If you met Joe Calvert of Vine Grove, Ky., 30 years ago, you may have found him on the University of Louisville campus distributing copies of prominent British atheist Bertrand Russell’s 1927 essay “Why I am Not a Christian.” But today, he’s Deacon Joe Calvert of the Archdiocese of Louisville, and you’ll often find him on his knees in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament leading his parish, St. Christopher in Radcliff. 

Deacon Calvert, 52, was raised Protestant, but by college he had begun living a secular lifestyle and adopted famous atheists such as Russell and George Bernard Shaw as his heroes. His “anthem” was the 1794 poem by British poet William Blake that concludes, “And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, and binding with briars my joys and desires.” 

A different person

The Catholics he met knew little about their faith.  

“I’d ask them ‘Why do you genuflect in church?’ They’d say, ‘Because you’re crossing the middle,’ rather than because Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the tabernacle,” he said. “I admit I said some terrible things about Pope John Paul II and Catholics back then.” 

bishops reciting creed
Deacon Joe Calvert was once an atheist. Photo courtesy of Joe Calvert

His wife of 20 years, Berta, chuckled, “Yes, he was bad. He made fun of the Catholic Church and he was pro-abortion. People who know him today wouldn’t believe it.” 

Oddly enough, it was Buddhist meditation that started him on the road back to Christianity. He was meditating twice daily according to Buddhist practices, when he heard the message: “You will never be happy without Jesus Christ.” 

Additionally, one of his favorite Eastern teachers, Eknath Easwaran (1910-99), recommended reading the poems of St. Teresa of Avila, which gave him a whole new perspective on the Catholic Church. He said, “I was taught that the Catholic Church had choked the life out of women for 2,000 years. But here was a woman who lived around the time of the Inquisition who was joyful, had a brilliant intellect and loved the Catholic Church.” 

He was also impressed by the good example of Catholics he knew. He said they would “emanate a humble goodness, selflessness, and good sense that could come from no other place than the Church.” 

The path to Christ

Calvert began going on Catholic retreats and meeting with priests, including Father Dennis Cousens. Deacon Calvert said, “When I met with Father Cousens, he asked, ‘What do you believe?’ I said, “I believe the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ, I believe the pope is his vicar and I believe in the Real Presence.’ Father responded, ‘Well, that’s a pretty good start!’” 

Deacon Calvert was received into the Church in 1995.  

“I can remember thinking that nothing ever had ever felt so right as this,” he said. 

In 2008, he was ordained a deacon, and today serves at St. Christopher, where Father Cousens is pastor.  

Deacon Harry Prestwood, a close friend of Deacon Calvert’s, said, “Joe’s a great homilist, is knowledgeable and studies constantly, and is compassionate. He’s an invaluable asset to the parish, and I cherish my friendship with him.” 

“It’s amazing. He’s had a 110 percent change. You can’t find a person more devoted to the Church than him,” his wife said. 

Deacon Calvert shares his conversion story from time to time, saying, “I came to the truth out of secular humanism and atheism, followed by Buddhism. But, it really doesn’t matter where you come from, because all roads truly do lead to Rome.” 

He encourages Catholics to learn their faith, and, “Never give up on anyone, even those who are ridiculing us and are condescending to us for being Catholic. They very well may be on the path of conversion, and we just can’t see it.” 

Jim Graves writes from California.