Elaine Dawson’s life turned into a nightmare on 17 August, 2000. She received a phone call at work from her husband. Her beloved sister’s house had been burnt to the ground. Her sister, Adelia, and her partner were killed in the blaze.
The fire had been deliberately lit as an act of vengeful murder. Adelia’s three children survived and went to live with Elaine’s family.
Elaine and Adelia were very close as sisters. Elaine says, “We had been through a lot together and our relationship was inseparable.”
This cruel loss weighed heavily on her; no opportunity to say goodbye, no more laughs together, no more playful rivalry. There were only 11 months between them, and people often mistook them for twins; something they liked to capitalise on, to get others confused.
But now Adelia was gone. Elaine describes her emotions: “I felt angry, confused, frustrated and bitter. I felt ripped off and I was in shock… I felt lonely and lost without her. I really didn’t know how I was going to live without her.”
She says she became an “angry person and full of hate towards the person who murdered my sister”.
When the murderer was arrested and charged, he was attacked in prison. This upset Elaine because she didn’t want him to have the easy way out by death, but wanted him to suffer every day with the image of what happened the night he killed Adelia and her partner.
When Elaine saw the murderer in the dock at the Queanbeyan court, she says: “I felt my anger just welling up inside of me. I wanted to yell out all the words under the sun to him and let him know how angry I was and that I would never forgive him for what he had done.”
Elaine blamed everything on God.
She thought her sister’s death was God’s doing. She began to doubt the existence of God. How could he have allowed this to happen to her?
However, by the grace of God she decided to consult a priest in her local parish at St Benedict’s, Narrabundah, in the ACT.
After listening closely to her story and letting her voice all her pain, frustration and anger, the priest encouraged her to attend a healing Mass.
Without in any way knowing about Elaine’s situation the celebrant at the Mass preached on forgiveness and drew an example from a couple who had found it in their heart to forgive the murderer of their daughter.
Elaine accosted the celebrant at the end of Mass. At first she was angry at him, since she thought he had prior knowledge of her situation, since the homily had spoken so directly to her heart.
When she was assured this was not the case, she told him she could never forgive the man who murdered her sister.
The priest gently encouraged her that unless she forgave him, the deep wound inside her would never be healed.
The wound, he explained, was like a cancer that starts small but gets bigger until all your energy would be wasted on hating the person so much, that eventually you could even become physically sick, and would never be healed.
She returned to the priest counsellor and told him everything that had happened. In the meantime she had come across other accounts in the newspapers of Christian people who had forgiven murderers.
Her counsellor said: “I think someone is trying to tell you something.” So she returned to the next healing Mass.
This time the celebrant offered the participants a forgiveness prayer. She read through it, but at first it didn’t seem to apply to her. Then she came to the last part of the prayer:
“Heavenly Father, I especially pray for the grace of forgiveness for that one person in life who has hurt me the most. I ask to be able to forgive anyone whom I consider my greatest enemy, the one who is the hardest to forgive or the one whom I said I would never forgive. Thank you Father, that I am free of the evil of unforgiveness. Let your Holy Spirit fill me with light and let every dark area of my mind be enlightened. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”
Elaine knew immediately she had to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation to ask the Lord’s forgiveness for her hatred, and to gain the power to forgive her sister’s murderer.
She says: “We made the sign of the Cross and then I said, ‘I forgive Timothy Paul Villa for murdering my sister Adelia’.” Elaine recalls: “I felt a great weight lifted from me.”
She then summed up her new wisdom:
“If we choose to forgive we become closer to God because that’s what he wants us to do. If we choose not to forgive then we end up feeling angry and full of hate and we become distant from God … I needed to take control of my life and not let myself be a victim as well … God gives us the grace to forgive.