She was raised Catholic but had ventured away from the church.
After she got married and began having children, something stirred in Elaina Francis–a spiritual yearning that only could be satisfied by re-embracing the faith she had left years ago.
On Saturday, May 12, at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Irvine, in what church officials said was a rarity, not only did Elaina and Kedric Francis have their marriage blessed in a liturgical ceremony, they also had their four young children baptized.
The unique ceremony, before family and friends who later celebrated at the Francis home with cake and other treats, strengthens the entire St. John Neumann community and the larger O.C. Catholic community, said Deacon John Erdag, who presided over the joint Sacrament of Matrimony and Sacrament of Baptism.
“Catholic families serve as ‘domestic churches,’ and this beautiful family is strengthening our church,” Erdag said. “Society needs families like this who are raising their kids in the Catholic faith.”
Said Elaina: “The Holy Spirit came back to me in two ways: through motherhood, and through friendship.”
Questioning the faith
Elaina said something went awry in her interpretation of the Church while growing up.
“It felt more like a chore and a burden, without a sense of unconditional love at the heart of it,” Elaina said.
So, as a young adult, she stopped going to church.
“I went through my share of rebellions and questioning the faith, which I don’t regret,” Elaina added. “I believe it’s healthy and normal to question things, and that it can lead to a deeper connection to God.”
Around three years ago, Elaina began to feel the stirrings of faith returning.
At that time, she and Kedric had two children, Otis, now 7, and Annarose, now 6.
“One of the first things you learn as a new mother is that you cannot do it alone,” Elaina said. “We all need help, support, and a village to get us through. And it just so happened that the village that began forming around me was other Catholic women, both new friends and old.”
Elaina reignited friendships with old classmates from Mater Dei High School who also were new mothers.
Her obstetrician/gynecologist is an Irish Catholic.
Elaina, a professional photographer, landed new clients who reached out to her for a family photo session. The husband and wife turned out to be two religion teachers, one at Mater Dei and the other at Rosary Academy in Fullerton.
And through Instagram, Elaina struck up a close friendship with Korinne Hannegan, a mother of seven and a parishioner at St. Edward the Confessor in Dana Point.
“All of these people had one thing in common: They led by pure example and showed me what being a modern, practicing Catholic in today’s society could look like,” Elaina said.
Last December, Elaina became a parishioner at St. John Neumann.
As director of parish life, one of Erdag’s jobs is to reach out to new churchgoers.
“I saw the (parish registration) form and noticed her kids weren’t baptized,” Erdag said. “Then things just snowballed from there.”
By that time, the Francis clan had expanded to three children, with one on the way (Mabel is now 2, and Flynn is 4 months old).
Erdag received approval from St. John Neumann Fr. Jeff Droessler, the church’s administrator, to have the joint marriage/baptism ceremony for family and friends on a Saturday afternoon.
Among the guests was Hannegan, who Elaina chose to be the godmother of her four children.
“She was well on her journey (to returning to the church) when I met her, and I was very happy to walk along beside her,” said Hannegan, who teared up several times during the ceremony.
“I literally can’t even put it into words,” Hannegan said. “It was so beautiful to watch her come back home. It was beyond moving.”
Also attending the service was Wylie Aitken, a prominent Orange County attorney and family friend who is active in the Orange Catholic Foundation and is a parishioner at San Antonio de Padua Church in Anaheim.
“It’s really an honor to be here,” Aitken said. “It’s marvelous to see their marriage evolve. It’s a culmination of an interesting journey. It’s just phenomenal.”
Added Aitken: “It’s very positive to see people make decisions when they are free to make decisions.”
Although her husband isn’t a Catholic, Elaina said he’s a wonderful father and spiritual guide for their children.
“I’ve seen so much spiritual growth in him,” Elaina said. “It’s almost like he tapped into something that was always there but he didn’t know it.
“He talks to our kids about God and morality and the commitments and disciplines required when serving others. He also comes to Mass with us here and there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he begins really exploring his own faith journey.”
Elaina said St. John Neumann felt like home from the first Mass she and her family attended.
“The sense of community is awesome,” she said.
And May 12, 2018 always will be a monumental day for her.
“The day was beyond special, as wonderful as our wedding day,” Elaina said. “Any opportunity to bring together many of the people you love, from all different corners of life, into the same room to celebrate the love in your family is going to be one of the best days of your life.”