Paul Moore: A birthday prayer party at grotto delivers the ‘best present ever’

The "rainbow connection" seen at Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto in Germantown Hills. (Provided photo/Julie Vonachen)

In My Father’s House / Paul Thomas Moore

Donna Vonachen Abdnour was born into Heaven on Oct. 25, 2021. Just a little more than two weeks previous, friends and family celebrated her final birthday on this side of Paradise. There were no streamers, ribbons, cake or ice cream — but those in attendance will never forget it.

Donna’s birthday prayer party was held Oct. 7 at the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto with the permission of St. Mary of Lourdes Parish in Germantown Hills. The guest of honor was too ill to attend. Donna had been battling various cancers bravely, with all-too-short intermissions between bouts, for about 20 years.

Her devoted sister and cheerleader, Julie Vonachen, had organized the gathering on . . . where else? . . . Facebook, and had arranged to stream the video of the gathering on the platform. (Thank you, Mark Z. — your much-maligned company does have its blessings). As such, Donna was able to tune in from home along with many of her near and far-flung family members and friends.


In her introduction to the event, sister Julie shared that the shrine, set beside the church on a hill in the aptly named Germantown Hills, was very special to her and Donna’s family. As well, she and Donna had often prayed there regularly on Tuesdays for healing.

Still, Julie had found out something surprising from Donna when they visited the grotto following Donna’s most recent cancer diagnosis. They were sitting together quietly on the bench in front of the statue of Mary, and Donna confessed, “I never pray to Mary.” (Julie notes that Donna’s birth name is Madonna.)

She turned to her beloved sister, “You never pray to Mary? You have to pray to Mary . . . Mary’s so powerful!”

So, they started to pray to Mary. Julie recalled, “As we prayed, it started to rain.” Sensing a sign in the making, Julie led Donna out into the rain at the edge of the grotto. She prayed, “Mary, if you hear our prayers show us a sign.”

The rain stopped, the clouds parted, but . . . no rainbow. No problem. They knew they’d been blessed by the prayer anyway.

Later, Julie handed some pictures she’d taken at the grotto that day to a cousin (they have a big family) who had never been to the grotto. Flipping through, the cousin suddenly stopped, “Well . . . there’s your rainbow.” As Julie says, “One of my pictures had a beautiful rainbow going right through it.”


And so, on this day in the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, the assembled prayer partiers on site and online laughed and cried a bit — and offered it all to God. Julie read from some prayer cards handed down by their late Mom, Patricia, another kind of rainbow connection. We sang “Amazing Grace,” and grace was at home among us.

It struck me that every occasion where we gather to receive and give God’s love to and through one another is a kind of prayer party. It’s what happens at a baptism, a first Communion, or a marriage — I daresay even a first confession. It’s all about inviting God into our lives, and the lives of those we love. The most treasured gifts come wrapped in a rainbow ribbon of prayer.

As Donna said of her prayer party, “Best present ever!” A cradle-to-grave Catholic whose life revolved around faith and family, no doubt she might also have agreed with the description, “Best Presence ever.”

PAUL THOMAS MOORE is a Catholic commentator and singer-songwriter. He and wife Mary Louise attend St. Mary of Lourdes Parish in Germantown Hills. He can be reached at

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