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Alexandria Catholic comes back to her first faith — and first love

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While still in college, Cheryl Ann Masaitis-Spychaj was proposed to by a man she loved. But feeling conflicted about her future, she left Marvin, and gradually her Catholic faith, behind. She later became a teacher, an FBI agent, a wife and mother of four, and a missionary in China. But eventually, she fell in love with the Catholic Church and Marvin, all over again.

Masaitis-Spychaj was born in Buffalo, N.Y.,  in 1953 where she was raised in a Catholic family. From the age of 12, she felt a strong desire to be an overseas missionary and to get married and have and adopt children. But in those days, only priests and nuns were missionaries, she said. “I remember thinking I would have to give up my dreams of being a mom. I believed a lie of Satan who convinced me that God wanted to rob me of my dreams,” she said. 

The tension between her two dreams also led to her breakup with Marvin. The two met at her college’s midnight Mass, where he sang and played guitar. After two years of dating, Marvin proposed. “I was so torn inside because I felt our lives were going in very different directions,” she said. 

Masaitis-Spychaj attended a Catholic university, Cansius College in Buffalo, but it was a difficult time in her faith life, she said. “I recall leaving college disillusioned, confused, empty and very distrusting of people because everyone decided what truth was for themselves,” she said. Many professors and priests preached relativism and dabbled in Eastern religions. Gradually, she drifted toward Protestantism. Through her experience at those churches, “Jesus was truly becoming my personal, intimate friend,” she said. 

After college, Masaitis-Spychaj found work as a teacher. But when her little sister applied for a job with the FBI, Masaitis-Spychaj decided to apply too. More than a year later, she got the call that she was accepted, and she reported to Quantico. The rigorous physical, academic and firearms training almost proved too much for her, but her father convinced her to stay the course. 

Many details of the work she did while at the FBI remain confidential, she said, but a few providential moments stand out among the rest. One time, Masaitis-Spychaj was involved in a large drug bust with police and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The night before, she broke out in a cold sweat, and began to pray that no one would be hurt. 

Early that morning, she and other law enforcement agents arrived at a cabin in the woods. When they stormed the house, they realized the man wasn’t there. A while later, the suspect drove up to his house, assuming he had been robbed and that the police were responding to his home alarm system. Instead, he walked right into his own arrest. Many more arrests were made that morning without incident, she said. 

Eventually, Masaitis-Spychaj was transferred to New York City. There she met her husband, first on the subway, and later at church. Greg, a divorced father of two, was Catholic, but the two were married in a Protestant ceremony in Buffalo on a snowy December day.  A year later, they left both their jobs to attend Bible school in the hopes of devoting their lives to full-time ministry.

While at school, Masaitis-Spychaj had her first child, a girl. They also were able to adopt a child with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. “We called our precious little one our miracle baby because she was born weighing a little over 3 pounds,” she said. They later had two more children, a boy and a girl. 

Soon, the couple began to apply to missionary organizations. But first they had to pass physical exams. When the results came back, they learned Greg had prostate cancer, and they couldn’t afford surgery. Stomach problems and depression began to plague Masaitis-Spychaj, and they both struggled to find work. “All within a very short time our whole life seemed to fall apart,” she said. 

Eventually the family found stability and a loving Christian community at a home in rural Missouri for emotionally disturbed children, who helped them care for their special needs daughter. They sold their property in New York, and Greg traveled back and forth to receive experimental cancer treatment in New York. 

One day at church, they heard a presentation from missionaries in China, and Masaitis-Spychaj once again felt the call to go overseas. Providentially, at a check-up Greg learned his cancer was in remission. The couple got jobs teaching English, packed up their family and moved to China. The two years they spent teaching and hosting Bible studies were incredible, said Masaitis-Spychaj. “There, the people are hungry to know God,” she said. 

Gradually, Greg’s health worsened. “(His) pain got so bad that he could hardly get out of bed to walk across campus to teach his classes,” she said. When the family returned to their community in Missouri, they learned that Greg’s cancer had spread to his bones. As he died, the couple relied on friends to care for their children, and often, their material needs. Every day, their pastor would come early in the morning and silently pray in their living room. On Thanksgiving Day, Greg went into a coma and died several hours later. 

The whole family was devastated and struggled to cope. Masaitis-Spychaj found some healing while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with her church. At the Garden Tomb, she prayed for another man to come into her life and felt a call to return to the Catholic Church. She continued to manage her pain, and continued to pray, eventually picking up the rosary again. She called a Catholic church, and began to receive counseling from an older priest. “I sobbed as I made my very long confession and he lovingly embraced me,” she said. 

As her parents’ health began to deteriorate, Masaitis-Spychaj decided to move back to New York with her daughter. Her father died on Christmas Eve. At the wake, a man came up and introduced himself. “Cheryl, do you know who I am? I’m Marvin,” he said. “He looked so different from when I dated him some 37 years prior,” she said.

The two began to correspond again, and talked about getting married. The weekend after Easter, Cheryl visited him in Virginia. After Mass, Marvin walked her over to an empty tomb that had been set up at the church. “Cheryl, two years ago you stood outside an empty tomb in Israel and asked the Lord to come into your heart, and he answered by bringing you back to the Catholic Church. Today I want to answer the second part of your prayer. Will you marry me?”Today the retired couple lives in Alexandria, and attends St. Louis Church.  

Throughout her life, Masaitis-Spychaj tackled intimating challenges — raising four children, serving in the FBI, sharing the Good News under the nose of an oppressive government, leaving a community of faith she loved to return to the church. But fear shouldn’t stop someone from doing what they want, or what they believe God is calling them to, she said.

“Just do it afraid.” 

Learn more

Masaitis-Spychaj published her autobiography, I Did It Afraid. To learn more or order a copy, email caspychaj@outlook.com

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018