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Profiles in Catholicism
An Interview with Denise Sutherland

by Gordon Nary

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Gordon:   When and why did you and husband Al join Assumption Catholic Church?

  In search of a church for her wedding in 2013, our oldest daughter came upon and fell in love with Assumption Church. Her pre-marriage preparation sessions with the pastor, Fr. Joe Chamblain were especially inspiring for her. On her wedding day, the beauty of the church, the mass, officiated by Fr. Joe, and the music made for the most moving and inspiring wedding ceremony we’ve ever experienced. Al and I lived in Naperville at that time and from then on, we began driving into the city every Sunday to attend the 9:00 AM mass at Assumption. Within a few weeks we decided to officially move from our parish of 20 years to Assumption, and we quickly became active parishioners. Joining the Assumption Parish community was a major factor in our decision to move back to the city on a full-time basis in 2015.
Gordon:   If someone was moving to Chicago and asked you to recommend a parish. what are the reasons that you would give for recommending Assumption?


Assumption is a relatively small church in comparison to some of its neighboring churches, so it is easy to get to know and become a part of the church community there. I admire that the church is very hospitable to guests, both those visiting from out of town and those visiting from other churches. Additionally, Assumption offers a variety of lay ministries and volunteer opportunities, and it wholeheartedly encourages parishioners to grow the outreach and welcoming spirit of the church by becoming active participants in those ministries.

Gordon:   In addition to serving as a Eucharist Minister, you also serve in the Assumption RCIA ministry. What are your responsibilities and how as the experience in RCIA affected your life?

A team of four lay volunteers and Fr. Joe facilitates the RCIA ministry at Assumption. The weekly program is divided into two segments. In the first segment, one team member leads a discussion on the gospel of the day. The second segment includes a presentation on some aspect of Catholicism. For the past few years, I have been assigned to lead presentations on the Beatitudes and the Catholic Social Teachings. For the most part, he topics covered each week correlate with the church calendar or liturgical year. My teammates and I also serve as sponsors for the candidates and catechumens, if needed, and as mentors to address their questions and concerns outside of the weekly group discussion.

Being a cradle Catholic, I thought I knew Catholicism. Yet, through the RCIA ministry I have broadened my understanding of the tenets of Catholicism, experienced a renewed appreciation for the depth and breadth of the Old and New Testament scriptures, deepened my prayer life, cultivated a more intimately loving and trusting relationship with Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and of late, become ablaze with the spirit of evangelization. 
  You also care deeply about the homeless and poor by volunteering at Chicago Help Initiative  Please share with our readers how knowing and helping those in need has had an impact on your life.

  Several years ago at my parish in Naperville, I somewhat fell into a ministry for the homeless, Daybreak Transitional Housing. For two years, I mentored the parish-sponsored client on a weekly basis, supporting her through the goal-oriented program aimed to recover financial and familial stability. Though accompanying the client on her journey had some challenges, to be a part of the client’s transition from homelessness to financial independence was a tremendous gift of grace and learning opportunity for me. What I learned most was that the line between “making it” and being on the street is a very fine line, one that can be crossed with one unlucky break or ill-fated circumstance

Equally important, I became acutely aware of the interior issues the homeless deal with, especially their feelings of unworthiness and low self-esteem. So when I met Jacqueline Hayes, the founder of CHI and a fellow parishioner at Assumption Church, I offered to teach chair yoga to the meal guests. Yoga has been a transformative discipline for me personally and from my various yoga teacher trainings, I understand that yoga works on the outside as well as on the inside. I felt it could be a good resource of transformation for the CHI guests.  

When I began teaching the chair yoga class at CHI in April of 2016, the students were unable to control their breath and follow even the simplest cues. They were mistrusting of me and of one another. On a physical level, some could not even lift their arms up to their shoulders.  

Since then, the students that attend the yoga class regularly can easily coordinate their movements with their breath and follow my cues flawlessly. Like synchronized swimmers, they move gracefully and harmoniously. Furthermore, their physical flexibility and mental focus have improved dramatically, and they can maintain centeredness when doing the postures and in meditations.  

Remarkably, the yoga students now also smile, and exhibit inner and outer attitudes of confidence, as well as demonstrate the attributes of discipline and commitment. One student, for example, has recently secured job with a challenging commute that requires him to get up at 1:45 AM. Even though he’s exhausted from having to get up so early and from the physical demands of the job, he is determined and grateful for the opportunity. And what is really amazing is that he requested to work one weekend day in lieu of Wednesday so that he could make the yoga class each week! 

St. Francis describes best how these ministries with the homeless have impacted my life, “…for it is in giving that we receive.” I am truly blessed to be able to give of my time and my expertise to help these wonderful people. At the end of each class, with my hands in prayer position at my heart, I bow to my students and say, “…Thank you for joining me today. I am most humbled and privileged to be your teacher. As always, I bid you much peace and many blessings.”

Gordon:   Please share with our readers your near-death experience and how it has transformed your life.

  In April 2007, I journeyed to Honolulu to attend a nine-week Bikram Yoga teacher training. Bikram Yoga, or “hot” yoga, is customarily practiced for 90 minutes in a room heated to 105°.       

At the training, though, trainees were required to practice four hours per day in 125° for the purpose of clearing away physical toxins and “samskaras” or old patterns and/or limiting beliefs.  Struggling physically in the intense heat, I lost ten pounds after only ten days in the training. On the 40th day of the training, the sodium count in my body plummeted to organ failure level and I went unconscious and crossed over from the earthly plane to the heavenly plane. For several minutes that evening I had an encounter with and a foretaste of life after death.  

During my near-death experience, I was clearly out of my body yet I was traveling at lightning speed in a dark tunnel in what seemed like a feet-first direction. Instantly, scenes from my entire

life played before me like a movie on a screen, and then in slow motion I plunged into an ocean of soft, white light. I became warm and buoyant, as though a suit of armor dropped from my
body. Surrounded by cherubs, I floated blissfully and basked for a time in an indescribable feeling of unconditional love. I believe I saw and recalled the angels as cherubs because babies
to me are unconditional love. 

Then a blinding platinum light shone on me and I a heard a loving but resolute male voice say, “My dear one, it is not your time. You cannot stay. You must go back.” And I, in a child-like
voice, replied, “But I don’t want to go back! I love it here!” And he responded, “You must go back. You have an important purpose with your family. You have an important purpose for God.
You are a teacher.” In a flash I felt myself descending, and I was back in the room, hovering for a moment over my body which was being resuscitated by an ER doctor that happened t
o be attending the training. Probably only a few seconds later, I reconnected with my body and in a semi-conscious state could hear her voice say, “I’m a medical doctor! Call 911, NOW!” 
I regained full consciousness in the ambulance on the way to the hospital where I was given a CT scan, treated with saline and potassium IVs, and released a few hours later. The next
morning the doctor that saved my life came to my room to check on me. She held my hands gently and said, “Denise, please go home. You’re a young woman with a beautiful family.
If this happens again, you won’t be as lucky.” Needless to say I left the training and returned to Chicago within a few days, after recovering enough physical strength to endure the long plane

Interestingly, in the months leading up to the Bikram training, I became fascinated with the topic of angels. Daily I would spend a great deal of time researching, reading about and looking
for signs from angels. It was almost a compulsion. Then, immediately following my near-death experience, I began seeing (in my mind’s eye) and hearing angels, archangels, and saints,
such as St. Francis, in meditations and in dreams.  

Actually, a few days after being home from Hawaii I heard the voice of St. Francis tell me to get a statue of him for my garden. You can imagine what Al was thinking when I relayed St. Francis’ message to him! Admittedly, I too thought perhaps maybe I experienced some brain damage from my heat trauma. However, Al calmly drove me to the statuary and I picked out a joyful looking St. Francis statue. When Al put the statue in the location where St. Francis had directed me to, it was as if St. Francis had always been there! Needless to say, Al and I were utterly amazed. 
After that, I became somewhat of a local expert on angels. I lectured about and taught classes on angels and saints in holistic centers, libraries, and yoga studios. Simultaneously, I obtained a 200-hour yoga teaching certification and a 500-hour yoga teaching certification and set in motion my journey as a yoga teacher. Everywhere that I lectured and taught, I consistently found that people are very intrigued by angels, perhaps because people perceive angels as being more accessible than Jesus or God and depending on their religious and/or family upbringing.  
For the past few years, I have learned to rely primarily on Jesus and the Holy Spirit for guidance, but I will always be grateful for, as I say, “my friends in high places.” It was angels and earth angels, like the ER doctor, that swooped in at the exact right moment to spare my life. The little bit of heaven that I encountered that evening allayed my fear of death, and made me fully grasp that every day of life is truly a gift from God.  Each morning I thank God that I am here to enjoy my children and grandchildren. I pray that my life glorifies God by shining gospel brightness into the lives of others so that they may see heaven when their hour comes.  

  One of the issues that we discussed was our shared belief that we may eventually have women deacons. In your opinion, what impact would women  deacons have on retention of and increase in new members?

  Throughout the years of my involvement in the Catholic Church, I have known some powerful, passionate, capable, and committed religious and lay women who were relegated to mainly formation ministries and frustrated because the Church prohibits the ordination of women to the deaconate. For most of my life I, like them, have been loyal to and fervent about Catholicism, and called to ministry within the Church in some form. In fact, from the time I was a child I have always said that if I could be anything I would be a priestess or a deaconess in the Catholic Church. And from my years teaching religious education, I came to realize that I had been blessed with a gift for teaching the Word of God with influence.

With this in mind, there was a period where I became bewildered by the fact that I wasn’t able to live out my dream of being ordained. I honestly felt then and still feel as though women are devalued in Catholicism. So between the years of 2006 and 2013, I began my exploration outside of the Church and into the realm of New Age thought and yoga philosophy.

Even though I remained a Catholic in name during that time, I abandoned my practice of Catholicism and used my lectures on angels and my yoga classes as opportunities to preach spirituality. In fact, my yoga students often stated that attending my classes was like going to church for them; they would apply the message of my class themes to their daily lives. And sad to say, the majority of my students were women and former Catholics longing to find God in community and hungry for inspiration from women like themselves in spiritual leadership roles. Interestingly, just today my acupuncturist mentioned that she left the Catholic Church because she couldn’t be ordained.

By the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, I was called “back home” to ground my spirituality and rededicate myself to traditional Catholicism. Since then, I’ve worked diligently to use my gifts to shepherd those that have strayed from the Church and to bring new members into the fold with much success. On the other hand, my experience has also been that both women and men, former Catholics and non-Catholics, respect the very essence of Catholicism, the true Church, but are reluctant or flat out refuse to return or join the church because of its resistance to change and its long standing decrees on issues such as ordaining women. That said, I wholeheartedly believe if the Catholic Church would ordain female deacons, the retention numbers would stabilize and membership would increase significantly.

In closing, what is your favorite prayer?



You probably will not be surprised, Gord, to know my favorite prayer is also my personal mission statement – the Prayer of St. Francis

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace;
where there is hatred let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair; hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.”