Fr. Donald Calloway, vocations director. Courtesy photo

Donald Calloway was 14 when he started using marijuana, alcohol, heroin, opium, cocaine and hallucinogenic drugs. At 15, he was running drugs and money for organized crime in Japan, where his father was stationed with the U.S. Navy. 

He was arrested, deported and sent to a rehab facility in Pennsylvania. When he turned 18, he took off to live a life, he said, of “beautiful girls, great music and getting high.” 

His mother turned to a Catholic friend and found hope in the Church. Two years after LaChita Calloway and her husband Donald converted to Catholicism, their wayward son came to live with them in Virginia because he had nowhere else to go. He was 21, had been in jail and was in crisis. 

“I had come to the end of my rope,” he said. 

Then he read a book on the Virgin Mary. Like his parents before their conversion, he had no faith at all. But there was something about “this beautiful lady who smelled of roses and made children cry” that touched him deeply. He compared it to a spiritual two-by-four that hit him with grace. 

Message of conversion

The once troubled young man is Father Donald Calloway, 39, the vocations director for the Congregation of Marians of the Immaculate Conception in Steubenville, Ohio. He also is an author and speaker who takes his message of hope, conversion and redemption to conferences, retreats, men’s and women’s groups and schools. 

His message particularly hits home when he speaks in jails and rehab centers. 

“There is a certain amount of empathy when I speak to people who have gone through what I have been through,” he said. “I understand what they are talking about, and a lot of times they sense that and feel that they can open up to me a little more, which is very humbling. I think they sense that I am not going to shake my finger and say, ‘How could you do that?’ They think, ‘Wow! He understands!’” 

Father Calloway has been there, done that. 

“I pretty much had no basic understanding of what life was about, as far as responsibility,” he said. “I was living for pleasure and for things that felt good, and it was exciting. I didn’t believe in God and my life was just messed up. When I discovered the faith that impacted how I lived, I cleaned up my act, cut my hair and started behaving like a normal human being.” 

He considered becoming a priest even before he was received into the Church. 

“I was feeling it in my prayers, and I didn’t know what to make of it,” he said. “So I ignored it.” 

But he was drawn to the Marians’ devotion to Mary and their promotion of the Divine Mercy. He was ordained in 2003 and soon after began speaking to groups about his radical conversion, and the graces and the mercies that he has received. 

Universal desire

“God allowed my past for a reason,” he said. “I think that helps me now to preach with passion and speak with conviction from the personal element of having been so far away from the Lord. My past enabled me to become the person that I am — passionate and enthusiastic about the faith, and I am grateful for that.” 

He sees in his global travels that despite cultural differences, people everywhere are hungering for the same message. 

“Some places have a lot of family problems, some a lot of drug problems, some have great poverty,” he said. “But they are all seeking happiness and they are only going to really find it in God. That’s universal.” 

Father Calloway has edited several books on Mary and wrote about his conversion in “No Turning Back: A Witness to Mercy” (Marian Press, $19.95) — whose cover shows him with a surfboard at his feet. 

“My dad was in the Navy, so I was always near water and I grew up surfing,” he said. “Now I travel the world and get to surf all over, and I sometimes wear my Roman collar when I surf.” 

The cover photo’s visual blending of what’s heavenly and being in the world is symbolic of the priest’s role in the Church and a reminder, he said, “that I like to do fun things and I am just like everyone else.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.