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Published April 07 2012

Former Jewish woman finds herself transformed at the foot of the cross

FARGO - Susan Finneman can’t remember a time she wasn’t captivated by the Christian faith.

Though such a fascination shouldn’t be cause for scandal, in her case, throughout most of her life at least, there was a slight problem: she was Jewish.

By blood, perhaps, but not in the strictest religious sense, she admits.

“My parents weren’t particularly religious,” says the Fargo woman, who grew up the youngest of three children in the Lesnick household in Providence, R.I.

“It was not a sin not to go to temple but the orthodox and strong conservatives went to temple every Friday night and Saturday morning for the Sabbath, and honestly I never did that, though we celebrated the holidays like Passover and Hanukah.”

The family considered itself conservative, a designation falling in the middle of the Jewish-faith spectrum that includes orthodox on one end and reformed on the other, but according to Susan, the way they lived out their faith more closely matched reformed.

It surprised her to learn well into adulthood that her father was a Cohen, a descendant of the Jewish high priests of ancient days. “I’d just assumed all those years that we were Israelites.”

In the end, the foundation wasn’t enough to satisfy the curious youngster.

Susan remembers celebrating Hanukah, when the family would gather to light candles for eight days. But she didn’t view it as a religious event.

“It was more a recognition that there was enough oil to keep the lamps lit in the temple for eight days when there was only enough for one,” she notes. “It was considered a miracle.”

Despite growing up in a city with a large Jewish population, the Lesnick children weren’t immune from Christian influence. Acknowledging this, their parents agreed to celebrate Christmas as well.

“We didn’t have a Christmas tree, though I desperately wanted one, and I loved the lights and all that (the season) entailed,” Susan says.

To honor at least pieces of Christian tradition, her parents placed gifts under the dining room table, which had been adorned with Christmas decorations.

But her desire to experience Christmas didn’t end with tinsel and lights. In high school, Susan loved singing Christmas songs with her school choir and was the first to volunteer to go out caroling around the neighborhood. “Back then, if you were Jewish, you didn’t do that.”

And always, tucked away in the recesses of her mind, were questions of faith she dared not utter. “I never really talked about it or admitted it to anyone. I just didn’t. But I was really interested and did a lot of reading when I could find the books.”

She’ll never forget her first confession to a priest, which happened well before her eventual conversion to the Christian faith in 2001. She was in high school, around 16, and her friend Carlotta, an Italian girl with strong Catholic roots, brought her to church, giving Susan lessons along the way on what to say in the confessional booth.

“I went into the confessional and said, ‘Father forgive me for I have sinned,’ and so help me, the priest said, ‘You are not Catholic,’ and I said, ‘Oh no, please, I need to be forgiven.’ ” For what, she doesn’t recall, though she remembers an active conscience, as well as the need to clear it.

“I told my mother what I’d done, and she confided to me that when she was a little girl growing up in Boston, she had many Christian friends and once got sprinkled with holy water,” Susan remembers.

After high school, Susan went to college in Boston, where she studied medical technology, a field in which she’s still employed. She married a Jewish man, whom she describes as “ultra conservative,” and had two children, Lori and Joshua.

The children were raised Jewish, but the marriage eventually ended. This change in life gave Susan a new freedom to ponder other life decisions, including those of faith.

It was in 1997, after the dissolution of her marriage, that Susan’s interest in Christianity began to reignite. She’d arranged a trip to New York City to go dress shopping. While there, she got caught in a rainstorm and had to run to the nearest shelter, which happened to be St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

“I ducked into the cathedral, and I was so excited to see where I was,” Susan says. “It’s a very beautiful cathedral, very dark too because of the day probably, but something caught my eye.”

It was a light at the far end of the church, and as she drew closer, she realized it was illuminating a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Near the statue she found a card with a prayer known as the Memorare. “I read it and thought, ‘This is exactly what I’ve been trying to say in my prayers forever.’ I just loved it. It absolutely was the prayer of my heart,” Susan says. “I get goose pimples even now thinking about it.”

Back in Cleveland, Ohio, where she lived at the time, sat a church at the end of her street called St. Gregory’s. “I used to sneak into church on Sunday morning in the back row just to listen, and I did that for the rest of 1997 and much of 1998.”

The following year, through an online connection, Susan met Eugene Finneman of Fargo. “Gene” had grown up in the small, western North Dakota town of Golva, as one of 11 children in a devout Catholic family.

“It was an innocent kind of thing; we just talked about general things at first,” she says. “The written word is amazing, though, and you can learn so much about someone before you even meet them.”

In October 2001, they married in a blessing ceremony performed by the Rev. Val Gross – the same priest who’d guided Susan through classes to become Catholic earlier in the year.

“When I first got here and went to church with Gene, it just made me feel so complete and so good, and I said to him, ‘Would you mind if I converted?’ ” Susan says. “He looked at me like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”

When Gross – now Monsignor Gross – heard about Susan’s desires, his first response was, “This is going to be very interesting.” Indeed it was, he says.

“Whatever the topic was the night we were discussing it, Susan would frequently give us a Jewish perspective or counterpart,” he says. “She really kept the class and me going, and it was a real joy to have her there, along with Gene, who was her sponsor.”

She also offered the parish special touches from her Jewish background, such as the sedar meal she prepared one year for a group of priests, and bringing matzah balls – a Jewish dumpling – in soup form to the rectory to help him and his assistant pastor recover from an illness.

Susan’s love for Jesus’ mother also impressed him. “I remember how she’d always refer to Mary as her Jewish mother.”

“Yes, and she was a Jewish mother,” Susan adds, making the obvious comparison to her own Jewish past.

“One of the things Monsignor said to me back in the beginning was, ‘You will always take your heritage with you,’ and that was what I needed to make the first step,” Susan says.

At the 2001 Easter vigil in which Susan officially entered the Christian faith, Gene wanted do to something to honor both past and present. He gave her a golden pendant with a cross surrounded by the Star of David.

“I don’t wear it all the time because some people don’t get it, but that’s okay,” Susan says. “I get it, and I love the fact that the crucifix is smack in the middle, right where it belongs.”

Every person of faith has a past and it need not be abandoned altogether just because faith moves in a new direction, she adds. “The fact that you can take it with you and add on to it to make it richer is a gift.”

Susan found this year’s pre-Easter waiting time especially meaningful. Lent, the church season comprising 40 days minus Sundays leading up to Easter, are designated as a time of sacrifice that includes heightened attention to prayer, fasting and giving to those in need. Oftentimes it entails suffering as well.

In February, she found herself deep in suffering while undergoing three back surgeries within 10 days – two of them emergency operations due to complications from the first.

Though most of her time in the hospital remains hazy from having been medicated, Susan recalls several occasions with grateful clarity; those times when a woman from St. Mary’s Cathedral visited and gave her Communion.

“She would kneel at my bedside and say a prayer specifically for me, not just the Eucharistic prayer,” Susan says. “And she would just cry; tears would roll down her face. Those were beautiful moments.”

The strength she drew from those visits helped Susan get to the other side of her suffering, she says. And as one Christian friend suggested recently, she’s now ready to experience the Easter miracle in full.

“Easter is very special – the Resurrection of Christ. It makes me cry to think that he died for our sins,” Susan says. “I’m so proud that I can honor and worship him and be part of the whole Easter story.”