Say hello to Ursula Russo, the newest adult Catholic in Saint Damien Parish. Ursula’s confirmation was delayed when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered the church during Lent. But in June, when masses resumed, she was received into the church. Her sponsor was her daughter, Christine Leonetti.
In the Fall of 2019, Ursula entered into the process known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), a period of study and reflection that she called “stimulating” and “enlightening.” She was led through the process by Sister Joelle Thren, Father Allen Lovell, and lay guides Cindy Chemerys and John Winslow. “In the early days I didn’t know what was what,” Ursula recalled, “but Father Allen and Sister Joelle prepared oodles of materials for me and that made it easier.” Ursula appreciated how comfortably she could discuss her thoughts with Sister Joelle, and she enjoyed the “animated” engagement that Father Allen brought to study topics. When the big day finally arrived, Ursula said, “it was a very moving moment when I made my first Holy Communion.” She continued: “Everyone in the congregation has been very kind to me throughout,” she said, beginning with the Rite of Acceptance earlier this year and on the day she was fully received as a member of the church. Along with her daughter as sponsor, she was supported by her son-in-law Paul. Two of her grandchildren, Andrew and Amanda, also were present to see their grandmother take her first communion.
What made Ursula, who just turned 80, decide to convert to Catholicism? Above all, she would say, her decision flowed from the faith of her late husband James, who died last year after 56 years of marriage. “He was a devout Catholic” throughout their years together she said. Ursula was born in Germany into a Lutheran family, but she always accompanied her husband and children to the Catholic church on special occasions. Still no one in the family ever pressured Ursula to convert. However, soon after her husband’s death, her decision became clear. “I told my daughter, Chrissy,” Ursula said. “Chrissy has always been dedicated to the church. Her immediate response was: I will take you to class!” Christine sat in on all the weekly lessons, adding her voice to the conversation, and actually helped her mother finish up her preparation after the pandemic put an end to in-person study meetings. Now, Chrissy accompanies her mother to mass, as she did her father before he died. “I have to thank Chrissy so much,” Ursula reflected. “She has done so much for me.”
Ursula met her husband in Germany, where he was stationed in the Army. In 1963 they moved to the United States, and James pursued a government career in public health. In the early 1970s he was assigned to Puerto Rico, where he helped to convert tuberculosis hospitals into out-patient clinics. The family, which included at that time six-year-old Caroline, four-year old Chrissy, and four-week-old Louis, all moved to Puerto Rico, which Ursula described as “a wonderful place.” Later the family settled in Haddonfield. Throughout the years they visited Germany, where Ursula’s son decided to live and raise a family. In the 1990s, James retired and the couple eventually moved to Ocean City to be closer to their daughters.
A visitor to Ursula’s home might have the privilege of being shown her beloved orchid collection, arranged with care in a spare room to catch appropriate light. But Ursula’s real pride is in her children and seven grandchildren.
Of course, the family feels proud of Ursula too. When Christine stood at the altar in June in support of her mother, it was the culmination of “a very nice journey,” according to Christine. “This is a blessing,” she said. “I am sure Dad is looking down from heaven and he is very proud of her for taking this step.”