Professions of Faith: Local lay Catholics on doing work in step with their Christian walk

By Christina Gray

Louis Kolenda was living the high life as a creative director in downtown Manhattan when he had an epiphany over a bowl of room-service lobster bisque.

“Is this all there is?” he asked himself, a question that changed the trajectory of his life and career.

Former flight attendant Mollie Tobias chose a new path born of a tragedy, while stay-at-home mom Heidi Kuhn catapulted to the front of a global campaign for peace.

These local lay Catholics talk about their work, which by chance, providence or intent, springs from their faith and an understanding of their fundamental partnership with God.

Natural outgrowth of a Catholic upbringing

“I do think that a Catholic background prepares you for this type of work,” said Ed Barberini, chief of police for the City of San Mateo.

He and fellow Catholic officers Capt. Dave Peruzzaro, 50, and Lt. Todd Mefford, 52, agree that their faith and families gave them the foundation necessary to choose careers as public servants.

“I learned to treat people with compassion and respect no matter what situation they are in,” said Barberini, 52.

In a force of approximately 120 officers, about 40% are Catholic, according to Barberini.

The best and most effective cops, he said, are those that can “de-escalate” tense situations by knowing how to talk to people.

“You’re not always going to get that pat on the back,” Mefford said. The rewards of police work are a lot like the rewards of great faith. “The reward is at the end of your life.”

Using God-given gifts

“I could never tolerate anyone being in pain,” said Angela Testani, who retired in 2012 after a 40-year nursing career at Mt. Zion Hospital. As a child, she cried at the sight of Christ’s feet nailed to the cross.

The Holy Name of Jesus parishioner advocated for patients by suggesting pain-saving surgical protocols to administrators. She prayed with those who noticed the cross around her neck.

After attending a workshop for Catholics on spiritual gifts, she discovered her tender heart was a reflection of the charism of mercy.

“I’d been doing what God had called me to do all along, and it fit me like a glove,” she said. “When you are truly working with the Holy Spirit, people can sense that.”

With Nigerian priest Father Edward Inyanwachi, Testani co-founded Mother of Mercy Charitable Foundation in 2016 to help alleviate the health care, educational and humanitarian needs of the rural poor in southeastern Nigeria.

A flight attendant supervisor for United Airlines, Mollie Tobias spent countless hours supporting overwrought airline workers after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“That was a really big influence in my life, trying to help people going through a major hardship,” said Tobias, who grew up in a Catholic family in Southern California.

She left United and became a licensed marriage and family therapist, today with a private practice in San Francisco under Christian Psychotherapy Services,

“I specialize as a Catholic faith-based counselor,” she said, though she sees clients of all faiths.

“Sometimes people just want to know you have a belief in a higher power and they feel a little bit more comfortable,” she said. “Others want to be absolutely certain we share the same morals and values.”

Tobias believes in “inviting God into the therapy office.”

“I really believe God is present in our therapy session,” she said. “God can watch over and help shape and guide our conversations.”

Solidarity with the suffering

Even as a child in Iraq, Margaret Petros said she had a “great willingness to fight injustice.”

Her Chaldean Catholic family left for the U.S. in 1979 when Iraq’s then-President Saddam Hussein demanded all Iraqi students study Islam.

Petros spent 20 years as a manager with the Santa Clara County Victim Witness Assistance Center. As a crime victim advocate, she went to bat for the legal rights of survivors of violent crime. Now as executive director of Mothers Against Murder, Petros leads a nonprofit that fights for the rights of crime survivors and their families within the criminal justice system.

“Crime victims and survivors are usually so traumatized by their violent loss that they often don’t have the energy to learn about or fight for their rights,” she said.

Victim compensation is paid with criminal restitution funds, not tax dollars, she said, yet it is too often denied, according to Petros. The sudden need to pay for funeral, legal, medical and other expenses only “adds to the suffering” of a family reeling from the loss of a loved one to violent crime.

“When people are re-traumatized or re-victimized by a violent crime as well as the system that punishes it, society pays the price,” she said.

Petros said she gets down on her  knees and prays when the going gets tough. “I don’t think I could keep going without my strong faith,” she said.

Moving with the Spirit

Heidi Kuhn was a stay-at-home mom of four when she offered an unscripted toast to a group of landmine survivors and activists gathered at her home in San Rafael on Sept. 21, 1997.

The small delegation was in the Bay Area to support a proposed international landmine ban in the weeks after Princess Diana’s death on Aug. 31. Diana had raised global awareness of the scourge of landmines.

“May the world go from mines to vines,” she offered in words that became an invocation of sorts.

The former international affairs reporter wondered if families who lost life, limb and livelihood because of landmines might be better able find to peace and prosperity if grapevines or orchards were planted in the former killing fields.

“It was a Holy Spirit moment,” she said. “It definitely came through me, not from me.”

Roots of Peace was founded in that moment. For the past 25 years, the humanitarian organization has been removing the remnants of war in post-conflict countries and cultivating peace and prosperity to the local farmers who live there.

Louis Kolenda admitted he was “chasing money hard” as Smithsonian Magazine creative director in New York. Black-tie functions and limousine rides were all in a day’s work for the San Francisco native, who said that while he “never rebelled or veered from the faith,” his career in the business world was not totally fulfilling.

“God sent me a message,” he said of his epiphany. “It was definitely a wake-up call, like ‘It’s A Wonderful Life,’ with Jimmy Stewart.”

Kolenda returned to the Bay Area with his family and eventually went to work for Catholic radio station Relevant Radio.

Today, as executive director of YouthSF, he can be seen sporting an orange plastic safety vest on school playgrounds. The secular nonprofit is dedicated to helping underserved students participate in the digital revolution.

Supporting faith and family

“An estate plan not done can rip a family apart,” said Elizabeth Button, a San Francisco probate and estate lawyer whose devout Italian Catholic grandmother factored largely in her career path.

“My Noni wanted no one to fight after she was gone,” she said. “She mapped everything out because she wanted her family to remain a family.”

Without a legal plan, mourning families are often thrown into chaos that multiplies the pain, Button said.

“It’s an interesting way of giving back,” said the St. Dunstan grade school and University of San Francisco Law School graduate. “Mercy is at the heart of it.”

Frank Lavin’s Sicilian grandparents came to San Francisco in the late 1800s, becoming a hard-working fishing family that was among those who established the city’s Fisherman’s Wharf.

“I thought a money market was like a flea market,” joked Lavin, 58, co-founder of Columbus Advisors, a small financial services firm. Its offices are steps from the wharf where his father and uncles toiled as fisherman.

Financial insecurity was a factor in his decision to become a financial adviser.

“We grew up lower-middle-class,” said Lavin, who worked his way through college at his uncles’ seafood stalls. “I wanted to make sure my family was secure and didn’t have to struggle.”

It took some time for him to see how his career is a ministry of sorts.

“People need people like me to help them manage their money and their family’s future,” he said. “God has given our lives and livelihoods to us and he asks us to take care of them,” he said.

Chris Miloslavich was station-jumping on his daily commute from Marin County to San Francisco, where he worked as an audio and video producer and editor during the 1990s.

The cradle Catholic and married father of two landed on Immaculate Heart Radio and said he was immediately “hooked.”

He said he grew up understanding the “what, but not the why” of his faith. When he learned about the Theology of the Body, St. John Paul II’s lectures on the integrated view of the human person including sexuality, “I finally understood the why,” he said.

“Catholic media is really what got me to understand my faith,” said Miloslavich, who opened his own post-production studio, Milomix, in San Rafael in 2003. “I started to feel a real call to be a part of making Catholic media better.” As a creative professional, he perceived of a lot of Catholic media as “unsophisticated and bland.” He founded Creative Catholic Works to help change that, offering creative services and media “through the lens of truth, beauty and goodness.”

Christina Gray is the lead writer for Catholic San Francisco.