September 30, 2016

‘Build me a cross’: Daughter’s story of abandonment becomes a tale of grace, mercy and forgiveness

For the “Holy Year of Mercy,” Mary Jean Wethington created a 40-foot wooden cross inside the barn of her 18-acre farm in Dearborn County. Wethington formed the cross from pieces of wood that are “broken, cracked and splintered”—a description, she says, that symbolizes parts of many people’s lives, including her relationship with her biological father. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

For the “Holy Year of Mercy,” Mary Jean Wethington created a 40-foot wooden cross inside the barn of her 18-acre farm in Dearborn County. Wethington formed the cross from pieces of wood that are “broken, cracked and splintered”—a description, she says, that symbolizes parts of many people’s lives, including her relationship with her biological father. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

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

By John Shaughnessy

DEARBORN COUNTY—For the longest time, she couldn’t forgive him, not for what he did to her and her mother.

In fact, every time Mary Jean Wethington thought about her biological father, she would feel the resentment and bitterness rising within her.

“He deserted us when my mom was six months pregnant with me,” says Wethington, a member of All Saints Parish in Dearborn County in the Batesville Deanery. “He came back and tried to reconcile. Then he left when I was 16 months old, and he took all of Mom’s money.

“Mother had to work, and I was left to people who weren’t good to me. Mother subsequently went after my biological father to get some funds from him. That’s when she found out about all the different women.”

Wethington carried that pain with her through her 70th birthday during the past year. Yet that’s not where the story ends for her. The story of abandonment has become one of grace, mercy and forgiveness for her.

It’s a story she shares as she stands by a 40-foot wooden cross stretched across the dirt floor of the barn of her 18-acre farm—a farm she has turned into a refuge of faith and hope in the hills of southeastern Indiana.

‘Build me a cross’

Wethington’s farm has been in her family since 1979. Marked by a creek, a pond, fields of wildflowers and a backdrop of large trees, the land is home to deer, foxes and wild turkeys.

Under her care, the farm has also become a serene center of spirituality that she calls Respite Oratory. Visitors can meditate as they walk through mowed trails amid the wildflowers, or as they rest on a dock overlooking the pond that has a flowing fountain. She has also created a chapel where people come to pray.

Still, the oversized cross in the barn is where Wethington leads visitors first. She added the cross in the barn in October of 2015, a few months after Pope Francis announced that a “Holy Year of Mercy” in the Church would extend from Dec. 8, 2015, through Nov. 20, 2016.

“I give my life in prayer to God, and he makes things happen,” she says. “I hear the Lord speak to me because I speak to him. I heard the Lord say, ‘Build me a cross.’ ”

So she did. Then she invited people from All Saints and other nearby parishes to pray at the cross.

“Many have come to place a name or intention upon this central symbol of our faith, and hopefully then release it to the Father’s mercy,” she says. “I let each person encounter Christ and discover what that cross means in their life.”

She found the material for the cross in a pile of wood—from an old fence—that had been stacked in the barn for about 30 years. As she laid the wooden pieces together on the barn’s dirt floor, she started to feel there was something significant and beautiful about the beat-up, imperfect pieces she was using to form the cross.

“These pieces of wood are symbols of our lives,” she says. “They’re broken. They’re cracked. They’re splintered.”

Those words also describe the way she felt for a long time about her relationship—or lack of one—with her biological father.

In contrast, Respite Oratory reflects the peace and serenity that Wethington experienced in her relationship with her stepfather, Bill Boehle, the man she always called “Daddy.”

“This Daddy took another man’s child and loved me more than the father who was my own flesh and blood,” she says. “He was my real father. He adopted me. We spent great times together. We used to play the piano together. He taught me to fish—and paint. We used to take long walks together and talk.

“When he drove me to music lessons, he would wait in the car. He was a be-there father. And I was a be-there daughter. I was there with him in the hospital when he died.”

Struggling and fighting with God

As people from all over the area have come to leave their names and their intentions on the cross, Wethington has taken delight in seeing the visitors draw closer to God and his mercy. At the same time, she believed, “This cross is supposed to be for others, not me.”

Yet that belief changed earlier this year during Mass.

“I heard the Lord clearly say to me, ‘I want you to place your biological father’s name on the cross.’ To which I immediately responded, ‘What?! No!’ This was asking too much for the man who twice abandoned my mother and me, leaving us destitute.”

After Mass that day, Wethington “struggled and fought with the Lord,” which was unusual for her because she was “so used to surrendering to God.”

That struggle continued as she later entered a confessional for the sacrament of reconciliation with her spiritual director. She told the priest about the request she heard during Mass.

“He said, ‘When the Lord told you to place Roy’s name on the cross, then Mary Jean you put Roy’s name on the cross,’ ” she recalls. “I bristled because I knew I would have to pray for him every day because I pray for every name and petition on that cross every day. I wasn’t ready to do it. I struggled with it all day.”

Finally, she relented, and when she did, she was stunned by the feeling she had after she knelt and put her biological father’s name on the cross.

“The moment I stood up, I was totally at peace with Roy,” she says. “I could say his name. I could forgive him.”

Another surprise followed.

The healing gift of mercy

“There came over me another grace—a gift unfolding of suddenly seeing all the gifts Roy had given me: the gift of music, singing, creativity, my build, my bright smile, my blond hair and blue eyes, my energy and zest for life.

“All these came from this man, my father. And I was graced to forgive him for the hurt and the pain he had caused Momma and me over all these years.”

She continues to feel that grace, that peace, months later.

Every night, she enters the barn and lights 18 red candles on the cross, red candles that symbolize for her “the blood of Christ on the wood of the cross.” As the red candles blaze in the darkness, she prays for every intention on the cross and every name on the cross, including Roy Haenel—the person who caused her so much hurt through the years.

For Wethington, the healing all started with taking her pain to the cross.

“We’re told to lay our burdens at the foot of the cross,” she says. “If you want to free yourself—to release that sense of bondage that has a hold on you—be a person of mercy.

“If you let go of what happened and give a person mercy, God’s mercy will come back to you. That’s the way God is.”
 

(To schedule a possible visit to Respite Oratory, call Mary Jean Wethington at 513-706-0565. The Criterion continues to invite our readers to share their stories of how their lives have been graced by the mercy and forgiveness of God and other people—and how that mercy and forgiveness have 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 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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