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Teacher draws on art skills to share the faith

GARDEN CITY—Most people look at comic books as a fun way to escape reality.

Andrew Thomas sees them as a way to save souls.

Thomas teaches art and religion at St. Michael School in Garden City and is also studying for the permanent diaconate. He recently started his own Catholic comic book company, Bonaventure Comics (www.bonaventurecomics.com).

He has loved comics since childhood, especially the superheroes of Marvel. In recent years, however, Thomas became dismayed at what he saw as an increase in violence and a decline in the moral message of mainstream comics.

Then, he asked himself why not try to combine his love for the comic medium with his deep Catholic faith?

Bonaventure was born.

Thomas has created two full length comics that can be read on the website or purchased for e-readers. He has also published a few hard copies of each one.

One, “Borderline,” focuses on fantasy stories with a moral message told by a fictitious Argentinian nun, Sister Francesca Huerta. The other, “The Life of St. John Berchmans,” tells the story of the Belgian Jesuit scholar who died in his early 20s and is now a patron saint of students and altar servers.

Thomas’ creative passion for art started as a child raised in a devout Catholic household in Baton Rouge, La.

“Art is something I’ve always done,” he said. “I can remember drawing in front of the TV or trying to learn how to draw some of my favorite comic strip characters as a kid. I loved it but I never thought it was something I would go into as a career.”

God had other plans. Thomas said he tried different majors in college, including chemistry and engineering, but neither one worked. His parents suggested he go back to art, his first love, and he enrolled at the prestigious Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla., where he majored in illustration.

After graduation, he worked in the design studio at Franklin Mint in Media, Pa., and then at Lamar Graphics and Advertising in Baton Rouge.

He loved the creativity of his jobs, but after four years of an art career, Thomas felt drawn to a different vocation.

“I started to feel a call to enter the seminary,” he said. “I had been attending daily Mass for quite a while and I started to have a stronger and stronger sense that I should discern whether or not to become a priest.”

In 2002, he entered Notre Dame Theological Seminary in New Orleans to begin studies to become a priest for the Diocese of Baton Rouge. While he loved his classes and the idea of a vocation, Thomas admits that it was difficult to give up his full-time work as an artist.

“No matter what I’m doing, I always still see myself as an artist,” he said. “If I don’t get to work on art for at least three hours a day, I feel unstable.”

He loved his three years at the seminary, but in 2005, the storm that uprooted thousands in New Orleans also uprooted his plans for his life.

“Hurricane Katrina hit and caused quite a bit of damage to the seminary, so I was basically out of a home for about a month and a half,” he said.

During that time, Thomas lived with his parents and volunteered at area shelters helping hurricane victims. That short break led him to realize he needed a longer time away from the seminary to discern if the priesthood was really the right choice for him.

He moved to Philadelphia to work with a sculptor there and was considering whether or not to return to the seminary. Instead, he discovered he was called to marriage with a woman he had met while studying Spanish in Mexico several years before. They were married in 2006 and now have four children: three daughters and a son.

Thomas and his wife Patricia lived in Mexico for a while before he accepted the teaching job at St. Michael School in 2010. She also works as a Spanish teacher at the school.

Shortly after moving to Garden City, Thomas decided to start Bonaventure Comics as a way to bring the new evangelization to a wider audience.

“I still love superheroes and things like that, but it seemed to me most comics today were too immoral for kids,” he said. “What I try to do with my work is to have a strong moral message. I have characters who worship God, who get their strength from the Lord. I really think comics are a great way to evangelize both kids and adults.”

He also decided to study for the permanent diaconate and is currently part of the class of men who will graduate in 2017.

“I never completely gave up my desire to serve the Lord, to learn more theology and philosophy and to minister in a more prominent role in the Church,” Thomas said.

His roles as husband, father, teacher and student leave precious little time to promote Bonaventure Comics, but he hopes to spread the word to more people in 2015, perhaps having copies of his work sold in local comic book stores or at conventions.

“I love everything I do, whether it’s art or teaching or simply living the life God has blessed me with,” he said.

 

Give a nod to the flu instead of a handshake

If you’re at Mass and people don’t shake hands during the sign of peace or the chalice is not offered at Communion, don’t be offended.

It’s probably part of the battle against a particularly nasty flu season this year.

Several parishes in the diocese have already suspended use of the chalice and the sign of peace because of the flu. In a Jan. 6 memo to pastors, Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone encouraged others to consider these options but is not requiring it. Each priest will make his own decision regarding his parish.

The spread of influenza around the country has been severe and did not lessen over the holidays as it sometimes does when people are away from work and school, officials said.

Currently, 43 states report heavy flu outbreaks, and in South Carolina 38 flu deaths have been reported this season, according to figures released in early January by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Msgr. Richard D. Harris, vicar general for the Diocese of Charleston, said many lay people, priests and hospital administrators had requested that the use of the chalice and the exchange of peace be suspended during flu season.

In the memo, Msgr. Harris stressed the fact that the “fullness of the Lord” can be received by consuming the body of Christ at the Eucharist, and drinking the Precious Blood is not necessary to get the full benefits of the sacrament.

He also said that people who refrain from receiving the chalice or shaking hands at any time during the year when they feel sick should not be accused of showing disrespect.

Some pastors took action against the flu before the memo was released.

Use of the chalice was suspended in December at St. Peter Church in Columbia, said Father Gary S. Linsky, pastor.

“I had already been sick twice and noticed all of these other people at the parish were ill,” Father Linsky said. “I probably should have done it a month before because the outbreak seemed so severe. I’ve had a lot of positive response, with people saying we made the right call.”

Father Sandy McDonald, pastor of St. John Neumann Church in Columbia, decided to ask parishioners not to shake hands or hold hands during prayer after he read a newspaper story that showed Columbia as one of the area’s flu hot spots and talked with the parish nurse.

“We recommend a bow with hand folded across the chest while saying ‘Peace be with you,’” he said. “I also recommended frequent hand washing, coughing into one’s sleeve rather than in the hand, and we placed sanitizing gel dispensers at all the church entrances.”

St. John Neumann has not suspended offering the chalice, but may consider that option if the flu outbreak continues.

How can you avoid the flu?

Get a flu shot. The vaccine is highly recommended and can limit the duration and severity of the virus, said Dr. Saria Saccocio, chief medical officer at Bon Secours St. Francis Health System.

Wash your hands often with soap and water. A good guideline is to wash for as long as it takes to say a Hail Mary.

Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and then throw the tissue in the trash.

Stay home if you are sick until you have been symptom-free without taking fever reducing medicine for 24 hours.

Try to avoid close contact with sick people.

Eat a healthy diet, exercise and get plenty of rest.

 

Johnson earns title of Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year

GREENVILLE—Jamila Johnson thinks nothing of driving an hour in each direction to practice with her club volleyball team.

Her level of dedication is one of the factors that helped make her the Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year for South Carolina.

Jamila first started playing the sport when she was 8. By the time she was 11, a coach recognized a high level of natural talent and potential and suggested she take private lessons.

When Jamila was in eighth grade, her family — parents Robert and Devena, older brother Justin, and twin brother Issa — moved from Indiana to Greenville. They chose St. Joseph’s Catholic School, where she promptly joined the volleyball team.

Jan Carino, school volleyball coach, said her team has won the state volleyball championship all four years that Jamila has played.

“She’s the best skilled player I’ve ever coached,” said Carino, whose career spans almost 25 years. “I’ve never had a player as strong as she is — her arm strength and arm speed are amazing.”

An outside hitter, Jamila led the Knights to a 41-3 record this season, with a state championship, and posted 430 kills, 204 digs, 183 service receptions, 41 service aces and 19 blocks.

At 5'8", she isn’t that tall for a volleyball player, but Carino said she has a good vertical jump, is smart on the court, and is seriously competitive.

“Most of the time when she was given the ball we won the point,” the coach said. “She loves the game, for sure.”

She loves it so much that for the past year she’s driven from Greenville to Columbia to play for the Magnum Volleyball Club, saying she loves the passion and dedication of the players and coaches, and the high intensity of competition.

A desire for the best is a trait Jamila brings to other areas of her life, too. A member of student council and three honor societies — national, history and Spanish — she also volunteers as a youth volleyball instructor, and at The Salvation Army and Ronald McDonald House.

She has a 4.06 grade-point average and is looking at several universities, noting that Furman is a top choice. She aspires to a career as a geneticist, with hopes for finding a cure for cancer and other diseases.

For now, she is basking in the surprise of winning the Gatorade player of the year award.

“I wasn’t sure I could get it coming from a 1-A school,” she said. “It was overwhelming — I really didn’t see it coming.”

Jamila is also a two-time Class A player of the year, and played on All- Star, All-State and All-Region teams.

Each year, the Gatorade program recognizes one winner in each state in football, baseball, softball, girls volleyball, and boys and girls cross country, basketball, soccer, and track and field.

 

Abortion survivor calls for love, compassion and forgiveness

COLUMBIA—The best way to learn the true horror of abortion is to listen to the story of someone who has survived one.

Melissa Ohden is an abortion survivor.

In 1977, she survived a botched saline infusion abortion and was delivered alive at a hospital in Sioux City, Iowa. Today, her life’s mission is to tell her story to people in every corner of the world in an attempt to bring an end to abortion once and for all.

Ohden brought her painful but triumphant message to hundreds in Columbia on Jan. 9-10 during the “Proudly Pro-life Weekend,” which included a dinner at Seawell’s on Rosewood Drive and the annual Stand up for Life March and Rally.

People of all ages braved freezing temperatures and brisk breezes to make the annual march from the University of South Carolina campus to the steps of the Statehouse, where they clustered together, many holding banners and signs with pro-life messages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The crowd included hundreds of Catholics, including many Knights of Columbus and about 600 young people, many of whom later attended the annual youth pro-life rally at the Township Auditorium. Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone took part in the march and offered the opening prayer at the rally.

Everyone became silent when Ohden stepped up to the podium to tell her story.

The details are stark and heartbreaking. Her mother, a college student, hid her pregnancy from her family until the seventh month, and felt forced by them to undergo the procedure. Ohden’s own biological grandmother, then a nurse with a prominent standing in the community, was adamant that her daughter end the pregnancy.

The saline infusion method, which is no longer in use, was particularly horrific, because it involved injecting a toxic saline solution into a woman’s womb and then allowing the unborn days. Ohden said while most babies suffered through three days in the womb before death, she suffered for five days before her mother went into labor and she was born alive.

Nurses at the hospital prevented her from being left to die, she said, and she was eventually adopted by a loving family. Although doctors predicted she would have many health problems, she came through the ordeal without any.

Ohden didn’t learn about what happened to her until many years later, when her own sister was facing an unplanned pregnancy. Then, she said, her parents decided to tell her.

“When I first found out about the circumstances of my birth, I was angry,” she said. “It was the biggest blow I ever could have felt. I couldn’t understand how anyone could make that decision to kill their child. But then I realized I have nothing to be angry about. I was given the gift of life, I was given the gift of my family, and I was born perfectly healthy and whole, praise God.”

She went on to earn a degree in social work and has worked as a counselor and advocate for victims of domestic violence and the mentally ill, among other fields. She is married and has two daughters. To show how life often comes full circle, Ohden said that the oldest, Olivia, was born at the same Iowa hospital where the failed abortion took place.

She spent many painstaking hours over the years trying to locate her biological family. She is in touch with her mother, but the two have not met yet, and she and her children have met her father’s parents.

Ohden said one of the most difficult things she learned was that her birth mother thought for more than 30 years that her child had died. It wasn’t until Ohden contacted her that she realized her daughter had been alive all those years.

She said the most important thing she wants her biological parents and family members to know is that she loves them and forgives them for the terrible events that took place 37 years ago.

“I was given my life for a very particular reason,” she said. “Each and every one of us are gifted in certain ways, are given different ways to share the precious gift of life. Any anger I felt toward my family quickly subsided to grief for men and women who feel forced to make the painful decision of abortion. Everything I do is about love, because love ultimately wins at the end of each day. Forgiveness is a deliberate decision you make, and it has set me free.”

She urged the crowd to make sure that love and compassion remain at the center of all their pro-life work, and that they especially make an effort to reach out to women who have had an abortion and are suffering pain and desperation because of it.

“My mother is undergoing some healing that comes from the fact that she knows her child is alive,” she said. “We need to remember women like her are why we do what we do, because so many people are in pain and need to be healed from abortion.”

 

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