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Finding God in the Caribbean

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Sylvia Bibby sits in her cozy living room on Caroline Street in Fredericksburg where she lives with Norman, her husband of 62 years. Surrounded by the artwork of their two grown daughters, the 82-year-old’s thoughts soar miles away to the turquoise waters of the Caribbean — the place where she received God’s gift of faith.  

Born in Bolton, England, in 1937, Sylvia was baptized, educated and married in the Church of England.  

“The church was the center of my social life,” said Sylvia, “But like many people, you start to think that you can do without religion and church.” 

A work opportunity for Norman sent the newlyweds to Jamaica in 1959. There they lived, worked and raised their two girls, but also drifted away from attending church until they stopped altogether. They returned to England in 1964, only to find that they felt more at home in the Islands. After three years, they decided to return but this time to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Norman was the production manager at St. Croix Alumina Company while Sylvia was the head of a private school. 

Charismatic Caribbean

According to Sylvia, their homecoming to the Caribbean in 1967 corresponded with the arrival of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. The West Indian Catholic congregations were on fire with the spirit, she said. It was something she experienced firsthand when she was invited by a Catholic friend to attend Mass at St. Ann Church in Kingshill. 

Initially, Sylvia was reluctant to accept the invitation since she had been raised in a society that did not mix with Catholics. But she wasn’t in England anymore, so she went to please her friend. 

“I was profoundly touched and moved by the experience,” said Sylvia. She left St. Ann feeling that something had happened to her, that she was changed. 

Unfortunately, she didn’t have much time to think about this transformation since a physical change was on the horizon — debilitating back pain. For 17 months she spent most of her time staring at the ceiling trying to lay perfectly still to avoid pain. In the midst of tropical beauty, she was drowning in despair until one day it became too much. 

“I felt like I was going backward down a tunnel,” said Sylvia. She called out into the empty house, “God, if you are there please help me. I feel like I’m dying.” 

There was no reply and her pain did not cease, but she believes that her whole life unfolded in a different direction from that moment. 

Within an hour she received two calls. One was from her daughter in England. The other from a friend who knew of an orthopedic surgeon from Chicago who was vacationing in St. Croix. 

“He was also an osteopath,” said Sylvia. “One of the rare ones who combine both. He came once a day for a month to help me.” As she improved, she vowed that if she ever recovered she would return to St. Ann Church to address the spiritual change in her. She made good on that vow as soon as she could stand. 

Through more amazing events that followed, Sylvia realized she wanted to become a Catholic. The 40-year-old began instruction and entered the Catholic Church Dec. 2, 1977.

“When I told my parents, I was kind of worried what they would say,” said Sylvia. She was shocked to hear her father’s response. “My father said, ‘It’s in the blood.’ ” He explained that he had been born Catholic but was raised in the Church of England after his father died and his mother remarried in the Church of England. 

“That is when it went out of our lives,” said Sylvia. “So I became a Catholic and it has been just the greatest gift in my life. I just love it.”

 Giving back with the gift of faith

For the next 16 years, Sylvia took her gift and dove heart and soul into her new church, on fire with the Spirit. 

“The West Indian congregation worships so powerfully, and they are unhappy if the sermon is less than 45 minutes,” said Sylvia. 

She was called to serve the church in many ways. Using her music background she played the organ and piano while also organizing the music ministry that included both a youth and women’s choir. She was also part of a more than 600-member prayer group that met weekly, and she served as a leader at charismatic conferences throughout the Caribbean.

In 1984, Sylvia and her husband left St. Croix for Texas. By this time, Norman had entered the Catholic Church as had their two daughters. Sylvia and Norman became involved in parish life at St. John the Baptist Church in Alvin, Texas. 

At the request of the priest, they started a prayer group for the Hispanic population and Sylvia once again stepped in to help direct the music for the Spanish-language Mass. They prayed together, visited nursing homes and were about to start a ministry to visit the imprisoned when it was time to leave Texas for Virginia because of Norman’s job. 

They arrived in Fredericksburg in 1986 and were parishioners at St. Patrick Church in Spotsylvania County before moving within the boundaries of St. Mary the Immaculate Conception Church. At both parishes, Sylvia was involved in leading prayer groups and many other ministries. She particularly enjoyed the opportunity to lead spiritual weekend retreats at the St. Francis Retreat Center in Spotsylvania, working with groups of 10 to 12 men at a time. Most of the men were in recovery, had just gotten out of prison or were in and out of homeless shelters in Washington. She led them in prayer, encouraged them to talk about their experiences and tried to help them realize that change was possible.

“I loved this ministry,” said Sylvia. “I left it up to God to see where he would take us. To see what God did during those days was truly a miracle every time.” 

During her 15 years in the ministry, she led retreats for more than 600 men. 

These days Sylvia admits that she can’t run around as much as she used to but she has no complaints. 

“I’m grateful to God for the things he has given me to do sitting down,” said Sylvia. She has become an avid writer and writes daily in her living room about her journey and many spiritual reflections. She is still an active prayer warrior and spends many hours on the phone praying with others through rough moments. One of her particular intentions is to pray for those in her family who, like her past self, find themselves trying to go through life without the assistance of God and the church. 

“When you are trying to do it on your own, it doesn't work. You know there is a hole in you that needs to be filled so you are looking to fill it somewhere,” said Sylvia. “I look back now and I thank God that he didn’t let me get lost for good.”

Kassock is a freelance writer in Fredericksburg.

 

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019