Local News Archive
Print Issue: June 22, 2000
A Faithful Church Draws Back Two Of Her Own
By Gretchen Keiser, Staff Writer
ATLANTARon Chandonia sits in a chair in his living room in the West End, dressed casually but communicating clear, piercing thoughts about his decision to leave, and to return, to the Catholic Church.
It was 1969, he was a senior at Notre Dame University, completing his 16th year of Catholic education. He was just married to his wife, Charlene, a graduate of Nazareth College, who also had been immersed in Catholic school since childhood.
I kind of felt like Id overdosed on it. I felt like I had enough, he remembers. It was the 60s. The church was this big thing that restrained peoples freedom. The whole spirit of the 60s was doing everything you wanted to ... All the excitement going on in the world and here she was having to check in (at the dorm) at night ... Right about then was when Humanae Vitae came out .. The church was just old-fashioned, ridiculous.
He smiles wryly, knowing how this story comes out.
The question was, do we want our kids to grow up with what we had. We said no.
That decision set the course for their marriage and family life for the next 28 years, in which they chose not to baptize their two sons, John-Marc, now 29, and John-Paul, now 25. Ron taught them a vision of liberal social activism and, after earning a Ph.D. in black studies at Emory University, he taught English and writing for over 20 years at Atlanta Metropolitan College, a school with a predominantly black student body including many adults.
Charlene, gifted in the computer field, worked for several companies over the years and frequently traveled in connection with her work. They always lived in the West End.
His thoughts are penetrating now, at 52, but he says that the insights came only with the passage of time, observing what the much-touted freedom of the 60s translated into in the lives of his students, his family and the world around him.
As you get to middle age, you see what your little project amounted to what our children were like, what our careers were like, or not like, what our marriage was like ... We were very unhappy. We really came very close to breaking up.
When you are in your twenties, you dont want to say that this shallow hedonism is something very bad. When you see what it amounts to in peoples lives, well, we just think its a miracle that our marriage stayed together. So many didnt.
It was in the mid-1990s that Ron and Charlene began to experience the graces that gently shift searching people in the right direction.
When Charlenes mother died, her Catholic funeral in Indiana was consoling. Charlenes sister, who had stayed in the Catholic Church and raised her children in the faith, and Charlenes many cousins were a warm faith and family community, unaware of their impact upon her.
At my mothers funeral I remember everyone coming together. It was a real caring, coming-together time. The church was central to that.
A few years later her father suffered an aneurysm and went into a nursing home, where she sometimes went to Mass with him. When her father died, they had a wonderful funeral. I felt kind of like an outsider.
The thoughts of your parents dying bring you back to your roots and what is important, Charlene Chandonia said. I started really wanting to come back (to the church).
An opportunity connected with her job sent her to California for an extended period. There was a Catholic church right around the corner from where I was living. I started going there and found a real comfort in going there.
Since their sons were now young adults, Ron was able to take a leave from teaching for six months and joined her.
When he arrived, she delicately took him to see the historic mission church, Mission Dolores, and suggested that they could stay for Mass if he wanted. Perhaps to her surprise, he did.
The people there were so welcoming, Ron Chandonia recalls. It seemed like there was a different spirit in the church than we remembered (from college days). There were a lot of Hispanic people. It was interesting to see how people greeted us.
They never went to Communion and even felt it was inappropriate when they were invited once to bring up the offertory gifts. But they began to talk about the possibility of coming back fully to the sacraments.
When their time in California came to an end and they returned to Atlanta, they were attracted to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the welcoming hospitality of its pastor at the time, Father John Adamski.
Within a short time, first Ron and then Charlene made appointments with the pastor so that they could receive the sacrament of reconciliation.
I felt so good when it was over, Charlene Chandonia said, admitting that it was difficult to face up to the moment of confession after almost 30 years.
They returned to Communion quietly, taking part fully in a Sunday Mass at the Shrine. It was wonderful to be back in good standing, she said.
That was in 1997. The fruits of their return are evident to them; their lives have changed a great deal.
What seemed to matter before was vacation, Ron Chandonia said. Now what seems to matter is how much good we can do and how much time we have left. We are so much closer to each other. Our marriage is back together again. We spend a lot of time on activities that are church-related.
Father Adamski challenged them each to join a ministry as soon as they rejoined the Catholic Church.
Charlene, a regular volunteer at St. Francis Table, the Saturday soup kitchen at the Shrine, is also very active in Habitat for Humanity and has worked on a number of building projects.
Ron is the current president of Pax Christi Atlanta and heads the pro-life committee at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Atlanta, where Father Adamski was transferred and where the couple are active members.
At one time, Ron says, they were both pro-choice.
We wandered so far in terms of what we believed. The church remained faithful.
His years of teaching brought him in contact with the consequences of abortion in the lives and writings of his students, he said. He also observed changes in American society. Society had changed in a variety of ways that were very significant. What we thought were greater freedoms were really hurting people. I saw things happening in my own life that were like the things happening in society.
He now thinks that (Pope) John Paul is exactly right ... It is a culture of death.
One adult student told him that she chose her work of 30 years with severely retarded children out of a need to compensate for a decision she made as a young woman to abort a baby. A male student was severely impacted by his role in convincing a girlfriend to have an abortion, Chandonia said.
There were other people who were so jaded in ways that were abnormal. People were really cold. They would get very defensive and hostile in a discussion in class (on abortion). Everyone in class knew.
He has designed a pro-life bumper sticker, using the seamless garment approach of the Catholic Church, which he was inspired to create while driving to the memorial Mass at the Cathedral of Christ the King for Mother Teresa. He has given away 6,000-8,000 so far.
In Pax Christi he has found a group of really kindred spirits I feel very close to.
Once they were foster parents through Fulton County. After returning to active church life, they began to serve as foster parents through Catholic Social Services.
That is how we realized that even though we are kind of old, we were not too old to adopt, Ron said, with a grin.
Two-year-old Chantel was adopted by the Chandonias in April in an open adoption process through Catholic Social Services. She was baptized on Easter Sunday.
I used to be a real feminist, being a member of NOW, Charlene Chandonia said. Now I think that is a lot of hooey. I think women are better served doing womanly things. I hate to say that, but I wish I had taken more time off with my kids instead of being so career-minded. I am not going to do that with Chantel. Im going to enjoy her.
Coming back into the Catholic Church has brought great peace into their lives, both said, and a new community of friends.
That is something I have really enjoyed since being back in the church. We have friends we met at church we really like, people we have a lot in common with, Charlene said.
The great change, however, has not been able to undo one lasting impact of their youthful decision.
Their oldest son is deeply disturbed by their decision, Ron said. I feel very, very bad. He really thinks we have lost our minds. We have a very uneasy relationship.
Coming back into the church really seemed too easy, Ron said. When I faced my older son, I realized it was not easy because I had to face what I had done with my life. When he would say something very critical to me, I would have to think, I taught him that.
He writes to his oldest son. He is grateful his younger son, who went into the Peace Corps and served alongside Catholic Relief Services, is more accepting of the changes in his parents lives. He plans to raise his daughter differently.
And when he has the opportunity to speak to young people he hears who plan to raise their children without the Catholic faith, he tells them, Dont do this to your children. Dont.
A NEW BEGINNING --
Ron and Charlene Chandonia and their daughter, Chantel, 2, belong to Our Lady
of Lourdes Church, Atlanta. The couple returned to the sacraments of the
Catholic Church in 1997 after 28 years away.