Wounded by tragedy, healed through faith

It was the promise of a better life in the United States that led Agnes Fernandes, her husband, Joe, and their two children from their home in Kuwait to Houston. Forced to abandon their home and all possessions years earlier during the Iraqi invasion, this time would not be so traumatic. Back then, with the threat of chemical weapons looming, the family packed one suitcase and boarded a bus that would take them to a refugee camp and eventually back to Agnes’ native Pakistan.

“With God by our side, we fled the country,” she said.

Once safe to return to Kuwait, Agnes spent the next several years as the only Catholic teacher in an all-Muslim school where her children, Tina and Johnny, were the sole Catholics among 1,600 students. Her husband, Joe, a salesman by day, worked as a professional musician by night.

“Even though we had lost everything, we never lost our faith in God,” professes Agnes, who describes herself as a cradle Catholic raised in a “staunch Catholic environment.”

Hope in America

That faith, which would sustain Agnes through many more trials, was instilled early. Raised in a predominantly Muslim country, Agnes’ parents insisted the family was immersed in the Catholic faith, including daily Mass, family Rosary and Catholic education. Surrounded by priests and nuns, her mother sewed habits for the Franciscan friars of which her uncle was a member. Honored to assist those whom her parents continually referred to as “true servants of God,” no one was surprised when both her sisters discerned at an early age to enter the convent.

It was that same faith that provided her family the strength to endure the tragic death of Agnes’ 16-year-old brother, Johnny. The annual altar-server picnic, an event he had been anticipating all summer, would end tragically with the teen drowning in quicksand.

“We knew our faith was being tested, but we never grew angry or bitter at God,” said Agnes.

Not surprisingly Johnny would be the name Agnes would choose for her only son. And it was also no surprise that Agnes and Joe would immerse their children in the rich Catholic tradition they knew so well — despite the obstacles. With only one Catholic Church in all of Kuwait, services were held only on Thursday or Friday since Sunday was a work day.

The promise of freedom of religion and speech along with the hopes of better education were the key motivators when the family decided to begin a new life in the United States.

Agnes was quickly hired at a Catholic school, and Joe secured a job as a sales representative. Having graduated from high school in Kuwait at 17, their daughter, Tina, began college in pursuit of a degree in biology, while her younger brother was enrolled in high school. Upon graduation Johnny would take up culinary studies before setting his sights on a business major.

“Life was good in the USA,” said Agnes, adding that her children loved living among such freedoms that “Americans are so blessed to enjoy.”

Tragedy strikes

August 2008 would be a hectic yet exciting time for Agnes and her daughter as they attended to the details of Tina’s upcoming wedding. In an instant, though, that joy turned to tragedy when the two were met at their doorstep by a detective seeking information regarding a homicide. He stated that the unidentified body in question was believed to be that of Johnny.

“My knees were weak, I was sweating and my heart was racing,” Agnes said.

“I felt I was going to faint. I braced myself for the worst. I really wanted to believe my son was still alive and that they had the wrong person. It was not until my Tina looked at the picture and identified my son’s face that I knew he was gone. My whole world came crashing down. I felt I was in a horrible dream, and I wanted so desperately to wake up,” Agnes said.

Pope Francis on dealing with death
“In the People of God, by the grace of his compassion granted in Jesus, many families prove by their deeds that death does not have the last word: This is a true act of faith. Every time a family in mourning — even terrible mourning — finds the strength to guard the faith and love that unite us to those we love, it has already prevented death from taking everything. The darkness of death should be confronted with a more intense work of love. ‘My God, lighten my darkness!’ is the invocation of evening prayer. In the light of the resurrection of the Lord, who abandons none of those whom the Father entrusted to him, we can take the ‘sting’ out of death, as the Apostle Paul says (1 Cor 15:55); we can prevent it from poisoning life, from rendering vain our love, from pushing us into the darkest chasm.”

For Tina the disturbing image of her younger brother, who had been shot twice and his body burned, will remain etched in her mind.

More shocking news was delivered later at the police station, as they were informed the suspect, now on the run and desperately trying to flee the country, was no stranger to the family. Craig Joel Bolah was Johnny’s close friend and had shared many meals at the Fernandes’ home. Claiming his parents were deceased, Craig had been welcomed into the family. After a week on the run and crossing 21 state lines, Craig was arrested for Johnny’s murder. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 25 years for murder and 35 years for arson.

‘Whole world was shaken’

A year after Agnes lost her only son, a middle-of-the night phone call would leave the grieving mother in a state of disbelief once again. After offering to help a friend at a convenience store for a few hours, Joe informed his wife he’d be home around midnight. Restless and unable to sleep when she reached for her husband and found he was not home, Agnes began frantically calling his cellphone. At 2:45 a.m. she received the call that there had been a robbery; her husband had been shot. Four young boys had come in to rob the store, and when Joe was unable to open the cash register quickly enough, he was killed.

“Overnight my life changed, and my world was falling apart,” Agnes said. “When Johnny died I felt a piece of my heart went with him. The pain was so intense that at times I felt no pain at all. Then, when Joe died, half of me went with him. My whole world was shaken, so I turned to God for comfort, strength and healing.”

Agnes’ son-in-law, Mark Scott, addressed the court at the sentencing of the teen who had pulled the trigger and killed his father-in-law. Mark had much to convey, mostly about the gentle man who shared his passion for music, hugged him at the door with each goodbye and never missed an opportunity to share his faith.

A man who worked hard to provide for his family, Joe still found time to attend daily Mass, Mark noted, adding that Joe’s faith was the center of his life. Having lost his parents at a very young age, Joe wanted to be “father to everyone,” Mark said. “Joe understood sacrificial, selfless love. He would have been more than willing to die knowing that the young men who did this to him would turn to God.”

Three of the teens were sentenced to life in prison without parole for their roles in the murder of Joe Fernandes. Because of his cooperation with police, the fourth received a 12-year sentence.

While acknowledging that she could have turned away from God, Agnes contends she never “got angry with or blamed God.”

“I firmly believe only God can heal,” she said. “I reached out to him in utter desperation, faith and trust,” adding that she found strength in prayer, Eucharistic adoration and the holy Eucharist.

Strong in faith

The journey toward forgiveness and healing is a continual one that begins even before Agnes gets out of bed each day. Reciting the words of the Miracle Prayer, she declares her forgiveness for those who murdered her loving husband and their only son.

Agnes, keenly aware that healing is largely about ministering to others who grieve, is determined to see something beautiful born of such horrific tragedies. Last August, eight years after the death of her son and seven years after the death of her husband, Agnes opened the doors to the first Grieving Families ministry, a support group for families who have tragically lost a loved one through murder, suicide or sudden death.

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Claiming to be “no public speaker,” Agnes also has begun telling her story. From Catholic retreats and conferences to courthouse addresses during National Crime Victims Week and through her most recent work in prison ministry, Agnes has been moved to speak.

Before unveiling portraits of both her son and husband, Agnes concluded a recent talk with the following: “God gives us the strength to carry our crosses in life if we open our hearts to him. As my husband always said, ‘Who are we to question God’s will? When God puts a period in our life, who are we to ask a question?’ I wish no evil on the killers who brought such pain and despair to our family. I only pray they reconcile with God.”

Jan Petroni Brown writes from Texas.