February 26, 2016

‘I knew he was there’: Visit to confessional, priestly advice lead woman to trust God’s future plan

Carolyn Fenton stands outside a confessional at St. Joseph Church in Shelbyville. The sacrament of reconciliation has long had a special place in her life after a priest’s advice led her to the husband of her dreams, and to the realization that Jesus is present in the sacrament. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Carolyn Fenton stands outside a confessional at St. Joseph Church in Shelbyville. The sacrament of reconciliation has long had a special place in her life after a priest’s advice led her to the husband of her dreams, and to the realization that Jesus is present in the sacrament. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

(Editor’s note: Pope Francis has declared a “Holy Year of Mercy” in the Church that continues through Nov. 20, 2016. As part of the “Year of Mercy,” The Criterion is inviting our readers to share their stories of how their lives have been graced by the mercy of God and other people—and how that mercy has made a difference. Here is the third in a continuing series of stories.)
 

By John Shaughnessy

SHELBYVILLE—When Carolyn Fenton knelt in the confessional on that memorable day, she never expected that her desire for forgiveness would lead to the husband of her dreams.

At the time, she was a young woman in her early 20s desperately seeking grace, love and stability in a life that hadn’t turned out the way she wanted.

At 17, she had run away from home. At 19, she was married to a young man by a justice of the peace. And when she became pregnant a short while later, her husband deserted her. She came home to live with her parents who were both physically disabled—her mother by a stroke, her father by polio at birth.

“I wanted my son to have a father who would love both me and my son,” she recalls. “I tried to date, but it was tough. The men I had been dating made it clear that settling down to the responsibilities of an already-made family was not their intent. I didn’t get a lot of respect because I was divorced. Some of the men said, ‘Just leave the kid behind.’ I’d say, ‘No.’ ”

In the midst of this troubled time, Fenton left the downtown Indianapolis office where she worked to receive the sacrament of reconciliation one day at St. John the Evangelist Church.

“I went in to confess my sins, but I really went in to ask for help,” she says.

What happened next changed her life.

A promise and a series of surprises

“After confessing my sins, I told the priest about my heartaches, fears and my situation at that time,” Fenton says. “As the priest consoled me, and listened to my concerns for myself and my son’s future, I noted his deep but soft and caring voice.

“His advice was for me to let go of the fear and trust in God. He told me I just needed to give God a chance to work it out. Then he promised me that God would bring a man into my life, and that man would marry me and become the father of my son. He said it would occur through many surprising circumstances.”

The “surprising circumstances” started to unfold a few months later, she says.

“My mother’s parents ran an orphan home in Indianapolis for years,” Fenton says. “There’s where my dad met my mom. When my grandpa died, a lot of the orphans came to his funeral to pay their respects. A lot of those who couldn’t come wrote letters and notes to my mom. One of the ladies and my mom kept writing letters to each other. We went to visit them.”

The visit occurred about 10 years after Fenton’s grandfather died, and a few months after she received the sacrament of reconciliation at St. John. Fenton joined her parents for the visit. It’s where she met David, the son of her mother’s pen pal.

Before long, David was bringing his mother to see her mother in Indianapolis. A short while later, David and Carolyn started dating. After a second date, she knew there was something different about David from the men she had previously dated.

“He was quiet, a good guy,” she says. “He treated me like a lady. He treated me with respect. That was the first thing that made a difference.”

She received another surprise just before their third date, a surprise that came in a phone call from David.

‘I knew he was there’

David told her that he had been drafted into the Army.

During that phone call in 1962, he also told her he had to serve for at least two years.

He surprised her again when he asked her to do one thing for him.

“He asked me to write him,” she recalls. “I wrote him every day. And he wrote me every day, which was hard for him with all he had to do.”

When he came home on furloughs, they continued to date. And when he ended his tour of duty on Aug. 20, 1964, he came home to her. Sixteen days later, they were married.

“There was no reason to wait,” David Fenton says. “She wrote me for two years, and she was pretty.”

Their 52nd wedding anniversary will be on Sept. 5. Members of St. Joseph Parish in Shelbyville, they have shared the blessings of four children, eight grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. They have shared the tough times, including the loss of jobs and the heartbreaking death of one of their children. They have shared a love that has lasted.

“It’s been a real good marriage,” says Carolyn Fenton, who is now 75. “He’s a very sweet man—shy and funny. We complement each other. He’s calm, and I’m the one who has to go fix things. He’s so kind and patient with me. He loves me, and I love him. It’s just a good fit.”

Her thoughts soon return to the conversation she had in the confessional more than 50 years ago.

“It all worked out just like the priest said,” she says. “That was a turning point for me. I really felt like Mary Magdalene at the time. I was looking for forgiveness. I wanted to start clean. It gave me hope for the first time in many years.”

Her voice becomes softer as she adds, “Jesus was there in the confessional that day. I knew he was there. After that, I knew why I needed to go to confession because of who was really there. I still have that feeling when I’m in confession—knowing I’m loved and it’s going to be OK.”

She marvels that one moment of forgiveness and compassion long ago continues to touch her life in so many ways.

“When I was younger, I thought I had to earn God’s love all the time. Now, I know better. I still fall back sometimes, but with age I’ve gotten to see all the blessings in my life instead of all the hard times. My parents and my family were right beside me. They taught me to keep my faith. I’ve just had so many blessings that I know God is real.”
 

(The Criterion continues to invite our readers to share their stories of how their lives have been graced by the mercy of God and other people—and how that mercy has made a difference. We are also seeking stories from our readers who have shown mercy and forgiveness to others—and how that act of mercy and forgiveness has made a difference to the person offering it. Please send your stories and responses to assistant editor John Shaughnessy by e-mail at jshaughnessy@archindy.org or by mail in care of The Criterion, 1400 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46202. Please include your parish and a daytime phone number where you can be reached.)

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