Now, at the age of 70, she is ready to move from her Zoroastrian upbringing and embrace her new faith by being baptized at this year’s Easter Vigil on April 15. To make the conversion all the sweeter, the sacrament will be performed by her son, Fr. Hezuk Shroff, who became a Catholic priest six years ago.
Born in Lucknow, in the Himalayan foothills, Shroff’s family moved to Calcutta when she was two.
She recalled her grandfather had pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Anthony of Padua on the altar where he said his Zoroastrian prayers.
She remembers her grandfather and her father would go every Tuesday to the local Catholic Church to leave a loaf of bread, candles and flowers as an offering.
When she was nine, her father asked her if she wanted to attend a boarding school in Uttar Pradesh, not far from where she was born. She chose to go, even though it was a two-day train ride from home. The school was run by German and Irish nuns, though most of the students were Hindu or Muslim. Only six were Catholic. Shroff was the only Zoroastrian in the class.
Zoroastrianism is the ancient religion of Persia, before Islam became dominant, founded about 1,500 years before Christ. Once one of the world’s most dominant religions, it reportedly now has less than 200,000 followers, including several thousand in Canada.
Fr. Shroff said the religion is also called Mazdeism because God is called Ahura Mazda, though it is often also referred to after one of its major prophets, Zoroaster.
Zoroaster taught of a great cosmic battle between good and evil, light and darkness. Fr. Shroff said its tenets can be summed up in its motto: “Good thoughts, good words and good deeds.”
When Shroff first arrived at boarding school, she noticed a huge chapel at the top of the hill. Inside was a huge crucifix and three candles. She remembered thinking, “I wish I could belong to this faith.”
The nuns did not teach the Catholic faith to those from other religions. Instead they studied ethics or moral science, Shroff said. She wanted to learn more, but was told, “Ask your parents.”
She never did. “I thought they wouldn’t agree.” Interestingly, before her father passed away 12 years ago, she asked him what he would have said if she had approached him as a young girl about converting to Catholicism.
“No problem!” he told her. “You’re asking me that now?”
Shroff and her husband Pesi, also a Zoroastrian, emigrated to Canada when Hezuk was four and her daughter Pearl was almost two.
Conversion was “always at the back of my mind,” she said.
Even so, she decided to go beyond being a cultural Zoroastrian so she could master the complex prayers in Avesta, the ancient language of Zoroaster.
“Most of our people in the modern generation can barely pronounce most of the words,” she said. She still wears the sacred muslin vest, an undergarment that Zoroastrians believe protects against evil spirits. She said she will remove it at her Baptism.
Interestingly, Shroff will be baptized on the same date her priest-son Hezuk was baptized 22 years ago.
Fr. Shroff had converted to the Christian faith while studying biochemistry at McGill University in Montreal through the witness of a Pentecostal roommate who introduced him to Jesus. Like his mother, he was drawn to the Eucharist and the Virgin Mary. His reading about the Christian faith led him to become a Catholic, and after some time considering monastic life, he decided to become a diocesan priest.
While Shroff was happy her son became a priest, she did not make her own decision to convert until last spring.
Her decision was accompanied by a sign, she said. It was a week after Easter last year, and she was standing with her husband by a statue of the Blessed Virgin at Good Shepherd Parish where her son is pastor. She was holding the statue’s hand, asking Mary if her husband would accept her conversion to the Catholic faith. Intuitively, she felt Mary answer, “He has no choice but to accept it. It is God’s will.”
Then, she felt something fall at the back of her wrist. It was a tiny burgundy-coloured chrysanthemum. She looked at the statue’s feet to see if there were any flowers there. Then she felt her gaze directed towards the altar and there she saw similar flowers. She says she asked herself how the flower landed on her wrist, and heard the inward voice of Mary tell her: “I put it there. You are mine, but moreso you are my Son’s. I have known since you were a child.
“But first you had to grow up, get married and have a son who would grow up to be a priest because he’s supposed to baptize you.”
Shroff, who describes herself as an intuitive person, says she feels the presence of Jesus and Mary all the time.
She had a moment during a Mass when the priest consumed the Blessed Sacrament and she “felt something pass through the crown of my head and I felt (Jesus’) presence infiltrate me,” she said.
“I heard His voice saying, ‘I am the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Receive me’.”
She also recalled one time seeing a vision of the Sacred Host in a Monstrance right before her eyes, and intuitively she heard, “You may not be able to come to me every time, but I will come to you.”
Though her husband is not prepared to leave the Zoroastrian religion, he drives Shroff to church and “is a big fan of the Virgin Mary,” she said.
Fr. Shroff said he is only learning many of these things from his mother’s past now as she prepares to enter the Catholic Church. “I’ve never seen my mother as happy as she is now,” he said.
“Her desire was always with being respectful of others, respectful of her parents, of my dad,” he said. “Eventually the time came where she decided she has to follow the will of God.”