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An Easter conversion

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The chapel is the centerpiece of the new St. Paul VI Catholic High School campus in Chantilly.

Anyone walking through the school’s main corridor sees the large crucifix to the right, marking the entrance to the Mary Mother of the Church Chapel.

It’s a place freshman Jessica Rutherford has spent a lot of time in during her first year of high school.

There, in the silence, Jessica discovered how God has been at work in her life.

This Easter Vigil, Jessica became a full member of the Catholic Church — receiving the sacraments in the same school where she first began learning about the church.

“I love going to church,” she said. “It makes my heart very happy.”


Even though she’s only been there a year, Jessica is already a well-known figure in the halls of Paul VI.

As she walked to her locker after class on a recent day, classmates and teachers alike waved and wished her a happy spring break.

Jessica is a student in Paul VI’s Options Program for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

“We found out the day she was born that she had Down syndrome,” her mother, Janie Rutherford, said. 

Her father, Jeff Rutherford, said she “brings joy and excitement and love” to their home, and that she has, in a sense, completed the family.

Jessica went to physical therapy at 8 weeks old and speech therapy by the time she was 6 months old.

She still was not walking at 2 ½ years old, yet every day her parents brought her to the school bus.

“I’m like, ‘How are we sending her to school and she can’t even walk?’ ” Janie Rutherford said. “But we knew it was what was best for her, to have that early intervention, the interaction with peers and other kids.”

Jessica grew up attending many different public schools in Loudoun County. Her grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles all went to Catholic schools, and by the time Jessica was about to enter high school, the family was considering sending her to private school.

The tuition cost was a hurdle until extended family stepped in to help.

Ultimately, Jessica’s great-aunt and great-uncle paid for her tuition to Paul VI, said her grandmother, Toni McSpadden.

“We were very blessed — my sister and her husband said, ‘This is what she needs. She needs to go there and it will be life-changing for her,’ ” McSpadden said.

Jessica said she has loved attending Paul VI, and she wakes up at 6:30 a.m. sharp every day to start getting ready.

“I love going there because it’s great, it’s magical and I love it,” Jessica said. “Everyone in my class (is) amazing. It just blows my mind.”

Her mother, Janie, also used the phrase “life-changing” when talking about Paul VI.

“We’ve seen such a tremendous growth and just maturing,” Janie Rutherford said. “She’s very engaged. She’ll tell us about her day, what she did, what she learned, what she had for lunch. 

“She feels … just like one of the other girls walking the halls, and to her, she’s one of them. There’s no difference, and to us that’s very important.”


Jessica is one of five Rutherford children.

The family is Christian, but she is the only one practicing Catholicism. 

Her grandmother, McSpadden, regularly takes her to Mass on weekends at St. Theresa Church in Ashburn.

“When we go to church on Sunday, she participates,” McSpadden said. “We have the missal opened and I read the songs with her. She loves music so she really enjoys that, especially if it’s a song that she has heard before.”

Last fall, Jessica began attending Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) classes at Paul VI with Deacon Tom Grodek.

By learning more about the church and God, Jessica began to understand the concept of heaven and eternal life.

In his RCIA classes, Grodek talked about his daughter, Maureen (or Moey, as he would say).

Moey was born with “profound intellectual disabilities,” yet she “had a full life in our family, our community and in our church,” Grodek said.

She died 5 years ago, and “she’s in heaven now looking out over us,” he said.

Hearing about Grodek’s daughter “impacted (Jessica) a lot,” he said.

Three years ago, Jessica’s oldest brother died. And when she started taking classes with Grodek, “she asked him, ‘Is God taking care of my brother? I want to make sure he’s taken care of,’ ” Janie Rutherford said.

“Talking about the Passion of Christ really impacted her as well,” Grodek said. “We talked about Jesus dying, and she still had very much in her mind and her heart her brother passing away.”

“I’ll ask her what her favorite class is, and many times she’ll say theology,” her grandmother, McSpadden, said. “Learning about God is very important to her, and she’ll tell me what she’s learned and stories from Deacon Tom.”

Now Jessica freely offers observations that “God saves us … because Jesus died for us on the cross.” 

She also recognizes that “God was in my life when I was born,” and that “he’s everywhere. He’s in my heart,” and “he takes care of the world.”

On Easter Vigil, Jessica came into full communion with the church — fittingly at Paul VI. Corpus Christi Church in Aldie has been using the high school’s auditorium for Masses until its new church building is completed, and celebrated Easter Vigil there April 3.

“To get baptized and to do my first Communion, it’s awesome to me,” Jessica said. “I love my life, my mom and dad, my boyfriend. I love my family, they’re in my heart forever.

“They’ll always be in my heart.”

Riedl can be reached at matthew.riedl@arlingtondiocese.org or on Twitter @RiedlMatt.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021