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 | By Mary D. Dillard

Music, the Eucharist, and divorce

How God brought one convert home

“Our culture gives us the permission to think the Church is full of silly old rules, but they’re not silly old rules,” professes Sarah Labriola, professional singer and convert to the Catholic faith. “They’re meant to keep you close to Jesus. They are meant to be a foolproof way to get you to Heaven.”

Of course, Labriola didn’t always feel that way. Back in 2017, she was marking 12 years of marriage to her college sweetheart and helping raise their beautiful daughter. Labriola and her husband were married in the Presbyterian Church, but relatively early in their marriage, the two went through a “period of extreme disbelief,” which saw Labriola disowning her Church of Christ roots.

Being an atheist, however, was never an issue professionally for Labriola. She knew she had to make a living and at times that meant singing in church choirs. One “gig” that was too good to pass up was singing at a little Catholic chapel in Irondale, EWTN’s Our Lady of Angels Chapel. As she started singing with EWTN’s choir, the size of her wallet was not the only thing to change. “Spending time in the presence of the Eucharist profoundly affected me,” she reveals.

The more she sang in the choir at EWTN, the more she felt pulled to Catholicism and less connected to her husband. The two discerned out of their marriage and amicably divorced in 2018.

Following the divorce, besides the initial thoughts of trepidation about her future, she was experiencing a self-described “awakening” in her spiritual life. “The truth,” she explains, “was just thrown out in front of me, and I didn’t know what was going on.”

Naturally, she had a great deal of questions, and wanted some answers. While singing in EWTN’s choir, she met Colin Alexander, a cradle Catholic who was willing to answer her many inquiries. Through their conversations, Labriola learned her “go-to” for all things Catholic had just gone through a divorce and was about to leave for graduate school.

After Alexander relocated for his studies, Labriola found herself calling him to discuss the Catholic faith. The friendship slowly transitioned into a relationship with the two praying the Rosary together over the phone each night.

As can be expected, the intrigue of her spiritual “awakening” did not totally eclipse the reality of her being a single mother, so Labriola sought out singing jobs at local churches. One of those churches happened to be St. Theresa of the Little Child Jesus in Leeds. Not long after being hired by the church, Labriola found herself calling the pastor, Father Gray Bean, to confide her feelings of being “pulled” to the Eucharist.

Father Bean instructed Labriola in the Catholic faith, and at the parish’s 2019 Easter Vigil, she was brought into full communion with the Catholic Church. “That church was really influential in my conversion,” she insists.

On fire for Catholicism, she began to feel spiritually at odds with one of her non-Catholic singing jobs, so she decided to pursue a staff singing position at the Cathedral of St. Paul. It just so happened that Alexander also sang for the Cathedral, so the two were able to grow closer in their relationship. As the relationship began to deepen and become more serious, Alexander said to Labriola, “You know if we ever want to get married, we will both need to get annulments.”

Labriola instantaneously questioned why she would even need an annulment. “It’s just a ‘church’ divorce,” she remembers saying. Since she already had a civil divorce, she felt she didn’t need a “church” one, too. “In the Protestant world,” she explains, “the only context for an annulment is Henry VIII, which is a really terrible context.”

Luckily, Alexander was understanding, and Labriola’s type A personality didn’t disappoint as she delved into the annulment process. After much research, she felt “comfortable” pursuing the annulment process. “Once I had done all the research,” she reveals, “I felt open to it because I realized that it doesn’t do all the things I thought it did: all the things I was taught as a child.”

After reaching out to the Cathedral of St. Paul’s pastor, Father Bryan Jerabek, Labriola was assigned a procurator/advocate, Father Josh Altonji. She and Father Altonji met several times as he walked her through the process. Alexander did the same with his procurator/advocate. Although the timing wasn’t exactly simultaneous, Labriola and Alexander worked through the process together, but it wasn’t a cake walk. “It’s really painful because they make you think about things and talk about things in a way that even therapists can’t,” shares Labriola.

In fact, Labriola contends many stop short of completing the process because it is much easier to rationalize the need to “move on” over “rehashing the past.” The pain, however, is not in vain. Labriola contends “digging in those wounds” is a part of the healing process. She believes the process allowed her and her future husband to “unload” whatever baggage they had from their first marriages.

The healing was most welcome, but the two still were very anxious. “Just because you submit an annulment doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed,” she points out. “I was very anxious because Colin and I had decided that if we couldn’t get married in the Church, then it wasn’t God’s will for us. We really wanted to submit ourselves to the discipline of the Church. If it meant being separated from the sacraments, it was clear we were going to choose Jesus over each other.”

The two clung to the grace of the sacraments, helping them to trust in God and the process. After playing the “wait-and-see game” and watching the mail “like a hawk,” both Labriola’s and Alexander’s annulments were granted. The elated couple immediately knew what their next step was going to be. In June of 2021, Labriola and Alexander were married, and a little over a year later, the newlyweds joyfully welcomed a baby boy.

Looking back at the process, Labriola says, “Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s painful. Did I have to step away for a minute, take a break, and have a good cry? Yes!” That pain can lead many to rationalize the process is just some “silly old rule,” but, for Labriola, her eyes were opened. She was able to realize that the Tribunal is made up of compassionate priests and lay people. “They want what is best for you,” she exclaims, just as Jesus does. “Jesus deeply wants you to be in full communion. He will pursue you if you let Him. He wants you back in - in sacramental life!”