By Barbara Curtis
For some, the journey to God is a long and winding road. Just ask Lee Hooks — better known as “Doc” — who’s been sitting in the third pew of St. Francis de Sales Church in Purcellville for a year and a half, but who received his first holy Communion at the Easter Vigil just last weekend.
Doc grew up in Alexandria, where he remembers being “dragged, kicking and screaming” to church a few times before his parents gave up. Fast forward to age 35: Living in the Lake Tahoe, Calif., area, his life broken — a failed three-and-a-half-week marriage, drug addiction and despair.
“I am slowly realizing how God has watched over me,” Doc says today. “I should have been dead a hundred times. I keep asking myself, ‘Why?’”
Only now can he see God’s hand at work at moments when his life hung in the balance. One of those moments was when he called his mother to ask, “Can I come home?” Home to heal, home to pull himself up by the bootstraps, home to start over. Still, it would be another 20 years before he figured out he was never really alone.
Fast forward again: Doc has now been happily married for 18 years to Annie, a woman whose devotion to animals meant that whenever she returned from volunteering at the Animal Shelter, he had to check the back seat to see who she’d brought home: “The ones that were hurt, the ones that were unwanted — these were the ones that were important to her.”
In August 2010, their happiness was shattered, when Annie was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer with only months to live. Longing to return to the Church, Annie had spent 40 years away and was afraid to return.
Doc asked around, then one day found himself standing outside St. Francis de Sales — just looking — when a priest came out.
When Father Ronald Escalante, parochial administrator of St. Francis de Sales, introduced himself, Doc poured out the story of Annie. Father Escalante came to their house, heard her confession and stayed for hours — as he would many times over the next few months.
“I saw this miracle taking place in front of me,” Doc says, “The strength and peace she needed to face this trial.”
There also was the blessing of having their civil marriage blessed with a special ceremony in October. Every Sunday, the couple came to Mass together, sitting in the third pew, Doc walking Annie up so she could receive Communion. On the Sunday when she was finally too ill to come, Annie fretted, but Doc assured her that Father Escalante would notice. Sure enough, he was at their door a short time later, bringing her Communion.
And Doc will not forget in early December as Annie was taking her leave, slipping in and out of consciousness, when she opened her eyes to see Father Escalante at her bedside.
“Why are you here?” she asked,
“Annie, I’m here to give you the last rites,” he said.
“You are? Oh, good,” Annie said with a radiant smile.
Annie died that night, but her story lived on in Father Escalante’s homilies. Many hearts were touched and some who’d strayed came back to church when they heard Annie’s story.
Doc continued going to Mass, sitting in their special spot in the third pew. “It made me feel closer to her,” he said.
Then last Easter, he arrived too late and had to stand in the back. When his arthritis started acting up, he slipped into the oratory to light a candle. Looking up at the cross, he said, “I don’t know what to do.”
“You know what to do,” he heard God tell him.
Finally, on Pentecost, Father Edwin Thayer Tewes, parochial vicar, in his homily said the words Doc needed to hear: “The worse sinner you are, the more God loves you.”
“I’ve done a lot in my life I’m not proud of,” Doc said. “I thank God for not giving up on me. Over the last few years, I’ve had a slow awakening — slow because God knew that if He pushed me too hard, I would rebel. He gently led me to the trough and when I was ready I took a drink.”
Last fall, Doc joined the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and began reading the Bible for the first time.
“One thing I love about the Church is that everyone understands we’re human and we’re sinners,” he said. One of his favorite stories is when Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and the Sadducees:
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. … I desire mercy, not sacrifice. … For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt 9:11-13).
Annie, who also had a heart for the wounded and unwanted, would understand. And she is sure to find joy that her beloved Doc found healing, grace, mercy and peace — a home forever — in the arms of the Church last Easter Sunday.
Curtis, who blogs at mommylife.net, is a mother of 12 and author from Lovettsville.