My sweet grandma was wrong about the Catholic Church

Starting in 1985, now more than 35 years ago, I started praying here in St. John’s Catholic Chapel on the University of Illinois campus. (Most of the time I entered between 2 and 4pm, when the chapel was empty, like it is in this photo. In all my years of ministry in Champaign-Urbana over the decades, those times of prayer and solitude inside St. John’s were some of the sweetest.

My October 9 column for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, explains how those prayer times started and became such a vital part of my life.


            Three blocks from my boyhood home in Hoxie, Kansas, was the St. Francis Cabrini Catholic Church. Sidewalks circled the church building, weaving in and out of gardens behind the church.

            It was a great place for a kid to ride his bike. My friend Kim and I wound through those sidewalks at full speed, circling the kneeling Madonna and child. That is, until one day when a nun dressed in full habit stopped us and said, “Father Smith doesn’t want you boys riding through the gardens like a couple of hooligans.”

            Racing home, we two little protestant boys ran into my grandma, who lived with us, and told her what happened. Her eyes filled with worry. “Under no conditions should you ever get off your bikes and go inside that church. Do you understand me?”

            “Why not?” I asked.

            “You don’t want to know.”

            Normally those would be just the words for me to tempt fate, but I never did go in. Not long ago, I asked my older sister, “Do you have any idea why grandma was so afraid of the Catholic church?”

Shrugging her shoulders she said, “I have no idea. That and lightning storms put her right under the bed.”

Nothing could have been more different in my 25 years as a campus minister at the University of Illinois. Early in my campus ministry days, a friend took me to lunch at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center on the northeast corner of 6th and Armory in Champaign. From the moment I stepped into the cafeteria, I liked it and felt right at home.

            For years that cafeteria became my office. Before a new addition and cafeteria were opened in 2008, I gave spiritual counsel to untold students in the back corner of the old cafeteria, where I sat beneath an exhaust fan that droned out the background noise.

Jimmy the busboy (from 1964 to 2006) often had the table cleared and wiped down when I arrived. “I know you are meeting students who need some counseling, Donny,” he said. “I’ll be praying for you.”

            In the early 80s, Father David Turner and I became friends. Almost every day in the cafeteria, Father David was surrounded by students, holding court as he waxed on about theology, politics or sports.

One day when I was reading, Father David sat down and asked me a pointed question. “Brother Follis, how often do you go into St. John’s Chapel to pray when you are here?”

            “I never have Father David,” I said.

            “Never, Brother Follis. Say it’s not true.” When he discovered that I had some extra time that afternoon, he pointed toward the chapel and said, “I’m sending you on a mission. I want you to go up to the chapel right now and pray. Be sure and bless yourself at the baptismal font when you enter and when you leave.” 

“I am not Catholic, Father David.”

            “Brother Follis, that doesn’t matter. It is important to bless yourself.”

When I hesitated, he explained how to dip my fingers in the font, make the sign of the cross and pray, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Sitting there in the cafeteria, we practiced it together. “You have it,” he said. “Now get up there and pray.”

Throwing my backpack over my shoulder, I headed straight to the chapel, where I stood at the baptismal font. Dipping the fingers of my right hand in the water in the font, I raised them and made the sign of the cross as I prayed, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” At the front of the chapel, I slipped into a pew, pulled down a kneeler, and prayed the Apostles’ Creed from a large print of the creed hanging on the wall.

            From the fall of 1985 to July 2021 when I moved from Champaign-Urbana to Phoenix, I went inside St. John’s chapel several hundred times to pray. Every time, I blessed myself by making the sign of the cross at the baptismal font, walked to the front of the chapel, knelt on a kneeler, prayed the Apostles’ Creed and meditated on the marble crucifix hanging high above the altar.

Even today when I take my morning coffee to my favorite chair, I look at a small cross made of olive wood that I bought in Jerusalem, make the sign of the cross, confess my sins and pray the Apostles’ Creed.

            If my grandma knew how important these practices would one day be for me, I can only imagine what she might have said.