From the Salvation Army to Catholicism

This article was posted on: February 14, 2024

Navigating the in-between

Matt and Rachel Sheils were happily serving the Lord as pastors in Canada for what they thought was their lifetime career. Matt was the seventh-generation pastor in his family for the Salvation Army. Rachel left the Catholic Church as a teenager after a Protestant friend asked her difficult questions that she couldn’t answer. Yet today, as self-proclaimed unlikely converts, they are faithful Catholics at St. Ladislaus Parish in Bevent (Hatley), a tiny, tight-knit community located between Wausau, Stevens Point and Green Bay, where Rachel’s father grew up. What led them to change their country, religion and career?

Becoming Protestant Pastors

Matt grew up in a messy, secular family in London, Ontario, Canada, full of half- and step-siblings. When he was 13, his mother, who was considered the black sheep of the family, decided to attend a Salvation Army church out of desperation. After experiencing a powerful encounter with God, she surrendered her life to Him, and her radical transformation was unmistakable. Matt was inspired by his mother’s change, and with guidance and prayer, he also gave his life to the Lord. Even Matt’s atheist stepfather was wrestling with God and eventually decided to devote his life to Him. Within six weeks, Matt’s family was transformed with renewed hope and a purposeful direction. Matt’s parents eventually became Salvation Army officers (pastors), and at age 16, Matt had a vision and felt he was called to be a preacher someday as well.

Rachel was raised in central Wisconsin by very involved Catholic parents. However, she began to question her faith and wanted to distance herself from the Church after being unable to answer questions from her friends about the Virgin Mother and the faith in general. A powerful spiritual experience made her doubt Catholicism even more and solidified her desire to distance herself from it.

Her parents, however, told her she had to remain Catholic until she turned 18 because of their faithful promise to the Church. She continued attending Sunday Mass with her family but remained critical. With a strong devotion to Christ, she read the Bible daily and explored her Protestant friend’s faith. She also researched other Protestant denominations online.

She met Matt in an online Christian chatroom and began researching the Salvation Army. After graduating high school at the age of 17, Rachel moved to Canada to work with Matt at a Salvation Army summer camp. When she turned 18, she began membership classes, and in December, became a soldier (a member with a holiness vow) of the Salvation Army.

“When Matt proposed marriage, I was going to college and he was a delivery truck driver,” explains Rachel. “We were poor, but we knew it was the right thing to do. We were faithful to God, and He was faithful to us and provided richly.” Shortly after getting married, Matt, then 20, and Rachel,19, both started successful careers in Toronto. They bought a house and began their family.

After working in the corporate world for a few years, Matt’s earlier calling to be a preacher weighed on him. He prayed secretly that God would also call Rachel, as in the Salvation Army, married couples serve together in ministry. Soon after, Rachel also felt her own calling from God, and they became officers (pastors). They sold their home, furniture and many possessions to live wherever the Army needed them. For 14 years, the Army sent them around Canada, where the couple spread hope through the Good News and reached out to the lost and the least. 

Seeds Gathered and Sown

For years, Matt had been overworking himself and in their ninth year as officers, he experienced a major physical burnout. Despite hearing God repeatedly telling him to stop, Matt couldn’t say no and continued to work excessively. However, he had to reduce his hours significantly to allow his body to recover. During this time, he felt like God was urging him to seek His truth, so he began studying the Psalms in depth. This inspired Matt to write the entire Book of Psalms paraphrased in his own words, along with a reflection on each. “Studying the Psalms so carefully made me question what I was previously taught,” he says.

A similar seed was planted for Rachel in 2019 when she went on a Catholic pilgrimage to the Holy Land with her mother and sister. During the trip, she was impressed by how well the Catholic Church preserved historic Holy sites. This experience inspired her to ask Father Woodrow (Woody) Pace one of the critical questions she received as a teenager about Mary. Intrigued by his answers and the fact that all the Marian dogmas point back to Christ, she found a new respect for the Catholic Church. However, she still kept it at a distance. “I think it was harder for me than for Matt,” she reflects about the Catholic Church. “Matt was more neutral, whereas I was opposed. Once people leave the Church, I think it is harder for them to warm their heart again to return to it.”

A Crisis of Faith and Practice

Shortly after Rachel returned home to Canada from her trip, a bill was being debated in the Canadian Parliament that would eventually become a new law. The Catholic Canadian Conference of Bishops expressed their concern about the bill in a concise statement. Rachel was impressed and began sharing their statement with other Protestants to raise awareness. Then she stumbled upon the Salvation Army’s response to the same bill. “The Army’s reaction was surprising and confusing,” the couple expresses. “So, we took a three-week leave for personal discernment to understand the bill better.” They traveled to Rachel’s mother in Bevent, where St. Ladislaus Parish provided them with free space for their private retreat.

Soon after returning to Canada, the pandemic struck, and the Salvation Army shut down in-person worship services. The Catholic parish down the road from their Salvation Army church was willing to allow them to gather their people in their building regularly, again for free. However, still feeling unsettled in their hearts, the Sheils requested a one-year sabbatical to seek God’s truth. They traveled back to Wisconsin, where Rachel’s mother again graciously made room for them in her home and, out of respect, Rachel attended Sunday Mass with her.

At each Mass, something surprising was happening deep within Matt and Rachel; each Mass brought mysterious tears to their eyes. They began studying the Old Testament verse by verse under a Jewish theologian, wanting to return to the foundations of the Christian faith. They were amazed at the continuity of Jewish teachings and what they witnessed at Catholic Mass. One day, Matt picked up a random book from the parish library, which turned out to be the Catechism of the Catholic Church. As I read it, I was surprised by how much I agreed with it, the official teachings of the Church,” Matt says.

Rachel and Matt researched the foundations of the Catholic Faith in the Old Testament and then found the Catechism of the Catholic Church on a parish library shelf. 

To Whom Shall We Go?

Rachel’s aunt and uncle, also reverts to Catholicism, encouraged them to consider the Catholic Faith and mailed them an audio recording of Dr. Scott Hahn’s conversion story and a copy of the Coming Home Network’s newsletter. Together, the Sheils listened to Dr. Hahn’s story. He addressed so many challenges to the Catholic Faith. For Rachel, this was the moment when she realized she had to consider the Catholic Church if they were to leave the Salvation Army.

During that autumn, the Sheils were hesitant to attend the Coming Home Network’s retreat for Protestant pastors who were considering Catholicism. However, they eventually decided to attend, albeit reluctantly and cautiously. Each session knocked down barriers they had built up against the Church over many years. By the end of the week, they felt like a veil had been torn from their eyes. For Matt, it included a mystical experience with Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, something he did not previously believe. For Rachel, it was having her childhood questions answered intelligently and allowing her heart to genuinely listen. These experiences brought to mind the words of Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (Jn 6:68)

The Pearl of Great Price

After attending the Coming Home Network retreat, Matt and his adult son Lucas began taking Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) courses. After a year of discernment, the Sheils made a decision they never thought they would make—they resigned from the Salvation Army. On December 29, 2021, surrounded by family and new friends, Matt, Rachel and Lucas were received into the Catholic Church. Their adult daughter Emma and her husband were present, and through the witness of her parents and her own exploration, Emma joined the Catholic Church at Pentecost. Exactly one year later, on Pentecost, Emma’s husband also joined the Catholic Church.

Since then, Matt and Rachel have dedicated three years to theological studies—one year of independent research during their sabbatical and two years to achieve their master of theology degrees through the Augustine Institute. “In the pursuit of Truth, we needed to heal our theology,” explains Matt. “It has been a refreshing journey. The better you understand Truth, the more fulfilling and joyful life becomes.” Rachel adds, “For us, there is joy mixed with suffering because it’s a sacrifice. We’re not working professionally so that we can study full-time, and we’re living humbly to pay for our new education. We’ve found the ‘pearl of great price’ (Mt 13:45-46) and sold everything to get it. It has been worth it!”

Matt says he feels like he is home. “In the Catholic Church, I feel I’m where Truth is protected. There’s a divine security here. It has a testimony of a couple of thousand years and the promise of God upon it (Mt 16:18), even though you may feel the people within the Church may not always act how you think they should.”

Still, amid sacrifice, the Sheils are slowly restoring a barn on family land that Rachel’s grandpa built. “After years of living in big cities, we are thankful to live in the country,” Rachel reflects. “Our hobby farm is a source of joy and little life lessons. The parables of Jesus come alive as we observe our sheep and goats or work the land. We’re learning to find joy in the simple blessings of each day.”

What’s Next?

Matt and Rachel have years of experience ministering to people of all ages but especially to young adults. One of their roles in the Salvation Army was being responsible for the youth department for the province of Quebec. Their duties included helping churches with youth programs, training their teachers, organizing retreats and youth conferences, and running a summer camp whose mission was to spread the Gospel and strengthen staff into faith-filled leaders.

The Sheils have shared several engaging presentations including their complete conversion story followed by a Q&A period. They also presented a program called “Distractions: God is Speaking, Are You Listening?” at a recent deanery youth rally engaging and teaching the audience how to spend less time on media and more time seeking God through prayer.  

“People ask us what we will do next,” they said. “We’re not sure yet. We’ve been asked to teach, but we’re taking this one step at a time. We’re starting to share our conversion story and other speaking topics to help people grow in the Faith.” The Sheils will complete their degree program this spring, feeling equipped with greater tools and truths. “We feel more prepared and eager to support the body of Christ.”

Story by Marcy Stenstrom
Published in the March/April 2024 issue of Catholic Life Magazine

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