Church in the United States was being brought to its knees by the clergy sex-abuse scandal, Faith was chosen as one of five victims to have a personal meeting with Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Washington, D.C., in 2008. The meeting played a major role in her healing process. She is now married, has two children, and has never left the Church.

A saint, too, faces uncertainties
Married 37 years, Gerald and Ann Marie continue to draw their strength from the sacraments. They teach religious education. They continue to pray for Fr. Kelvin, for his repentance and conversion. Every month they have a Mass offered for this intention. And every evening before going to bed, Ann Marie kisses a statue of Our Lady, a Divine Mercy image, and their beloved statue of St. Joseph.

"There is an awful lot that we will never understand in this life," Gerald says, "but we have to have the faith that, as St. Paul said, 'God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God'" (Rom 28).

He adds, "Remember: St. Joseph, too, had his doubts."

Indeed, when Joseph learned Mary was pregnant with Jesus through the Holy Spirit, he at first resolved to divorce her quietly. But when an angel explained that he would be entrusted with the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary and God's only Begotten Son, Joseph sought to fulfill the will of God. Surely, he understood the task would be fraught with trials, suffering, and sacrifice.

"Saint Joseph was going to walk away," Gerald says.

"Yes," says Ann Marie, "but he didn't."

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marylouise - Mar 17, 2014

I was one who left the church due to multiple betrayals, personal and witnessed. However, I never left Christ and struggled to have a relationship with Him in another denomination. When I finally returned it was "to whom shall I go?" that inspired me and now I know this gift was given so "when you return you may strengthen your brothers."

Theresa - Mar 18, 2014

I am Catholic. I have felt unworthy due to the fact that I am divorced. I have gone on Search weekends, participated in asking God's forgiveness and yet I still feel the church does not accept me because I am divorces. I met with my parish priest.His recommendation to me was to have my first marraige annulled.
This is not an option for me. I have three children...that does not feel right.
So I feel like I can not participate, volunteer and become a true parishioner. So I just go to mass, quietly each Sunday...pray and that's it. I don't think it's fair that I should be made to feel that because I am divorced I am looked down on.

Marie - Mar 18, 2014

A parish must still show love to a person who has divorced. I am very sorry that if anyone at my parish, including me has ever treated you as a lesser person. Yet, do not fear annulment - your children are still legitimate to the church. Its a misconception that they won't be recognized. See here: http://www.americancatholic.org/newsletters/cu/ac1002.asp

Laura - Mar 19, 2014

I divorced as well;and I filed for an annulment to further my healing--this was freeing! At no time did the Church make me feel any less for what I needed to do for myself. Please, forgive yourself! I have 2 children, the church loves them completely.