When Anna Bendiksen looks back on her faith journey, she realizes that every step of the way, Jesus was putting people in her path who would lead her to the Catholic Church.
A writer, poet and author of hymn texts, Anna is a convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism and a member of the Parish of St. Catherine of Siena in Trumbull. Since she was received into full communion with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil last year, she has written several dozen hymns set to traditional melodies, including some that were performed at the parish and one titled “We Stand With Christ” in recognition of the Diocese of Bridgeport’s capital campaign. Her hymns, especially those for the Christmas season, have been performed in churches around the country.
Anna grew up singing and playing the piano, and her creativity blossomed when she entered the RCIA program. “I think what happened is that as a musician and Anglican, I needed to make sense of my experience coming into the Catholic Church,” she said. “The music at St. Catherine’s is lovely and I wanted to add my own voice to the world of Catholic music.”
Click to play Anna’s new Christmas Carol, “Let us Set Sail”
Since she began writing texts for hymns, she has compiled a notebook of more than two dozen compositions. The beauty of the faith has been a catalyst for her creative work and she hopes her compositions express the joy she feels over becoming a Catholic.
It was a long journey for her to reach what she describes as “the cathedral in the garden,” but she is certain that every step of the way Jesus was leading her, putting the right people in her path. It began more than 40 years ago, when she was growing up in the Midwest. She was baptized in a Methodist church in Detroit and has wonderful memories of attending Sunday school. During those years, she developed several meaningful friendships with Catholics, but one in particular stands out.
“The first Catholic household I knew was our next-door neighbors’ in South Dakota,” she recalls. “They had five children, and they made it clear to my brother and me that we were welcome in their home, so we would go there and run in and out with the crowd.”
She still has a vivid memory of the family trimming their Christmas tree and the father lifting the youngest daughter up to put the angel on top. “There was something warm about that house that really attracted me, and 40 years later, I am absolutely confident of the foundation they laid for me,” she says.
Anna stopped going to church at 10, when her parents were divorced. At 13, she moved to Rochester with her mother, who had been awarded a fellowship at the University of Rochester in the graduate nursing program.
Anna was an editor on her high school newspaper and recalls that the faculty advisor was a very devout Catholic who had a profound influence on her. She began taking Russian after reading Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” and in 1986 the teacher in charge of the Russian club led students on a trip to the former Soviet Union.
“Among the things I saw were the most beautiful Orthodox churches in the world,” she says.
When her mother took a teaching position at the University of Scranton, they began searching for a spiritual home and found an Episcopal church. By that time, it was apparent to Anna that “God was up to something with me.”
She began college at Bryn Mawr, where she pursued Russian studies, and while she was there, she would go to services at a Presbyterian church. In her sophomore year, she lived in a Russian-speaking dormitory with young Russian Orthodox women, who exposed her to the feasts of the liturgical year and took her to services with them. After graduation, she was accepted at Yale University, where she studied Slavic languages and literature. It was there that she met her future husband Aage, who was studying computer science.
Over Christmas vacation, she went to visit her mother who was living in Champaign, Illinois and attending an Episcopal church that was influenced by John Henry Newman, an Anglican churchman who converted to Catholicism and was canonized by Pope Francis last year.
“That year I went to Christmas services with my mother at midnight Mass and fell in love with God and liturgy,” Anna said. “Not long after Anna Bendiksen I was confirmed as an Episcopalian and spent the next 20 years as a happy member of that church.”
“Every church is like a language, and I became fluent in Episcopalian and learned what I needed to know,” she said. “I was a choir member, a vestry member and did work with the newcomer’s ministry at Grace and Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church in Hamden. There was just one problem—God kept tugging at me.”
As she progressed spiritually, she was overtaken by a desire to have face-to-face confession, and even though it was available at her church, not many people took advantage of it.
She might have continued on that path if it weren’t for a bad storm in March 2018, when a large tree came down in her neighbor’s yard and knocked out power for three days. She went to Walmart in Norwalk for supplies, and while driving home, she was playing the hymn “Come Down, O Love Divine” over and over on the radio.
“I remember I was coming back from Walmart on the Merritt and as I was praying, I said, ‘God, please show me my sins,’” she recalled. “And all of a sudden, I felt this intense feeling of nausea and revulsion like there was a horrible smell in the car and I had to roll down the window.”
The experience led her to the realization, she says, that the Catholic Church was not a prison, as she once thought, but that the real prison was her own sins.
“The Church was a cathedral in a garden and God had been seeking me all that time, pursuing me and trying to get me to say ‘yes,’ and despite all my objections and all the headlines, I began to seek a place to go,” she said.
Her need for one-on-one confession is what originally attracted her to the Church, but the greatest joy of her faith is the Real Presence of Jesus— Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity—in the Eucharist.
Early on, a parishioner encouraged Anna to go to Eucharistic adoration and she asked, “Why would I do that?” The woman responded, “You just sit there and feel the love as you would feel the warmth from the sun.”
Anna, who lives in Fairfield with her husband Aage and son Johan, was confirmed at the Easter Vigil Mass in 2019, when she entered into full communion with the Catholic Church.
By Joe Pisani