In Your Midst

The Pew Next to You

Xmas 2006

Meet Gwen Johnson and the Conte Family--Laura, Rich, Gabriella, and Francesca

Gwen Johnson and the Conte FamilyGwen Johnson described where she sits every Sunday morning at the 8 o’clock Mass as her “parish within a parish,” but her twin sister Carolyn Schmidt says it is her “neighborhood.” “I like the sound of the word neighborhood,” Gwen said. “It’s safe and friendly, it is where I come each Sunday.”

Gwen’s “neighborhood” is the back pew in the west nave.

Joining Gwen each Sunday are Laura and Rich Conte and their daughters, Gabriella, 9, and Francesca, 6 1/2.

Gwen has been a parishioner at St. James Cathedral since 1990.  Rich and Laura were married here in June of 1994 by Father Ryan.

But Gwen and the Contes didn’t meet until Gabriella was born almost nine years ago.  Then, Rich and Laura moved from their customary spot up front to have a quick access to exit, if necessary.  It was not long before Gabriella was captivating those sitting around her, and most of all, Gwen.

Gwen is a Seattle native with parents and grandparents who lived on Queen Anne Hill. Her grandparents started the Queen Anne Hardware that is still operating on top of the hill. Gwen and Carolyn went three years to St. Anne School until their parents, Ainar and Lorraine Johnson, moved the family to Christ the King Parish where the twins grew up.

Gwen’s career in telecommunications began at Pacific Northwest Bell.  Stops along the way have been with AT&T, Qwest and Boeing.  Now, she’s at Verizon.  When Gwen moved downtown from Edmonds she registered at St. James Cathedral and found her place in the back pew. She prefers this spot as she sees and hears all that happens in the whole cathedral. Gwen is especially fond of organ music as her mother was the organist at St. Anne’s Church, played for the Carmelite Nuns in Shoreline, and at other parish churches in the area. She also directed several choirs.

Laura and Rich are both from the East Coast, Laura from New York and Rich from Pittsburg. They met in New York where Rich was an agent with the FBI and Laura, a staff member.  Rich had been sent to the Northwest previously and he liked the area so much he put in a request to be assigned in Seattle. That took several years, but in 1993 he was in Seattle and at St. James.

Laura remembers how their friendship in Gwen’s neighborhood grew. First Gwen brought Gabriella a Christmas trinket and then a Valentine and as holy days and holidays came and went with shared stories and parties, they all realized their relationship was deeper than just sharing a pew.

Francesca joined them after her birth in January 2000. Laura and Rich had named her for St. Frances Cabrini and knew that this saint had often worshiped in the cathedral. After Father Ryan had baptized Francesca, he carried her over to the saint’s shrine for an introduction and photos.

It seemed no time before Gabriella started school at St. Louise and made her First Communion (this past May).  Now Francesca is in the first grade.  Patty Barnes and Terry Mondhan, ushers in the west nave,  watched the girls grow from infancy to school-age.  Recently, they invited them to help out. Gabriella said for her first time, Terry held one door open and she the other. Patty made it official by presenting them with their own personalized usher badges. Now they help on St. Vincent De Paul Sundays and often stand with Patty or Terry at the doors with the Sunday bulletins.

Both are in cross- country at school and take ballet lessons. Francesca also is on a soccer team. Laura coaches the school’s cross-country team for the older girls. She has volunteered with the ESL program and is on a parish team of women that prepare and send out cards to parents of recently baptized children and to couples on the first-year anniversary of their wedding at St. James.

Over the years, Laura and Rich’s families have come from New York and Pittsburgh to celebrate holidays with Gwen and her Seattle family. Whenever they have gathered together at the altar table and the family table, it has been a true celebration. A fun event is the almost annual tea party in May at Contes’ Bellevue home. Guests are other mothers and daughters and Gwen.

Gwen remarked on how St. James keeps growing and changing. She said when she first came to St. James there were no children in the back pew. Now it is a safe haven for several more families.

The past several years have been difficult for Gwen and Carolyn as they saw their parents age and die within nine months of each other.  Lorraine Belcourt Johnson died on December 4, 2005 and Ainar Johnson on September 3, 2006. Their Funeral Masses were celebrated at St. James.

Gwen said one thing that helped her during this time has been the support and love of Laura and Rich and Gabriella and Francesca.

“I look into Gabriella and Francesca’s eyes,” Gwen says, “and they look right back at me with such acceptance and love.”  t

Joan McDonell is a Marriage Tribunal Advocate at St. James Cathedral as well as a daily volunteer in the Cathedral Parish Office.

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