Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Katinka de Aguilar was brimming with excitement when she received the sacraments of initiation on Easter at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish (OLMC) in Newport News.

“I can’t stop smiling,” she told The Catholic Virginian the next day.

Indeed, the Panama native was overcome with joy when she was baptized, confirmed and received her first Eucharist at the Hispanic Mass. Mostly, she smiled, but sometimes she wept with happiness.

De Aguilar speaks no English, so her son-in-law, Juan Rodriguez, translated the interviews. She spoke quietly and shyly as she described her life and the faith that has sustained it.

She has wanted to be a Catholic since childhood, and now, at age 52, she has made that desire a reality. Adding special meaning to her initiation was that her daughter Kathia, now Kathia Rodriguez, 30, was confirmed at the same Mass. They were among 14 people to receive sacraments of initiation at that Mass.

The youngest of six children, De Aguilar has gone to Mass since she was a child, but when she was eight, her mother became a Jehovah’s Witness due to the wishes of de Aguilar’s overbearing grandmother who had chosen that path for herself. By then, de Aguilar’s eldest four siblings had already been initiated into the Catholic Church; her other brother later secretly became a Catholic when he was 13.

De Aguilar said she did not join the Church as a child out of respect for her mother. Nevertheless, de Aguilar, in love with Catholicism’s beliefs, including the consecrated Body and Blood of Christ and the sanctity of saints, raised both of her children, Kathia and Katherine, in the Catholic faith. They were baptized and celebrated their first Eucharist as children.

The new convert said she didn’t seek the sacraments of initiation for herself once she was an adult because she was busy raising her daughters and was especially overwhelmed when Kathia, at age 9, was diagnosed with jaw cancer. Nine srgeries in nine years, radiation and chemotherapy meant Kathia had to be homeschooled online instead of going to school with her friends.

When other children were learning to ride bikes and going to school dances, Kathia spent months recovering in the hospital and at home. A final surgery when she was 18 years old cut her jaw bone practically from ear to lips. Doctors were confident that Kathia was cancer free.

Each time she was hospitalized, de Aguilar was at her bedside, often eating, sleeping and showering in the hospital before dashing off to work. Meanwhile, her husband cared for Katherine at home.

Both Kathia and de Aguilar said faith sustained them. They prayed for peace, strength and recovery. De Aguilar said she prayed reverently and “things just fell into place” — such as Kathia’s recovery after each surgery and new availability of money to pay mounting medical bills.

Kathia, for whom her husband also translated, said that as a child she questioned God as to why she had to struggle with cancer, but her faith did not waver. She believed God has a plan for her.

“She says she doesn’t know what it is, but she knows it is something good,” her husband said.

Lisanette Torres, family friend and Kathia’s confirmation sponsor, said such perspective makes the women inspirational.

“We all have a lot of problems in life, but when you see people like that with their love and trust in Jesus, then you recognize how lucky you are,” she said. “It’s amazing.”

Having studied hotel management and tourism in Panama, Kathia came to the United States in 2005 to learn English, a few months after her final surgery. Here she met Juan, who is in the Navy and was stationed in Hampton Roads. They married in 2007.

In December 2007, de Aguilar came to the United States to care for her daughter who was eight months pregnant and to care for her first grandchild, Carlos, who was born the following month. She stayed in the United States longer than expected because her daughter developed a pulmonary embolism that summer. De Aguilar has remained in the country helping out in the home and caring for Carlos, 10, and Alexia, 7.

De Aguilar has attended Mass with the family since she arrived in the United States. In early 2015, Juan asked her why she never went to confession or received Communion. She told him she had not been baptized, partly because she was too reticent to ask how.

He promised to help her learn the process of becoming a Catholic when he returned from a nine-month deployment. During that time, he attended Rite of initiation of Adults (RCIA) classes and was confirmed. He has accompanied his wife and mother-in-law to many of their RCIA classes to help as needed.

“They really experienced this whole affair as a family,” said Father Joe Goldsmith, parochial vicar at OLMC. “There’s a real tightness to the family. They are almost always together. It’s really lovely to see that.”

The family prays together more, says the rosary and prays the Divine Mercy Chaplet daily, Juan said.

Deacon Francisco Anleu, Hispanic ministry coordinator, said de Aguilar has been “thirsty for knowledge of the faith” throughout the RCIA process. He said she goes to Bible study, attended the Lenten mission and has been on retreats.

Juan added that she watches Masses, and prays the rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet daily through EWTN programming.  She said it brings her peace, comprehension and joy — and she said it while brimming with excitement.