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What One Catholic Doctor Taught Me About Christianity

william fiorini
Dr. William Fiorini

Originally posted in 2015

In the 1960s, the Gerencser family moved to California, the land of promise and a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow. Like many who traveled west, my parents found that life in San Diego was not much different from the life they left in rural northwest Ohio. As in Ohio, my Dad worked sales jobs and drove truck. For the Gerencser family, the pot of gold was empty, and three or so years later we left California and moved back to Bryan, Ohio.

While moving to California and back proved to be a financial disaster for my parents, they did find Jesus at Scott Memorial Baptist Church in San Diego — a Fundamentalist church pastored by Tim LaHaye. Both of my parents made professions of faith at Scott Memorial, as did I when I was five years old. From that point forward, the Gerencser family, no matter where we lived, attended an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church.

Not only were my parents Fundamentalist Baptists, they were also members of the John Birch Society. While in California, my Mom actively campaigned for Barry Goldwater, and later, back in Ohio, she campaigned for George Wallace. Right-wing religious and political beliefs were very much a part of my young life, so it should come as no surprise that I turned out to be a fire-breathing right-wing Republican and a Fundamentalist Baptist preacher.

If the Baptist church taught me anything, it taught me to hate Catholics. According to my Sunday School teachers and pastors, and later my college professors and ministerial colleagues, the Catholic church was the whore of Babylon (Revelation 17), a false church, the church of Satan and the Antichrist. I was taught that Catholics believed in salvation by works and believed many things that weren’t found in the Bible; things such as: purgatory, church magisterium, the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, transubstantiation, infant baptism, confirmation, priests not permitted to marry, praying to statutes, worshiping the dead, and worshiping Mary. These things were never put in any sort of historical context for me, so by the time I left Midwestern Baptist College in 1979, I was a certified hater of all things Catholic.

In 1991, something happened that caused me to reassess my view of Catholics. My dogma ran head-on into a Catholic that didn’t fit my narrow, bigoted beliefs. In 1989, our fourth child and first daughter was born. We named her Bethany. Our family doctor was William Fiorini. He operated the Somerset Medical Clinic in Somerset, Ohio, the same town where I pastored an IFB church. Dr. Fiorini was a devout Catholic, a post-Vatican II Catholic who had been greatly influenced by the charismatic revival that swept through the Catholic church in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a kind and compassionate man. He knew our family didn’t have insurance or much money, and more than a few times the treatment slip turned in after a visit said N/C (no charge).

Bethany seemed quite normal at first. It wasn’t until she was sixteen months old that we began to see things that worried us. Her development was slow and she couldn’t walk. One evening, we drove over to Charity Baptist Church in Beavercreek, Ohio to attend a Bible conference. The woman watching the nursery asked us about Bethany having Down syndrome. Down syndrome? Our little girl wasn’t retarded. How dare this woman even suggest there was something wrong with our daughter.

Bethany continued to struggle, reaching development stages months after infants and toddlers typically do. Finally, we went to see Dr. Fiorini. He suggested that we have Bethany genetically tested. We took her to Ohio State University Hospital for the test, and a few weeks later, just days before Bethany’s second birthday and the birth of our daughter Laura, we received a phone call from Dr. Fiorini. He told us the test results were back and he wanted to talk to us about them. He told us to come to his office after he finished seeing patients for the day and he would sit down and talk with us about the test results.

The test showed that Bethany had Down syndrome. Her Down syndrome features were so mild that the obstetrician missed the signs when she was born. Here we were two years later finding out that our oldest daughter had a serious developmental disability. Our Catholic doctor, a man I thought was a member of the church Satan built and headed for Hell, sat down with us, and with great love and compassion shared the test results. He told us that many miscarriages are fetuses with Down syndrome, and that it was evident that God wanted to bless us with a special child like Bethany. He answered every question and treated us as he would a member of his own family.

This Catholic didn’t fit my narrow, bigoted picture of what a Catholic was. Here was a man who loved people, who came to an area that had one of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in Ohio, and started a one-doctor practice. (He later added a Nurse practitioner, a nun who treated us when we couldn’t get in to see the doctor.) He worked selflessly to help everyone he could. On more than one occasion, I would pass him on the highway as his wife shuttled him from Zanesville to Lancaster — the locations of the nearest hospitals. Often, he was slumped over and asleep in the passenger’s seat. He was the kind of doctor who gave me his home phone number and said to call him if I ever needed his help. He told us there was no need to take our kids to the emergency room for stitches or broken bones. He would gladly stitch them up, even if we didn’t have an appointment.

Dr. Fiorini wasn’t perfect. One time, he almost killed me. He regularly treated me for throat infections, ear infections, and the like. Preaching as often as I did, I abused my voice box and throat. I also have enlarged adenoids and tonsils, and I breathe mostly through my mouth. As a result, I battled throat and voice problems my entire preaching career. One day, I came to see Dr. Fiorini for yet a-n-o-t-h-e-r throat infection. He prescribed an antibiotic and told me to take it easy. He knew, like himself, I was a workaholic and would likely ignore his take-it-easy advice. Take the drug, wait a few weeks, and just like always I would be good as new. However, this time it didn’t work. Over two months, as I got sicker and sicker, he tried different treatments. Finally, he did some additional testing and found out I had mononucleosis; the kissing disease for teens, a deadly disease for a thirty-four-year-old man. Two days later, I was in the hospital with a 104-degree fever, a swollen spleen and liver, and an immune system on the verge of collapse.

An internist came in to talk with my wife and me. He told us that if my immune system didn’t pick up and fight there was nothing he could do. Fortunately, my body fought back and I am here to write about it. My bout with mononucleosis dramatically altered my immune system, making me susceptible to bacterial and viral infections. A strange result of the mononucleosis was that my normal body temperature dropped from 98.6 to 97.0. I lost 50 pounds and was unable to preach for several months.

Once I was back on my feet, Dr. Fiorini apologized to me for missing the mononucleosis. I was shocked by his admission. He showed me true humility by admitting his mistake. I wish I could say that I immediately stopped hating Catholics and condemning them to Hell, but it would be several years before I finally came to the place where I embraced everyone who called themselves a Christian. In the late 1990s, while pastoring Our Father’s House in West Unity, Ohio, I embraced what is commonly called the social gospel. Doctrine no longer mattered to me. Moving from a text-oriented belief system, I began to focus on good works. Tell me how you live. Better yet, show me; and in the showing, a Catholic doctor taught me what it really meant to be a Christian.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    Sounds like a REAL doctor & not a money-grabbing, capitalist asshole; wish he were around here.

    What happened to him? Does he still treat you?

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    Raised Catholic, I was aware that some Protestant Christians looked down on us. Certainly my mom-in-law, an Evangelical Christian, was deeply uncomfortable with her son marrying a Catholic girl in a Catholic church. (I think she’d rather that I were still Catholic than the atheist I am now, but those are the breaks.) When I asked other Catholics what the problem was, they said that the Protestant Reformation happened because the Catholic Church was very corrupt; the Church had fixed itself since; but old enmities die hard.

    I understand much more now about the differences between Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christians, Liberal Christians, and Catholics (they have conservative and liberal subgroups, too). But especially when Mike and I started talking marriage, I was totally puzzled. My future in-laws seemed to like me, so what was the problem?

    Now, after 35 years, the in-laws declare me to be a great blessing to the family, atheism notwithstanding. But religion gave us a rocky start.

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    Interesting you mentioned Tim LaHaye’s church. LaHaye was a Bircher at one point too, and he seems to have clung to their ideology all along. Dr. Fiorini sounds like a wonderful man and physician.

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    Dr. Fiorini sounds like a man who exemplifies what Christianity should be all about (what all humanity should be about, actually.) I’m a lot more impressed with people who actually live their beliefs, rather than just talk the talk while doing the exact opposite.

    Several years ago, one of my cousins was put on bedrest due to pregnancy complications. Her husband had to take on a second job because she had to quit hers, so he wasn’t around much. They were young kids who didn’t have much money, and there was no help coming from her family; her fundie Christian parents basically disowned her because she got pregnant before marriage, and her husband was the wrong color and the wrong faith (Samoan and Baha’i.) At the time she was still Christian, and lots of people at her church said they were “praying for her,” but no one actually lifted a finger to do anything. It was her in-laws, and their Baha’i friends, who actually stepped up to help. They brought her books to read and movies to watch, they helped her with laundry and housekeeping, they brought over meals and picked up groceries for her when they were out shopping for themselves, they even drove her to doctor appointments a couple of times when her husband was unable to. The fact that they actually lived their faith and showed compassion and care instead of just talking talk was the main reason my cousin eventually left Christianity and became a Baha’i herself.

    • Avatar
      Becky Wiren

      I’ve heard the Baha’i believe in equality, not patriarchy, and other good doctrines. Your cousin was fortunate to have her new family.

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    Sister CAritas Strodthoff, ARchivist Holy Family Convent

    To Bruce, if you still read these posts. I remember Bethany! I’m the nun/nurse practitioner that took care of her. I was searching for Dr. Fiorini’s whereabouts and came across his picture on your article. He was a very remarkable man and a wonderful physician. I retired from nursing last year and now work as the archivist for our community in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. I loved my days in Perry County and learned so much from every patient I cared for. I’ve been gone from there since 1996…and I still miss the people and the work. Bless you for writing this article and praising him. He surely deserved it. And thank you for mentioning me, too!! But I do remember her. If you read this and know where Bill is located, please let me know. Thank you.

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    Raised in the RC church and attended a RC school from grade 2 through grade 6. My parents could not afford the tuition so the church allowed my dad (an atheist) work in exchange. From 7th on it was public school because the RC higher grades were too far away (a guess). Mom was more of a cultural RC by then which may have had something to do with it.
    The nuns preached pretty much the same thing as the IF folks. The (insert religion name here) religion wasn’t the TRUE religion. We were instructed not to attend other religion’s services and if attending a wedding or some other type event we were not to sing or otherwise participate.
    Everybody at this RC church, the priests, nuns and laity were straight up selfless and good people. This was in Miami during Pedro Pan and the Diocese did its part to help those kids. Eventually the church built an orphanage next to the school and most of those living there were because of Pedro Pan. They even had a priest who escaped Castro’s murderous thugs. This Priest spoke no English – I spoke no Spanish. Served mass (in Latin, thankyouverymuch) with him many times at 0600 with maybe 3 people in attendance – if anyone. (Priests were supposed to say mass every day.) Early mass was great – quick – no sermon and communion took all of 2-3 minutes. During all this time I never saw or heard of anything improper. Sad to say I guess I was lucky.
    Later on I was introduced to the “All you need is Jesus” crowd. Made sense to me and I believed – and was baptized – again. Later discovered this group was led by someone who was a child molester. Over time I have grown to accept that people that do bad things are everywhere and those that want to control always seem to have their holy book as proof they are THE ONE TRUE CHURCH.
    Reading the many postings here has confirmed what I believe. Anyone that tells you he/she has the answers – DOESN’T – it’s all about control. The only prophesy I’ve heard that proved accurate was “you will most likely die an old man”. This was in response to me trying to tell an atheist that Jesus was coming back soon and he better listen to me.
    “…many false prophets are gone out into the world”. Indeed

  7. Avatar

    Interesting story. I was a member of an IFB in the past and converted to Roman Catholicism last year. Some of my old IFB friends definitely look askance at my conversion, which I see as entering further into authentic Christianity, not farther away from it. The more I studied the history of the Church, the more I realized that the theological views of IFBs are quite novel, and are extremely poorly attested to anywhere in the early years of Christianity. There were very few of the Church Fathers, for example, who believed anything like the “once-saved, always-saved” business.

    • Avatar
      Grammar Gramma

      Keep reading, Dispennett. Keep studying. Keep asking questions. Read Bart Ehrman. Read Richard Dawkins. Read Christopher Hitchens.

  8. Avatar

    For all that Evangelicals make of going to church, compared to Catholic churches their churches are rarely open. An Evangelical church opens for an hour Wednesday night, Sunday morning 1 or 2 hours, Sunday night 1 hour (many open even less). Catholic churches open every day. You got to hand it to Catholics, there is more opportunity for someone to be there for the faithful or the stranger, compared to Evangelical churches which for all their talk, are usually closed.

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    When it comes to the claim of Evangelical churches usually being closed and Catholic churches always being open, that is not always the case. As an aside hostility to the Roman Catholic church as an institution is not limited to Fundamentalist Baptists. Other Non-Catholic Denominations are pretty hostile/ignorant towards Roman Catholic Beliefs or practices. In the diocese of Peoria Illinois Some Catholic parishes have recently closed over the last several years. In the more rural parishes the Catholic population has been moving away from the area and the quality of priests in the smaller towns leaves a lot to be desired. One Catholic parish that in the early 1990’s claimed to have 90 some households affiliated with the parish started to lose members pretty drastically. The parish was located in the easternmost part of the diocese. From 2001 it had no resident priest. The priest serving this parish was already in charge of two other parishes in the same county. In 2011 the listed membership was down to 50 households. in 2016 the membership was down to 30 households and in 2017 there was just 20 households registered to this parish. In 2018 that parish was closed and in 2021 the decision was made that the building was to no longer function as a church. Some nominal members of that parish that passed away did not have their funerals done by that priest. They either had a Church of Christ pastor in a neighboring town of only 200 people eight miles away do the funeral or the visitation was actually held at the Church of Christ building. Also during the early part of the coronavirus pandemic a couple of parishes in Livingston County, Illinois put out notices on the outside of their churches that they only wanted registered members of their parishes attending Mass there and they were not accepting new registrations at those two parishes. This took place in a county of less than 40,000 population and over 1,000 square miles where the odds of any Roman Catholic dying before the age of 60 was usually only due to two causes. Those two causes being motor vehicle accidents or alcohol abuse. As a last unkind comment, it might be that Evangelical Churches are more concerned about their property being damaged when no one is supervising an unlocked building than Roman Catholic Churches are. In the diocese of Peoria since late April of 2021 there have been two separate church fires. The first one took place on April 28 in Mclean County and the the other one took place in Viola in Mercer county, Illinois a few weeks later. Neither fire was accidental and some 12 year old boy was arrested for the fire in Mercer County. The fire in the church in Mclean County was not an accident either but so far the police have no suspects in that case. If the rural parishes in the diocese of Peoria early had a policy of leaving their doors unlocked throughout the day I very much doubt they still keep that practice up. I’ve also hear or read that there have been several church fires in Canada as well that were strongly suspected of not being accidental.

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