When Stephen Bird, 70, stepped into the baptismal tub during the Easter Vigil service at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Santa Clarita on April 15, it was the fulfillment of his lifelong exploration to find a spiritual home.
“That’s right — I’m a Catholic now,” Bird stated proudly, with a laugh, a few days later as he shared highlights of his faith journey with Angelus News.
Born in the heart of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, in the city of San Fernando, Bird had been raised by nonreligious though caring parents.
“My parents were never that religious,” recounted Bird to Angelus News. “My father was involved in the YMCA — the Young Men’s Christian Association — so I was involved with him as a child. That was about as much religion as I received as a young kid. … That was about it for my religious upbringing.”
In addition to the YMCA, Bird was introduced to Catholicism. When he was between the ages of 11 and 12, he occasionally attended Catholic Mass at St. Ferdinand Church with a neighborhood family, something his parents happily encouraged. Unfortunately, without regular guidance or formal religious education, his faith floundered and never managed to gain a true foothold in his life.
As a young adult, religion was placed on the back burner. Bird went on to join the Army, later worked in the manufacturing industry as a general manager, eventually launched his own business and was married twice. His first marriage was a year-long relationship that ended in divorce, and his second lasted 27 years and produced two sons, now in their mid-40s, before succumbing to the same fate.
Sometime after celebrating his 40th birthday, Bird began a series of random spiritual “searches” and, although he met several nice pastors representing various protestant Christian traditions, he recalled that he was, quite simply, “never really comfortable” in any of their churches. More years went by, and more fruitless searches came and went, but “I could just never find it,” explained Bird.
After retiring a few years ago, he embarked on various travels with his fiancée Teri Kleintop to tropical locales outside the U.S., including Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama and Colombia. During these trips they would inevitably find themselves drawn to the Catholic churches in the towns they explored during their sightseeing excursions, and Bird was struck by “how devout the townspeople were.”
“I watched all this — there’s so much tradition there — and I just felt, ‘I really like this,’” said Bird. The impact, it turned out, was genuinely life-altering. “When we got back, after a year or so, I said, ‘Let’s go to the Catholic Church.’”
Upon sitting in the pews for the very first time at Our Lady of Perpetual Help after joining the parish’s RCIA program, Bird recalled, “I felt I was at home, I felt safe — I just felt like you do when you’re a kid and your mom hugs you.
“From there on I wanted to know as much as I could about the Catholic religion; I’d always in my heart probably wanted to be a Catholic,” he recounted. After one year and 10 months of weekly instruction and gaining knowledge and understanding, Bird said he finally felt ready to “became a Catholic at 70.”
Recalling the long-awaited experience of finally going through the baptismal, confirmation and communion rites at this year’s Easter Vigil service, Bird said, “It meant everything. … It actually took my breath away.”
“During the baptism itself, the water that came upon me was freezing,” he noted with a chuckle. “It seemed like it was all in slow motion. Each time the [priest] poured the water on my head — ‘In the name of the Father’ — my breath went away and I reflected on all the bad things I’ve done in my life — ‘and of the Son’ — and I felt like it was washing that away, and [after] the third time … I just can’t explain it; from that point on my whole outlook on everything has changed.
“I just love the Catholic Church, I always have,” added Bird. “I’m home.”