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Grandpa’s rosary

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Aaron Sinn

This story is inspired by the life of my grandfather, Dayton Kjonaas, who passed on April 12 at the age of 92. A member of the “Greatest Generation,” he was a member of the U.S. Army 1st Armored Division during World War II.

Grandpa was a quiet, patient Minnesota Norwegian. Grandma “Jo,” his wife of 63 years and mother of 10, was a stout German-Bohemian who brought out the best in Grandpa. I never knew Grandpa “Guy” prayed the rosary, even though Grandma’s rosary collection would cover the dining table!

In 2005, my newly married wife Tiffany and I visited their home in North St. Paul. Visits to Grandpa and Grandma’s house always involved visiting at the dining table. In the middle of small talk, Grandpa said he wanted to give me something. He taught me how to be a pack rat, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

When he returned, he had tears welling in his big blue eyes. “I want you to have my rosary,” he said. I had never seen him cry before, and with a lump in my throat I thanked him for it. It is a simple wooden bead rosary, with a dark brown tarnished finish and a slender crucifix. Each bead is worn and faded from years of prayer.

He continued: “When I was in Italy [during the war], there was an old woman who offered an extra bed to me. When I left her house, she gave me this rosary and said it would protect me. I wasn’t Catholic then, but I figured it couldn’t hurt and I [had] it the rest of the war.”

By this time, I had tears welling, too, and the story was etched into my memory forever. That was his first experience with a rosary, and I’m sure that devoted old woman said a few extra decades for Mary’s intersession during those terrible years.

Vatican encounter

After hearing more about his war experience, I have no doubt our Blessed Mother was with him. In another chapter of his WWII memories, his unit split up to search the Vatican for German soldiers. Grandpa searched room by room and found a clergyman sitting at a desk. Speaking basic Italian with rifle in hand, Grandpa asked where the German soldiers were. The startled clergyman stated there were no Germans present. He asked Grandpa if he knew who he was, and obviously Grandpa didn’t think he was a German or there would have been trouble. The man was Pope Pius XII, who offered his blessing and thanks to my grandfather.

With that well-used rosary and the papal blessing, Grandpa survived his WWII campaign from Italy all the way to Germany. His account of near-death experiences is astounding; he was surely blessed and fortunate. At the end of the war, he tried returning to thank the old woman, but her home was destroyed. He never saw her again.

Bringing the rosary back to Minnesota, Grandpa soon married my grandmother while still a Lutheran. He converted to Catholicism and they raised eight children, buried two little babies and became lifelong members of St. Peter in North St. Paul. Grandpa didn’t appear to be a devout Catholic in my memories, but his quiet devotion to the rosary and Grandma’s rosary collection inspired me to learn and practice it with my family.

On the Saturday of his passing, he was at the V.A. Hospital and was only given 24 hours to live. I went to visit as soon as possible. His rosary didn’t enter my mind until my wife put it in my hand before I left my house. He was surrounded by most of his children and many grandchildren.

At his bedside, I asked my mom if we could pray a decade with his rosary, and she invited others to join in. We struggled to get the words out; it was sorrowful and beautiful at the same time. My mom put the rosary around his hand just before he quietly passed away. This sacramental will forever be a piece of our family’s history and Grandpa’s faith.

Each Hail Mary prayer is like a rose given to the Virgin Mary and ultimately to Jesus. Gathering our roses like a master florist, Mary creates perfect bouquets to honor Jesus. Knowing the mysteries of the rosary means knowing the life of Jesus. Thank you, Grandpa and Grandma.

Sinn and his wife Tiffany have four children. They are members of St. Peter in North St. Paul.