Extreme faith

After tragedy, a Connecticut family gets a new home and some new hope

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By Traci Neal

Set among the old farmhouses and lichen-covered stone walls of this rural southeastern Connecticut town, within view of a derelict saloon and a whitewashed Catholic church, a majestic home, reminiscent of a medieval castle with its balcony and tower and drawbridge ropes, rises above the treeline.

In contrast to the rest of Voluntown, a modest New England farming village of about 700 families, the castle appears as if dropped suddenly from the sky. And in a sense, it was.

Built in about a week in December by the ABC television show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and a legion of local volunteers, the palace is a monument to a family and its Catholic faith, designed in homage to Our Lady and two of her servants, Thomas Girard, 45, and his son, Marc, 18. The two drowned in June 2008 when, during an ordinary summertime swim at a local pond, Thomas inexplicably went under; his son died trying to save him.

When Carol Girard heard the sirens and saw the volunteer fire trucks go by her house towing the rescue boat, she says, she knew already that her life had been irrevocably changed.

The couple’s other children, Adam, 17, Jacqueline, 15, Lucas, 12, and Hannah, 8, who have been raised on a daily Rosary, grace before meals, and church every Sunday as a family, were profoundly faith-filled during the first hours after the accident, praying and singing to Marc in his hospital room as doctors and nurses worked to keep him alive.

Sitting in one of the deep sofas that flank her new home’s two-story floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace, Carol Girard describes her faith journey over the last several months, and what it’s taken for her and her family to hold fast to the “little graces” they continue to receive from Our Lady and from Thom and Marc since they were called into God’s service.

“So many people have told us of the spiritual experiences they had while working here,” Carol says of some of the thousands of volunteers who helped demolish their old house and put up the new. “From the first moment we walked into this house, we felt that Thom and Marc were here.”

The home’s builder, Bruno Hayn, says the job renewed the spirits of those who worked behind the scenes to make it happen.

“To me, this house hit the hearts of 7,000 people, not just one family of five,” says Hayn of the people who showed up to bang nails and hang sheetrock, and the companies that came with truckloads of asphalt or lumber or furniture. Being a part of this job “reached a part of their soul they thought they lost.”

The castle theme, incorporated by Hayn into much of the home’s detail, is a nod to Thom and Marc’s involvement with the Knights of Lepanto, an apostolate of the Mission of the Immaculate Mediatrix (MIM) dedicated to Marian chivalry and the virtues of fidelity, honesty, courtesy, prowess, and generosity.

“Thom and Marc loved our Blessed Mother and understood the nature of consecration to her as a real form of knighthood,” says Father Angelo Mary Geiger, a family friend and a friar at the nearby Franciscan friary the family often visited. “It’s a call to do the right thing for the right reason no matter what.” The Girard family particularly embraced the Marian spirituality the Franciscans promote, says Geiger.

“When we first met the Girards, they were coming to the friary frequently to pray in the chapel and to visit the grounds because Hannah, the youngest child, was very attracted to the place,” says Geiger. “They all used to come together, and little by little we got to know them. After some time they became more involved with our activities and finally joined the MIM.”

The charism is based on the spirituality of St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe, who viewed consecration to Mary as a kind of chivalry and referred to those consecrated to Mary as the “heel” of the Immaculate, lifted and ready to crush the head of the serpent in the souls of the faithful.

The Knights of Lepanto distill this Marian militant spirit into a pure form, says Geiger, using charity as their weapon in their battle for souls.

It was here at the friary that Marc discerned his vocation and was planning to begin his postulancy with the friars in August.

“He had agreed to wait one year and I was trying to push that to two,” says Carol, smiling conspiratorially. “Then I was watching him in church one day and I thought, This kid belongs here.”

But their children’s faith is not without precedent. “Thom and I are both cradle Catholics, went to Mass every Sunday and on Holy Days. Thom had strong faith since he was very little,” says Carol. “He was always able to speak with God; he just didn’t have anyone to guide him. When he found the friars, he just blossomed.” Thom transferred the skills he had learned as a Scoutmaster to teaching young men how to live the faith with courage. It was partly through his work with the Knights that Thom realized, only months before he died, what God wanted of him. “He finally got his answer,” she says. “It was to just do what he was doing and be the best dad he could be.”

Soon after Marc turned 18, Thom planned an initiation into the knighthood for him that included a knightly vow to serve Mary for life — which Marc wholeheartedly accepted.

“During part of the initiation, by Thom’s design the knights had an opportunity to examine Marc and find out if he was prepared for the next step,” recalls Geiger. “One of the guys asked Marc about his relationship with his dad. I remember him saying that if he had to pick one person to take with him into battle, it would be his father.”

Geiger continues, “On an earlier occasion I remember talking to the boys about heroes. I asked them whom they admired more than anyone else and most of the boys mentioned a saint. Marc and his younger brother, Adam, were sitting together. When I asked Adam the question, he said it was his brother Marc that he admired more than anyone else. Thom had successfully communicated something to his boys that came out in very striking ways.”

Thom and Marc’s relationship in life and death is iconic of their consecration to the Blessed Mother, says Geiger. “They both believed in it and lived it. …One of Thom’s last acts was to prepare Marc for knighthood, and the very last act of Marc was to be his father’s son.”

It is that commitment to their faith and their family that continues to bring strength to Carol and the kids. “I learned a lot from Thom and Marc,” she says, “and now I have to put these things into practice.”

Some of what the family learned came as a result of what Carol now calls “a little test” of their faith. In August 2007, less than a year before Thom and Marc died, the family’s home and everything in it was destroyed by fire.

“Our faith was the only thing that got us through,” recalls Carol. “Thom had tremendous faith in God and knew things would be taken care of one way or another. We knew we had to ‘let go and let God,’ and that’s hard, but it works. It really does.”

The family spent the next 10 months homeless, living in a borrowed fifth-wheel camper they’d parked in their yard while insurers and the mortgage company battled out their settlement. They continued to volunteer in their church and the local schools.

“After the fire, from our point of view, things did not seem to change,” says Geiger. “Even though they had been deprived of all their possessions [and] were living in a trailer without running water, they seemed to have the same faith and family unity that they had always had. Thom and Carol held that family together.”

As the Connecticut winter of 2007 bore down, the family secretly planned a move into the basement of their condemned house, where there was a wood stove and a little more room to spread out.

“A couple of days before Christmas we’d emptied the cellar,” remembers Carol with a smile. “Then the four older kids went and put up a tree and some Christmas lights, and Santa came and dropped off some things.”

On Christmas morning, Carol recalls, “We all put our bathrobes and our boots on and went outside and down the cellar stairs. When Hannah saw that Santa had actually come, it was the happiest day of her entire life! That was the best—” she pauses. “It was their last Christmas, and it was the best they’ve ever had. I don’t think it would’ve ever been topped.”

Despite their struggles, there was a lot of laughter in the Girard home, says Carol.

“Things didn’t go their way all the time,” she says of Thom and Marc, “but they were generally happy men.”

On the day they were to move out of the camper for good, Thom, Marc, Lucas, and Hannah went for a swim at the little pond nestled among the lush cedar and chestnut and flowering rhododendrons of the 24,000-acre Pachaug State Forest. Marc was celebrating the last days of his boyhood before beginning his Religious studies in earnest.

Hannah had been riding on Thom’s back as they started toward a small island out in the water. Lucas and Marc had nearly made it across when they heard Hannah scream from behind them. Underneath her and not far from dry land, Thom started coughing and went under.

“Marc said to Lucas, ‘Swim to the rock and start praying,’ and turned around to go see what was happening,” says Carol. “Lucas says when he reached the rock and looked back, it was as if Marc had gotten up and run across the water, he’d gotten to the other side so quickly.”

Lucas told her he heard Marc yell for his dad and saw his brother take a deep breath, start praying, and dive under.

“Marc went down and never came back up,” says Carol. “He wasn’t going to come up without his father.”

Overlooking the still-muddy backyard, Carol points to a sorry-looking garden that the designers and volunteers installed. It’s covered in snow and bare, dry sticks poke haphazardly into the air. Come springtime, though, it is expected to burst to life. A stone inscribed with a quote from the Bible faces the house: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).

“The whole situation, from the fire on, how it worked into one another, was a prelude for us to build our faith,” says Carol, “and to know that a family can do anything if they have faith.”  CD

Copy Chief/Bookshelf Editor Traci Neal

Traci joined Catholic Digest as copy chief and bookshelf editor in July 2006. She received her journalism degree from Southern Connecticut State University and has worked as a newspaper and magazine writer, editor, and/or copy editor since 1988.