Harvard student finds her answers in the Catholic Church

LyLena Estabine Harvard University LyLena Estabine, a junior at Harvard University, is in the OCIA program at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and plans to join the Church at the Easter Vigil on April 8, 2023. | Credit: LyLena Estabine

The Church’s teaching on Mary and the Eucharist were the two biggest hurdles for 21-year-old LyLena Estabine, a former Protestant, in accepting the Catholic faith.

Ahead of Holy Week and her full entrance into the Catholic Church, Estabine, who is also consecrated to Mary, said she expects to shed tears when receiving holy Communion for the first time.

“Finally being able to take part at the eucharistic feast, it will be very good,” Estabine, a junior sociology major at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in a March 28 interview with CNA.

A native of Olathe, Kansas, Estabine is one of 32 candidates and catechumens in the OCIA (formerly RCIA) program at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Cambridge, home to the Harvard Catholic Center, a hub of rich Catholic intellectual tradition for college students and young professionals in the center of one of the country’s most liberal cities.

The class includes nine undergraduate Harvard students, five graduate Harvard students, and 17 local professionals from the community whose median age is 29.

The large group is reminiscent of last year’s catechesis class at the center, which boasted 31 candidates and catechumens.

Father Patrick Fiorillo, the undergraduate chaplain at the Harvard Catholic Center, told CNA March 28 that there is a “deep, interior conversion” happening with the current group of students and young adults preparing to enter the Church at the Harvard Catholic Center. 

“Just seeing conversion happening in real time for so many people is truly inspiring,” he said.

Father Fiorillo said that Estabine was not afraid to ask “big questions” while exercising great humility in her pursuit of truth.

Carrying her cross

Raised a Protestant in a suburb just outside of Kansas City, Estabine always had a relationship with Jesus Christ.

When Estabine’s mother would buckle her in the back seat of the car as a child, Estabine would tell her mother to buckle Jesus in next to her.

“If she didn’t, I would just be so upset; and I would talk to him as we were driving, having a conversation,” she said.

Estabine’s parents raised her in different Protestant churches and read the Bible. She always felt she wanted to “have higher-level discussions” with peers about faith but struggled to find someone who would engage with her.

“I pulled back a little bit into myself and wasn’t as on fire about it as I had been before,” Estabine said.

After getting accepted to Harvard University, historically one of the most prestigious colleges in the world, Estabine began dealing with crippling depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts her freshman year during the COVID-19 pandemic. She tried everything from dieting to therapy, but nothing was curing her from the negative thoughts, a condition she has dealt with from a young age that exacerbated in college.

Intensely suffering, she turned to the faith that she always knew for healing. She decided that her last hope was to take a deep dive into her faith and finally read the Bible cover to cover. She told God in prayer: “I’m going to read this, and if by the time I’m done I can’t find a reason to stay here, then I can’t do it anymore.”

More in US

It took her a year, but she did it. And she was healed.

“As I began reading it, and as I began basically pouring out my entire self to God and just laying my life at his feet, he healed me completely of all my depression and anxiety. And so I just owe it to him as a miracle,” she said.

‘He was calling me’

Convicted in her faith and surrounded by close Christian friends, Estabine began engaging in “quite heated” debates with a Catholic friend about theology.

As she began to more deeply realize that objective truth must exist, she knew that “not everybody can be correct.”

Her Catholic friend would often send her links to videos and articles about the Catholic faith, which Estabine would ignore much of the time.

But during a service trip she took to Canada, Estabine had a significant amount of time alone. Her Catholic friend sent her a video on the Eucharist, and she finally watched it.

(Story continues below)

She found the argument for the real presence convincing but wasn’t quite ready to accept it.

As she continued to grapple with the arguments for Catholicism, she had a peculiar dream the summer going into her junior year that she said was “important” for her conversion.

The dream was “dark” and “scary,” like a nightmare. In the dream, she was at a school, and there was “darkness” inside, while the windows were foggy.

She tried to write “God” on a foggy window but couldn’t for some reason. In the dream, she also tried to cast the darkness away but couldn’t.

She remembers seeing a Catholic priest, who “spoke to the darkness,” and “it responded in a way that it was not responding to me when I was trying to cast it out.”

This dream fueled Estabine’s spiritual journey to find more answers. As she continued her search for truth, she spent time in various Catholic churches and ultimately came to the conclusion that she was being drawn to Catholicism.

Her one dilemma, however, was fear: wondering if all her previous experiences with Christ were authentic.

It wasn’t until she took a trip to Paris that same summer, grappling with the same concern, that she found her answer in the Scriptures. She opened the Bible while she was alone one night and read the Gospel of John’s 10th chapter, verse 16:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

Estabine said that it confirmed for her that even though she was “outside of the fold,” she was still one of God’s sheep, and she was, indeed, hearing his voice.

“He was calling me into something deeper,” she said.

So, Estabine texted her Catholic friend one night and said, “Hey, I don’t really know what’s going on, but I really think I need to examine this deeper, and I don’t think I can do it by myself.” Her friend introduced her to Father Fiorillo, and the priest answered many of her questions and helped her get situated in catechesis classes. Her friend gave her a rosary and brought her to eucharistic adoration. She began asking deeper questions and finding the answers she was looking for.

Estabine at one point felt like she needed to have all the answers to become Catholic.

But one day in adoration, she heard Jesus say to her: “Since when has the key to your heart been through your intellect?”

Now, she tries to pray the rosary almost every day, finished her Marian consecration on March 25, and is excited to receive first holy Communion and confirmation at the Easter Vigil at St. Paul’s on April 8.

“She’s remarkable in really trying to just embrace the whole Catholic faith and orienting her whole life around it and truly incorporating everything that the Church offers into her life,” Fiorillo said.

Estabine’s Catholic friend is her sponsor, and her patron saint is St. Paul the Apostle.

And Estabine is ready as Holy Week draws near.

“In terms of receiving the Eucharist, I’m very excited,” she said. “I’m probably going to cry.”

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.