My story began when I was about 28 years old. I was raised Catholic and realized I was going to Mass because my parents made me and then my wife wanted me to. Then at 28 I decided, “This is ridiculous. I don’t even believe in God.” And I stopped going for two years.
When I was 30, I can’t even remember why, but for some reason I decided to go to Mass one day. It went very well, and I realized that if I’m going to be Catholic, I need to understand what it means to be Catholic. So I began to look into the Catholic Church to understand what it teaches.
About that time, I went to see a friend of mine who was paralyzed form the neck down, had been for many years. He said his mother had just come back from a place in Yugoslavia and that she brought me a rosary.
I didn’t really pay much attention to it. I thought, “Okay cool. I’ll have a rosary for the next Catholic funeral I go to, and I’ll look good. I won’t know how to pray it, but I’ll look good.”
Then his mom told me about this book she read, and she suggested we read it, my wife and I. So my wife read it while we were on vacation up in Wisconsin. I was fishing every day, and I didn’t pay any attention to it. I had to promise that I would read the book when we got back home because I was too busy fishing while I was there.
I did read it. It just really caught my attention, and I thought, “There’s something going on here. I need to pay attention to this.”
That would have been our 10th anniversary that year. Instead of going on the cruise that we’d planned on going on for our anniversary, we decided that we would go to this communist country on a religious pilgrimage instead.
Things began to happen to me, even on the way to Chicago to fly there. That was November of 1990. I noticed halfway there I pulled my rosary out because the priest that led the trip wanted us to pray a Rosary and the linkages on my rosary had already changed from a silver to a gold color. That’s when things really began to happen for me.
In Medjugorje, we were climbing Cross Mountain at 4 o’clock in the morning and I climbed it barefoot as penance for my friend Pat who was paralyzed. He was really the reason that I was there.
I didn’t have a flashlight on because I was falling so much I was afraid I would break the flashlight. It was below 32 degrees. It was below freezing out because there were puddles on the ground that were ice. I finally got to a point where I was just exhausted, and I turned on my flashlight. I didn’t really know where I was, but right there in front of me was the 12th Station of the Cross where Jesus dies on the cross.
I just began to cry like a baby. [Eyes fill with tears] I feel it right now like I’m back there. My life just completely changed on a dime right then. I realized He died for me. There wasn’t anybody else in that moment. It was very personal. And I realized also that this incredible place is not about Mary. It’s about Her Son.
She’s calling people there, like myself, calling us there to reunite us and reconnect us with Her Son.
On our way back, things were so tense over there – helicopters flying overhead. When we got to Zagreb to fly back to the states, the flight was delayed like 12 hours, and they were not guaranteeing us a flight. We had to sit on the floor and there was like 50 of us.
We decided to pray a Rosary, and they wouldn’t even let us pray a Rosary. They were with machine guns, and they said, “No you can’t do that here.”
The trip ends. The war starts the next year.
I’m going to Mass every day, and my life has changed, but I’m never thinking I’m ever going back to Medjugorje again.
Then it was about 1995. A friend asked me to go to a weekend retreat. It was a Marian retreat in Iowa. It was a silent retreat. It was going very well. On Saturday afternoon, there was some quiet time and I went outside and I was praying the Stations of the Cross. When I got in front of the 12th Station of the Cross, I was kneeling down, I looked up and there was a butterfly. It was in September, and there was a butterfly slowly opening and closing its wings sitting on His shoulder.
I was so mesmerized in remembering my moment of conversion, and here’s this beautiful sign from God.
That night, I got up, had to go down the hall to use the restroom, and I ran into a female that was getting up to use the restroom in the middle of the night. I broke the silence and said, “So what brings you here?”
And she said, “Oh I just came along with my boyfriend. He wanted me to come with him. What brings you here?”
And I thought, “Well, I guess Medjugorje brought me here.”
She said, “Oh my gosh. I want to go there so bad. Did you go?”
I said, “Yeah. I went five years ago.”
She said, “I’ll do anything to get a chance to go there.”
And the next words out of my mouth were, “Well, I’m planning a trip there.”
I had no intentions of planning a trip. The war was still going on. I had no idea why I said it.
So the next day, it’s lunchtime, the retreat is over, and we can talk now. I’ve got all these women coming up to me giving me their phone numbers because they’ve heard about this trip I’m planning.
On the way back to Davenport, Iowa with my friend, I said, “Joe, did you catch what that conversation was about?” He said, “Yeah.”
I said, “I’m not going to Medjugorje. I don’t know how to get there. I just signed up for a trip the last time. There’s a war going on. If I go, my wife’s gonna want to go. She’s gonna want to take our 12 year old daughter. I can’t take my family into a war zone. That’s crazy.”
And he says, “Well you better pray about it.”
So I gave it a lot of thought and prayer, and I thought, “How am I gonna do this? This is crazy? Where did this come from? Why did I say that?” I’m not someone who asks for signs, but I thought, “If You really want me to do this, I’ve got to know if this is something that I’m being called to do. I need to see something I’ve never seen before.”
Thinking about the butterfly sitting on the shoulder of Christ, I was in traveling sales at the time, and I thought, “Okay, I would like to see a butterfly on the dashboard of my car. If You put a butterfly on the dashboard of my car, I’ll take a group of people to Medjugorje.”
So I purposely kept my window up because I was not going. I did not want to go.
It got to be late October, maybe early November, butterfly season is done in Iowa by that time, I forgot all about it. We didn’t have cell phones back then. I pulled up to a payphone in Illinois and reached out and punched in my credit card number to make a call. I pulled the phone back into the car to speak to someone, and right there on the dashboard of my car was a butterfly.
I’ve been taking people to Medjugorje ever since.
There was some fighting still going on in Mostar [a town near Medjugorje]. We could hear the NATO flights coming in from the Adriatic overnight. But we had no troubles.
I don’t know how many times I’ve been there. I stopped counting at 25.
It did so much for me to go there. It just completely changed my life, and I just want other people to have the opportunity to experience what I’ve experienced. I’ve been able to take people who can’t afford it. My business was blessed magnificently during this period while I’m doing this. I think God knew that I wasn’t making money just for myself, but I was going to use it to feed the flock. It’s been such a joy to be able to take priests and even a bishop – I took a bishop with me one year.