I have said a prayer and asked God to unlock the memories of many years past, to guide
me as I dig around in the ashes of a pained period of my life. This is a story that I thought I
would never want exposed to the world, but that I now feel compelled to tell from the roof
I am the eldest daughter of five, born in 1952 to loving parents and raised Roman
Catholic. My father struggled to send my four sisters and me to parochial grammar and
high school. I attended Sunday Mass with them and made my Communion and
Confirmation at the proper times, all the while taking for granted everything that my faith
stood for. Just about everyone I knew was Catholic in New Orleans, LA. I was aware that
my parents were sacrificing dearly to make sure we little girls had a good education, all
the while I felt a bit prestigious going to a private school.
At school I met the boy that would one day be my husband. We were both 13. Michael
was truly the most beautiful person I’d ever known and I knew when I first laid eyes on
him, he would be the love of my life. He sang in the choir and I thought he had the voice
of an angel. The only problem was he was much shorter than me, so I had to will myself
not to grow anymore and wait for him to catch up with me!
I soon discovered that music was very special to me. I loved to sing and from an early
age my parents encouraged me, offering me voice and piano lessons. It seemed that
almost every weekend they were uncomplainingly carrying me across town to different
competitions and concerts. I taught Michael how to play the guitar and we formed a little
rock band while in high school in the 60's. We got married at 18 and at 20 and we started
our family. We were happy living in a mobile home in Kenner, LA. We had our first son,
Sean, who I loved caring for. I had no car and a lot of time on my hands. I look back on
things now and realize that I was a perfect target for two Jehovah Witnesses (JWs) who
paid me a visit one morning and started a chain of events that would change our lives.
It did not happen all at once. I heard a story once about how if you threw a frog in boiling
water, it would immediately jump out. However, if you put it in water that was lukewarm
and gradually brought the temperature to boiling, he would adapt and stay in until he
perished. I was the frog in this story.
These two ladies seemed harmless. One was in her thirties, heavyset and also a mother,
she said, of three children. The other woman was elderly, much like a granny figure to
me. They were well dressed and wore big smiles. They asked if I had the time to talk for a
few minutes. I had no idea they were promoting a religion. I stood in the door for some
time as they asked me about myself and then moved into the subject of world conditions.
They quoted scriptures describing the "last days" when there would be pestilence, wars
and famines, etc. I agreed with them that things were getting pretty bad in the world.
When they pulled out a bible a red flag went up. "Sorry, I am Catholic", I said. They
assured me that they did not want to trample on my beliefs, IN FACT, would I get my
Catholic bible and share some thoughts with them? Well, I did not see any harm in that.
After all, I did have time and I was quite lonely....the baby was sleeping. I got my Catholic
bible and was embarrassed that I did not know one book from another. As I opened it,
family portraits and birth certificates fell out. I was ashamed to admit to them that Michael
and I had not been to church since we had gotten married and left our parents’ homes.
They assured me that this was not unusual and that if I wished, they would return next
week and we could exchange some more reflections on the bible. They left me copies of
The Awake and The Watchtower magazines. The frog was in the pot.
And return they did, again and again.......bringing little gifts and at times, other women
around my age with children around the age of my Sean. I stopped looking up the
scriptures they showed me in my Catholic Bible, and started leaning toward the dog-
eared pocket version that they carried in their book bags. I was beginning to be
impressed with their quick references to scriptures and their explanations for the things
that were quoted. Soon there was the gift of my own pocket version which I would later
learn was one of the JW’s own making.......but in the meantime, this could not be that
harmful.....after all, they were really nice and they were talking about God. The frog’s
water was warming up.
Over the course of months my new friends visited me regularly and I found myself
sharing the things they taught me with Michael. At first he was skeptical, especially when
I told him I was invited to go to one of their meetings. But he loved me, and if this made
me happy then he would not mind.
At my first meeting I was greeted by everyone there. Men and women (some I already
knew from visits to my house) surrounded me and welcomed me to their house of
worship, The Kingdom Hall. Yes, and strange place it was, no altar, no crucifixes, no
statues, no kneeler, no confessionals. Just a stage, a piano, a podium, many rows of
seats and what looked like little mini meeting rooms in the back. Wow, they all seemed
nice, but what was I getting myself into?
It was not long before I was attending the Sunday meetings. I learned that in order to
apply what I was learning, I should come to more meetings and was urged to attend their
Thursday night meeting. This is where I saw how it was that the members were schooled
and groomed to know how to approach strangers "in service’ and challenge any
opposition they encountered. I was then urged to embrace the Tuesday night meetings
which I learned were a study of the publications produced by the Jehovah Witnesses. By
this time, Michael’s curiosity about where I was going with this drew him to accompany
me. There were now two frogs sitting in some pretty warm water.
What initially seemed harmless became an all consuming situation. This was not enough.
They wanted more of us. I must study for Sunday’s meeting on Saturday night. I must
study for Tuesday night’s meeting on Monday night. I must join this school on Thursday
night and prepare for it on Wednesday night. And then they are telling me I must go door
to door evangelizing on Saturdays and must prepare for it on Friday night. We were
being told that we needed to start watching who we associated with because we did not
want to be "of this world". When I asked my lady friends who I’d been studying with if this
meant our parents and my sisters, they looked at me and said, "Yes, we are your parents
and sisters now".
I don’t know how I allowed it to happen, but I, like the frog, fell victim to the gradual
change of the water. I started to swallow the bitter diet they fed us. No Holidays, no
Blood, no Patriotism, , no Heaven, no Mary, no Trinity, no JESUS. Our parents were
crushed when we revealed to them that we were associating with the Jehovah
Witnesses. I was baptized the following year at a District Assembly and Michael followed
shortly after. The two frogs had been boiled to death in the baptismal tank.
Two years later we moved from Kenner across Lake Pontchartrain to Abita Springs and
started attending the Covington Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. We had a little
girl, Lauren, by then. It did not take long to find JW friends our age and we spent a lot of
time with them. We had land now and Michael built us a modest little home in the country.
Many of the witnesses came out to help with the construction and in turn, when the need
arose, we would go to their aid in helping with projects. We lent each other money,
supported each other through illnesses and personal tragedies and watched each
others' children when new babies were born. I gave birth to Jonathan and two years later,
to Brandon. We thought we were doing what was right. We followed all the rules, but
something was going wrong. I grew to feel that I was losing myself. This whole religion
was supposed to be around Jehovah the one true God. But I did not really know him. I
did not like what he was making me do and what I was becoming. Michael was appointed
a Ministerial Servant and was doing his own thing in the Congregation. We did not talk
about our faith. We did not talk about anything. I began to resent this Jehovah for taking
me away from my parents and sisters. I missed the holidays. I was scared that if one of
my children needed blood I would have to watch them die. I hated going out "in service"
and pushing something that was beginning to be a burden to me, on to someone else.
There was something down deep that made me wrench each time I was treated as a sub-
servant of the elders and the men of the congregation. I used to know who I was, but now
I was programed. I was dying inside. My heart was dying, my marriage was dying, my
soul was already dead.
I saw no way out. They would not let me quit. I could not just fade out of the picture. I
hung in for another year, going through the motions. I had no feelings anymore.
Then one day when Michael was at work I got a call from one of his friends. He was
married to my good friend. We had spent many years together as families and had babies
at the same time. I don’t remember the reason he called, maybe about borrowing
something from Michael, but the conversation moved on to personal feelings. He called a
few more times through the next weeks and I found myself telling him how I was
doubting my faith. He said he felt the same way. I asked him if he knew the end of it. He
said that we would have to leave. This is very difficult for me to write because it was the
darkest point in my life. We left for Texas. I knew as soon as I put my foot in his truck that
this was a bad decision but I kept running. I got to Texas and realized that I was
abandoning the things I loved most in my life, my Michael and my children. I thought
about ending my life, and almost did, but in one saving, fleeting moment a thought was
given to me. As much as I’d hurt them, I would hurt them more by ending my life. I called
Michael and he got in our car and drove the distance and found me.
He told me how much he loved me and would stand beside me. Immediately after I
returned home, the elders were in touch with Michael and said they wanted a hearing
with me. I knew what I was in for. I was to go before a board of elders and they would
determine if and when I would be disfellowshipped. I tried to tell them how very sorry I
was, that I had some serious doubts about my faith and needed their help. I realize now
how personally threatened they felt because of what I had done. They had to punish me
and make an example of me for all their wives.
News of the incident spread like wildfire, rapidly traveling to our former congregation in
Kenner. The elder’s decision was for me to be disfellowshipped which means that no one
with the exception of my husband and children could look at or speak to me. I was dead
in their eyes and they proclaimed to the world that I was dead in Jehovah’s eyes, too. I
was devastated. They were all the friends I had. I have no word to explain how
abandoned and ashamed I felt. My only recourse was to continue to attend the meetings
by coming in after they had started, sitting all the way in the back by myself, and leaving
before the final prayer so no one would have any contact with me. Michael said he would
go with me and stand by me. I could tell his heart was breaking for me.
I dragged myself to go back to the meetings, actually being sick to my stomach hours
prior to going. Michael went with me and sat with me holding my hand. I recall one
evening sitting with him and wondering how it was that this loving human next to me that
I had wronged so deeply could forgive me, but Jehovah God could not. I remembered
that at least in the Catholic Church we could go to confession.
After months of putting myself through this torture I awoke with a thought. If I was not
happy there before, WHY WAS I BEATING MYSELF UP TO GO BACK? When Michael got
home from work I told him I was not going back. Somehow I think he was waiting for me
to get to that point. We never went back.
But the JW’s were everywhere..............JW’s at the grocery, JW’s at the bank, JW’s passing
me in cars on every road. I was paranoid. However, when I was with myself alone, I
started becoming aware of a great feeling of relief that I was done with all of it. I began to
see the impact of those years ( I recall them as imprisonment) on my children. The very
first year we celebrated Christmas my daughter confided in me about when we used to
be Witnesses and did not celebrate Christmas. She had gone back to school after the
holidays and her girl friends asked her what she’d gotten for Christmas. She said she
had lied and told them her Mom had given her a beautiful necklace but it was too valuable
to bring to school. What had we done to them in the most formative years??!!
I threw myself into my children, volunteering at school, football, cheer leading, cub
scouts-------all the normal activities in a child’s life that had been forbidden by the JW’s. I
began to make new friends that were not in judgmental of me. Yet I kept my dark secret. I
might note that I have heard that in many cases former Jehovah Witnesses go to the
extreme when they "leave the truth" because they are indoctrinated to believe they will
die, and the only thing left is to "eat drink, and be merry".
Another thing that gave me comfort was to go back in my life and remember the things
that made me most happy. I sat for hours looking through old pictures of my family and
the happy times when Michael and I were young. I remembered our music and what a joy
it was to play for people. I asked Michael if he would consider us getting back into it on a
professional level. He agreed that it might be fun. We got a weekend job at a restaurant
and decided to go by the name "The WAGNERS". From our contacts there we started
booking weddings and birthday parties. This was salve to my spirit. The children were
approaching high school and the money we made together from this little enterprise
would send them all to parochial school. Even though the Jehovah Witnesses had
destroyed every doctrine and torn apart every belief I had with the Catholic Church, I
could give my children to the opportunity to go back to God. I also wanted those damned
Jehovah Witnesses to see that despite their efforts to destroy me, I was successfully
moving on with my life!
The years went by, 15 or so, and the children grew, and our music prospered. Michael
and I were inseparable. Both sets of our parents and siblings were overjoyed that we had
broken ties with the JW’s. My parents had been prayerful all those years that we would
return to them. On the other hand, Michael’s parents would scream at the Witnesses that
came to their door saying, "You put a SNAKE in our son and daughter-in-law! Take those
magazines and wipe your butt with them!".
My parents moved to Abita Springs and bought 30 acres further out in the country. They
offered each girl and their husbands two acres if they wanted to build around them.
Michael and I decided to take them up on it and put our house up for sale. We figured we
would make enough on the old house to build this new one without a mortgage. The
piece of land we chose was on the front of the property and had three 300+ year old live
oaks and ponds near-by stocked with bass and perch. Michael designed the new house
around the oaks and we spent the next year building it all ourselves. We planted every
kind of fruit and flowering vegetation imaginable. It was our own little paradise and we
planned on living out our lives here. I had new friends and a wonderful loving partner that
I shared all my favorite things with, my beloved parents next door, even new
grandchildren, but something was terribly missing in my life. I felt like God still did not
love me. I thought it was my doing and I thought about this void constantly, but I realize
now that He was calling me. I decided that I would try to go back to the Catholic Church
and see how it felt.
It was comfortable............. like the old pictures,........ and my music. They were all there, the
crucifixes, the altar, the statues, the kneelers, and yes, the confessional. But how could I
get Jesus, the Trinity and Mary back?
I started going to Mass on Sundays. I remembered the hymns, and the responses and the
Our Father and Hail Mary was still there in my memory. My attendance contributed to the
overall peace I was feeling in my life, but something else was to happen that was to shake
the foundation of that peace.
It was the week of my Father’s 73rd birthday. Our mail carrier rang the door bell and
handed me a registered letter. . What is this.......an inheritance from a rich uncle?
No, it was a personalized letter from two different appraisers commissioned by the
Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD). They wanted a meeting with us
to appraise the value of our home. The State of Louisiana was taking our property to
expand and build a new highway. Oh my God, how could this be? This is everything we’d
worked for all our lives. My parents’ property, the ponds, and eight other neighbors
would be affected by this expropriation. Some of these people were on a limited income
and too old to relocate. I was devastated. I walked out around the trees and flowers and I
looked back on our home built with our hands out of love and cried.
I started making phone calls to our local politicians. My sister-in-law works for an
engineering firm that deals with DOTD and she looked into the issue. I started getting
responses from my calls and they all were in accord with Michael’s sister, "We are so
sorry, but if the appraiser’s letters are already out it is set in stone. The state will give you
fair market value for your property".
My hands were tied. No one could help me. And then I thought, God.............if anyone can
help me it has to be God.
I started praying. I prayed all through the day and when I woke up in the middle of the
night and could not go back to sleep. I prayed on the lawnmower, in the shower and
when I loaded the washing machine. I started going to daily Mass and then started going
a little earlier to say the rosary before Mass. I begged God, I pleaded with him to please
listen to me and help me save my home.
And he listened........
Things started happening........I call them my miracles....... little pieces of His puzzle all
came together. This is an entirely different and incredible story, but the end of it was to
our favor and the decision to use our land was reversed. Suddenly I realized, He is real
and He cares. I persisted in my prayers, but these were prayers of thanksgiving and awe.
Suddenly, as if the curtains of the tabernacle were split open, my heart began to see the
pearl of my faith which had been trodden on and then hidden for so long. I stepped into
the confessional one day and poured out before Christ all the sins that had haunted me
since I’d left the Church as a child and I experienced the overwhelming rapture of
With this forgiveness came a contagious calm of forgiveness toward the JW’s. I no longer
despised them or even felt condemned by them. I only felt compassion for them that they
were still enslaved, void of The Eucharist and Reconciliation. I could now even pray for
them. What a glorious thing, this peace from God!
I have been cantering daily Mass at St. Jane De Chantal. The joy I have experienced in
using my music in this way to glorify our Lord is inconceivable. The peace of His love
and forgiveness has mended my spirit. The little frog has been resurrected.
|The Little Frog is Resurrected-The Conversion Story of Denise Wagner