Members of St. Henry Catholic Church call it “the round church on Roundbunch;” and as it rebounds from Hurricane Ike, Director of Religious Education Olivia Dillow, 32, rebounds from something else.
M.D. Anderson is not a place where many young women find themselves, especially for cancer treatment. But there she was, three years ago, talking to doctors and radiologists. Now finished with chemotherapy, she goes back every six months for checkups.
“I appreciate things more than I did in the past,” she says. “Material things don’t matter anymore. The time I spend with my kids and husband and family are the most important.”
Dillow and her husband Tyson, who she met on a blind date, have two children – Julian and Grace. They live in Orange.
As Dillow’s life has changed, so has the church in the year since Ike. Masses take place in the gym these days. Her religious education building has makeshift chairs and desks, and the carpet has yet to be replaced. Attendance is down from the 300 kids who signed up last year. Some members have not returned to town or live full-time in Bridge City.
“We do a little bit of everything,” Dillow says, including Vacation Bible School, Catechism and special guest speakers. To register, call 735-8642. Classes meet Wednesdays at 4:30 p.m. for grades Pre-K to fifth grade; and at 5:45 for grades six to 12.
A Bridge City native, Dillow was baptized at St. Henry but did not attend for 14 years.
“My parents divorced when I was 5 and my mother is not Catholic. But, it is amazing how you always are brought home,” she says. “I returned to live with my dad when I was in the eighth grade.” After that she was active in several youth groups and served on a Diocesan executive youth board for two years.
After graduating from West Orange-Stark High School, she became an aide in the religious education office at St. Henry.
At first, it was thought by radiologists and others that a mass in her right breast was a clogged milk duct – something common for a young woman with a 6-month-old. But after she got to Houston, she was scheduled for surgery and a chemotherapy port inserted.
“It was a Thursday, the weekend of my son’s second birthday,” she says.
“Telling my dad I was having surgery on Monday and that it didn’t look so good was the worst moment of my life. I will never forget the look on his face. The look that I am sure Mary had on her face when she watched Jesus be tortured.”
After the news that her breast cancer had spread, she started chemotherapy.
“Chemotherapy means chemicals as therapy, in other words, poison to treat the cancer … You feel awful, you look not so good and it cost you a fortune. Luckily for me I was surrounding by wonderful friends and great parents and in laws. Many things come with this type of treatment. Hairless, discoloration of skin and nails, and some of them falling off and of course the stare of strangers. The misguided pity directed towards you. But none of this bothered me. The greatest pain of chemotherapy is the isolation from your family … for me especially my children. At this time in their life they were too young to understand why their mother wasn’t with them.”
Some of that lost time included missing her daughter take her first steps. Then as Ike came ashore the storm slammed two trees into a small rent home the family had been staying in. Now a year later, with her treatment finished, Olivia and Tyson own their own house. But the story doesn’t end there.
After spending some time in the insurance business, she was at her computer on Diocese of Beaumont’s Web site, looking at job postings when her phone rang. It was the outgoing director of religious education at St. Henry, who said she had been praying for guidance on someone to fill her position, and every time Olivia’s face is the one she saw.
“This job is like a dream come true for me,” Dillow says. “I have always wanted to work with our youth and grow in our faith. I worried at first, that maybe God had opened this door to me now rather than later, because maybe there wasn’t going to be a later. I struggled with feeling inadequate in my knowledge of our faith, scripture and customs. I felt that I didn’t have the experience needed to continue to lead our youth. But, every time I walk into the door of my office, I know this is where I am meant to be. When I look at the faces of my St. Henry kids I can feel the presence of God. I am on the ride of my life with God at the wheel.
“What cancer gave me was a new lease on life. I wish that I could say, that I don’t worry-but I can’t, every day I live my life as if it were my last. I tell the my family and friends how much they mean to me. I tell my children every day, several times a day that I love them. On this journey of life, God is with us every step. It may not always seem that way, but he is there. He never leaves us. When the world beats us down he is there to carry us; and he chooses to do this through each other. Be still and listen and he will give you peace.”

About Robert Hankins