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Fredericksburg mother opens heart and home

Kathleen Wilson and her husband moved to Thailand in 1996 with five children. Six years later, they returned to the United States with five more, including a baby born to a mother with AIDS and a little boy who at one time had to beg for his food on the streets of Bangkok.

“I literally had no say in it,” said Kathleen during a recent interview in her Fredericksburg home. “They fell onto my doorstep.”

Today, Kathleen’s doorstep is adorned with a statue of St. Francis and springtime flowers.

But across continents and beyond blood ties, Kathleen has adorned her life with acts of love and openness — to children, orphaned babies and to poor pregnant women. She offers the homeless and parentless a physical home and a place in a heart that always has more room.

Now a mother to 12, the middle-aged woman with red hair and a gentle manner says her life has been anything but planned. Instead, it has been is an adventure that unfolded under God’s guiding hand.

Pro-life to spiritual life

Kathleen was born in Manhattan and grew up in Long Island, N.Y. Her mother and father provided love and a moral foundation, but it was not a spiritually rich childhood. “My parents’ faith started and ended with us going to church,” said Kathleen. “I knew Joseph was a carpenter and Mary was Jesus’ mother, and that was about the extent of it.”

When she moved out of her parents’ house at a young age, she stopped going to church altogether.

But her mother passed down a commitment to the pro-life movement, and Kathleen’s involvement in the pro-life cause would later ignite her faith.

After marrying her husband, David, and having three biological children, the couple adopted two sisters — a 2-year-old and an 8-month-old.

The sisters, initially placed with the Wilsons as foster children, had been taken straight from a homeless shelter.

“They were adorable,” said Kathleen. “And filthy. My husband came home from work, picked both of them up and put them in the bath.”

With her growing family, Kathleen became increasingly active in pro-life ministry.

She worked with a pro-life group at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg and was both inspired and intimidated by the devout Catholic women she met.

“They would say the rosary, and I would have a coughing fit so they wouldn’t call on me to do the next decade,” she said.

Over time, she started to feel a sense of belonging and began going to church occasionally.

“I started feeling this renewal and wanted to be Catholic,” she said.

As her attraction to Catholicism burgeoned, she felt nervous about revealing it to her husband.

David also had been nominally Catholic.

“I finally told him, ‘I’m just really drawn to the Catholic faith. I would really like our family to do this together,’” she recalled. “Without missing a beat, he said, ‘Me too.’” The family plunged into the faith that day. They started going to church. They started praying together.

Their faith “exploded,” said Kathleen.

Soon after, David — a federal drug enforcement agent — was transferred to Thailand for his job.

There, Kathleen’s fledgling faith was put to the test.

Five children in tow, the family moved to Chaing Mai, in northern Thailand. Primarily Buddhist, the region was saturated with Protestant missionaries.

“(The missionaries) tried so hard to convert me,” said Kathleen. “They would say all the typical things you hear: Catholics don’t believe that Jesus was resurrected, that we worship Mary.

“I felt constantly attacked on things I didn’t know,” she said. “But it forced me to find the answers.” She wrote to priests and scoured the Internet for information.

While she eventually became friends with many of the missionaries, their challenges helped solidify her beliefs.

“I used to say to my good Christian friends, ‘I really want to thank you. Your questions made me a better Catholic.’”

Bonds of love

As Kathleen’s heart opened to Catholic teaching, it also opened to one child, then another and another.

While in Thailand, she volunteered at Agape House, an orphanage for babies whose mothers had AIDS.

According to Kathleen, in the United States, DNA tests can determine if an infant has the virus, but in Thailand, many children receive less-sophisticated tests that can show a false positive. If such a baby is an orphan, “they’re thrown into government orphanages and are not adoptable,” she said.

Agape House has babies properly tested when they’re older, finding homes for ones that test negative, and the ones who have AIDS, “they keep and love until death,” said Kathleen.

One day at Agape House, a baby was screaming, and Kathleen picked him up. “It was instant bonding,” she said. “I fell madly, instantly in love.”

Assuming he had AIDS, she brought him home and the entire family fell in love too. “This child was so cute, so sweet — and so sick,” she said.

The baby, whom they later adopted and named Patrick, was in and out of the hospital that first year. Everything indicated he had AIDS.

When his tests eventually came out negative, Kathleen fell uncontrollably to her knees in thanksgiving.

Not long after, Claudia was welcomed into thegrowing Wilson clan. Raised by Buddhist nuns, she would have been forced to go to a government-run orphanage at age 12. Kathleen said proudly that Claudia, now 28, is a wife and mother and earning a nursing degree.

The family’s fifth adoption was a Cambodian boy whose mother had left him and whose father was an alcoholic. At 3 years old, he was walking around the streets of Bangkok begging for food.

When he was about 6, a priest traveled with the boy all night on a rickety bus to bring him to the Wilsons, a family he’d heard was very open to children in need.

“When he walks in, he’s the littlest waif I’ve ever seen,” said Kathleen. “He spoke almost nothing because no one ever really spoke to him. But once again, it was this crazy bonding,” she said.

Given the name Dennis, Kathleen said he’s blossomed into a quiet and funny young man.

Before leaving Thailand, the family adopted two more sisters. Both parents were sent to jail after the girls were born, and the children were placed in a government orphanage and spent time living in a slum.

By the time they were adopted, the girls were very troubled. And in spite of efforts to help them through love and therapy, Kathleen said they never fully healed.

“Unfortunately I don’t have a close relationship with them,” she said. But she prays for them as she does for all her children and hopes they someday can find reconciliation.

Room for more

Back in the United States, Kathleen was busy with her 10 children, but she missed her volunteer work and felt she should be doing more.

She spoke with a priest, and a few years later that conversation led Kathleen and two other women to open Mary’s Shelter, a house for homeless pregnant women in Fredericksburg.

It started off with one house and one woman. Now with four houses and a fifth planned to open this year, the ministry has helped more than 100 mothers.

One of the biggest challenges of directing the shelter is seeing women having multiple children by different men and making the same mistakes again and again.

“But at the end of the day, each baby is just as valuable as that first baby,” said Kathleen. “If we are really pro-life, we are not going to turn our back on any child.”

Kathleen says knowing it’s not her place to judge is freeing. “I don’t know what she’s been through; I don’t know what she’s come from,” she said. “That kind of takes that pressure off of me.”

Women can stay at the shelter for up to two years, but some remain only a week. Even a short stay can have a big impact, said Kathleen.

“We don’t know what we say or do that just might create the change in her life,” she said. “Maybe it will be something we said, something we showed them — a moment of compassion that they never had before.”

It was compassion that led her and her husband to take more children into their home two years ago. A former Mary’s Shelter resident had fallen into self-destructive behavior, and two of her children were taken into custody by Child Protective Services. When the mother pleaded that they not be put into foster care, the Wilsons offered to take the 3- and 4-year-old.

With her youngest child a teenager, Kathleen had to think long and hard about the decision.

Yet once again, there was more room in her heart and home, and the curly haired brother and sister, referred to as “the littles,” now are part of the family.

Tending to the homes — the four shelters and her own — can be exhausting. “Like everybody else, I have times I’m dragged down,” she said.

Prayer gives her new energy. “You’ve got to keep praying always,” said Kathleen.

Of course not everyone is called to adopt nine children, she said, but knowing one’s unique vocation means turning to prayer and letting go of fear and worry.

“We still don’t have a plan,” she said, laughing. “We just wing it.

“Don’t overthink it,” she added. “God is leading each of us.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014