The write stuff

Or how a Catholic mom found her vocation in the Catholic press

by Jill Ragar Esfeld

It’s impossible to talk about my journey to The Leaven without giving credit to the saints who got me here — St. Francis de Sales and St. Anne.

I first encountered St. Francis in high school when I picked up a little devotional called “Golden Counsels.” In it, I discovered he is the patron of writers.

That caught my interest, because I’d already pegged my future in writing.

I had a natural knack for the English language. Grammar made sense to me. And my Irish roots gave me a talent for storytelling.

From an early age, I knew I could write about anything.

And so St. Francis became one of my intercessors.

He joined St. Anne, whom I’d found in grade school when I was scouring saint books in preparation for confirmation.

She was listed as the patron of “women in love and women in labor.” I had a feeling she would come in handy someday.

My two patrons carried a heavy load. I talked to them constantly about all my little dreams and heartaches.

I reminded them during daily novena prayers that I counted on them for a career and life partner. Nine days, nine weeks, nine years; I was diligent in my petitions.

When it came time for college, I considered a degree in journalism.

But Missouri State offered a writing degree . . . and also offered me generous financial aid. I felt that must be my sign from St Francis.

I was right.

When I graduated with a strong background in technical and instructional writing, I had no trouble getting work. The world was on the cusp of the information age, and I had the skills to simplify, explain, or sell anything.

Divine intervention

As I began establishing myself in the writing field, St. Anne then came through on her front.

She sent me Jerry, my husband, with a clear sign he was her choice for me. On our first date, when small talk drifted to birthdays, I discovered he was born on July 26.

That’s the feast of St. Anne.

I went home that night and wrote a letter to a girlfriend telling her I was going to marry him. A year-and-a-half later, on our wedding day, she gave the letter back to me.

But in retrospect, I’m convinced St. Francis also had his fingers in the clay when Jerry was formed so perfectly for me.

For the first time in my life, I was counseled by someone who respected my writing talent — not for the money it made, but for the happiness it could bring me.

Catholic school had taught us both that talent alone wasn’t all God gave us. We had a purpose, too. And when we found that purpose, it would bring us joy.

I’ve always kept a quote from Cardinal John Henry Newman framed in my office. It says: “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another.”

I was a very successful writer, but I didn’t see myself providing God a definite service. And that bothered me.

I didn’t find a lot of soul satisfaction in writing about how to lay fiber optic cable or operate a computerized cash register.

And by the time we had two children underfoot, it became very difficult to keep up the pace this kind of writing demanded.

My husband sensed my dissatisfaction and encouraged me to find an endeavor that would make me happy and fulfill my desire to serve God.

He believed his purpose was supporting me in answering that call. And he did so with great patience as I quit writing and took up painting, another talent I’d honed in college.

Purpose-driven

My devotion to Mary inspired me to paint Madonnas. With my meager income from selling my art, I started a children’s program at a homeless shelter.

I further supplemented it by working in the library at my children’s Catholic school.

For eight years, I served the poor this way and felt that surely I was doing God’s work at last. But I still wasn’t satisfied.

I missed writing — not the income, but the process. I missed becoming an instant expert on something and being able to explain it to others.

I wanted to do God’s work, but I wanted to write as well.

I asked my saints to help me find a way to do both. And that’s when I discovered The Leaven was looking for a freelance writer.

It seemed a perfect answer to my prayers. And so I sent in my resume and a published portfolio sure to impress the editor.

Indeed it did. I got a call back saying, regrettably, the small nonprofit probably couldn’t afford me.

I had to admit there was a time in my past when that would have been true.
But I realized in that moment that all these years I thought I was searching for my purpose, I was really learning to let go of income as a symbol of my value as a writer.

I wanted to write for God, and I had a wonderful husband who was willing to support me in that. I told The Leaven they could certainly afford me.

Saint Francis is the patron saint of writers and also the patron of the Catholic press. I believe that’s where he was leading me all along.

Faith personified

I’ve been freelancing for The Leaven for a decade now. In that time, I have been privileged to bring the story of Catholic faith to life as it is lived out by many amazing people in our archdiocese.

It’s still hard for some people to understand why I would turn away from lucrative freelance opportunities to work for a nonprofit.

I think Catholic Press Month is a perfect time to explain that.

Those of us on The Leaven staff don’t work here because we can’t get jobs in the secular media. We choose to work for the Catholic Church because it is our vocation to present news through the prism of our Catholic faith.

We want our readers to be able to see important issues and events from a Catholic perspective.

And through stories that highlight the people of our own archdiocese, we want to show that the truth of the Gospel is here, walking among us.

How can you put a price tag on that?

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