When most people hear about a stereotypical “large Catholic family,” they might picture a van that seats six or eight kids. Most wouldn’t think of having so many great-grandchildren that you’ve lost count.
But this is reality for Pat Klingbeil of Colorado.
Pat has nearly 50 great-grandchildren (an estimate she gave that was confirmed by one of her more mathematically talented daughters), having given birth to eight children and raised a total of 11.
“Parenting is a career,” she says, “and it has a lot of paybacks.”
One of the many signs and newspaper clippings hanging throughout her house bears the first half of that same message. Another, tucked amid jokes about Irish heritage and a morning prayer hanging above her coffee pot, depicts a mother surrounded by rambunctious children: “Lord, give me the strength to endure my many blessings!”
And her many blessings, along with the trials in which they have sometimes appeared, are something of which Pat often speaks in these conversations: “See how God works” and other such phrases are constant refrains of hers.
“It’s certainly been an adventure,” she said of her family. She paused before saying: “It’s what I always wanted to do, since I was old enough to know better. I always wanted to be a mom. So, to be blessed with a large family is just incredible.”
Dinnertimes at Pat’s are rarely low-profile events, as many nights out of a week the kitchen is packed with friends, former boarders, and most of all, her extensive family.
Pat was born in Aurora near Denver and just north of where she lives now, on St. Patrick’s Day in 1933 to an impoverished family.
She discussed coming to a knowledge of God’s love, saying it was an awareness that slowly grew in her life, and came largely through her family: “having babies, giving birth, living the wonder of life, of having that experience.”
“I don’t think there was ever an ‘ah-ha!’ moment. I think it just began to develop in me. And as I lived, and as my children grew and all, I began to experience the presence, the presence of God.”
Pat speaks often of this presence of God. Far from being simply a nice Catholic slogan to her, it is something she always turns backs to, not only when talking about the joys of life, but also its sorrows.
“If there is a God, then you believe that he will not abandon you,” she says.
And the stories Pat tells reveal this clearly.
A growing family
Pat raised four of her grandchildren, after their parents (her stepdaughter and son-in-law) were murdered after a Fourth of July party in the early 1980s.
Neighbors and even families in Utah filed to take the kids, but only volunteered for one or two. However, the coroner promised Pat that she and her husband would be the ones to raise them.
“When all else fails, God’s still here, and I can still say, ‘Help me,’ and he does. And the best part of that is that he’s always allowed me to see that he’s helping me.”
And so the four grandchildren joined the family, and their grandparents became their mom and dad.
“When I became mamma to them, there was so much that need to be cared for and loved for, that I had to give myself to them,” Pat says.
Sadly, however, another trial waited which God would bear them through. A few years later, in 1988, her husband received a diagnosis with cancer. The eldest of the adopted grandchildren asked her new mom, “How many of my parents does God want to take away from me?”
Doctors gave him at most 18 months to live.
“And that’s what he took. He took 18 months,” says Pat.
He passed away in a hospital with Pat at his side.
“Everybody in the family, and close friends, all said, ‘What are you gonna do? What are you gonna do?’” Pat says.
“Well, you do whatever God sent you. And he takes care of it. If you ask him to take care of it, he takes care of it.”
Decades later, in 2004, Pat was invited by some friends to a Thanksgiving dinner. One of these felt it would be good for her to meet her boyfriend’s brother, Roger.
“We had dinner at their house on Thursday night, and when he walked me to my car, he said, ‘Well, will I see you again? Because I’m going back to Washington on Monday.’”
Pat offered for him to call her sometime.
He did so the next day, asking her to dinner.
After a meal where they both expressed distaste at the food, Roger walked Pat to her car.
“He said, ‘Can I kiss you goodnight?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t think so.’ I don’t know where I was.”
The next day, Sunday, he came to Pat’s house, and the two simply chatted.
After he returned to Washington, the two stayed in touch over the phone. When Roger came back in town a couple weeks later, Pat invited him to her daughter and son-in-law’s house warming.
“Really and truly, I totally believe it, I’ve always told him: he fell in love with my family, and he wanted to be a part of my family.”
In 2005, Roger moved to Denver, and the next year they set the wedding date for August 13, the day after Pat’s grandson Matt married.
“We really did have a good time,” Pat says of their travelling the country and golfing together.
In 2010, the couple were staying a few nights in Estes Park on the way back from Washington. One day while they were there, Roger pointed out a swell on his stomach to Pat.
The two came home, saw a doctor the next morning, and received an MRI immediately.
It was her second time hearing the news of a spouse’s cancer diagnosis. This time, it was stage 4 liver and gallbladder cancer.
“It was harder because it was so hard for him,” Pat says. “He just cried, and he said, ‘I don’t want you to have to go through this again.’”
The doctors said he might live six months, but more likely around three weeks.
But just like her first husband, Roger lived the full time, passing away six months later on October 28.
“It’s a different experience this time,” Pat says.
She told me Roger’s story sitting in the living room by the backyard patio. When we had wrapped up our chat, she stood up and indicated a Divine Mercy image hanging above the wall. In front of this image, here in that room, she told me, she had prayed for Roger hours before he died in his hospice bed two rooms over.
Difficult circumstances, unexpected blessings
As a young mother while her first husband was serving overseas, Pat became pregnant after being raped. Her husband managed to secure a re-assignment in the States, and the young family moved to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
There, the family met a priest sympathetic to the situation, who found a couple willing to adopt the child. Pat delivered the child, who was then delivered to his new family.
“It doesn’t matter how that life is in you,” Pat says. “It matters how you nurture that life and allow it to grow in God’s image in likeness, and go on with your life in a proper way.” Pat has in years since given talks to young people which discuss, among other things, the challenges and beauty of adoption.
Around the year 1980, having been given his birth certificate by his adoptive mother, this son of Pat’s, named Joe, began searching for his birth mother. With the advent of the internet, he began using online genealogy tools and was able to hunt down her contact information.
Pat tells the story:
“Late morning, I answered the telephone, and this soft, quiet voice said, ‘This is not a business call, this is a personal call. My name is Joseph John Gongalski. I am calling looking for a Patricia Klingbeil. I was born at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.”
Pat cut across him at this point: “And you weighed seven pounds, four ounces.”
As Pat tells it, Joe went “blubbery” at this point in the conversation.
They arranged for Joe, along with his wife and one of their sons, Matthew, to come to Pat’s birthday party on March 17, an annual event which draws family from across the country and friends from across the Denver area, packing the house.
Joe and his family arrived a couple of days early, and Pat, in her usual Irish mischief, had an idea.
“I decided that I would pull a trick on him.”
Grabbing Roger’s old cane, she hobbled out the door, bent halfway over, and made her way meekly across the lawn, surrounded by family armed with cameras.
“When we saw the car pull up, I went out across the lawn. He had gotten out of the car and was coming in between the cars on the driveway. And I’m coming across the grass with the cane and I’m bent way over, like a real old lady.”
From her feigned stoop, she could see Matthew over the cars.
“In that one glance, I could see his expression of, ‘Oh my God, look at her.’ It was just horror that was on his face!” she remembers, laughing.
“As Joe came out from between the cars, I threw the cane and ran to him.”
When Joe shows the video to church groups, audiences typically believe they’ve witnessed a miracle.
“I think that was the cream of it all,” says Pat, still laughing.
Joe and his wife Joanna now make regular visits to Pat from where they live in Michigan.
If you started from Pat’s name on a family tree and counted all the members extending below her, you’d count over 100 names. Among them would be kids, grandchildren raised as her kids, great-grandkids not yet born, a whole family rejoined after Joe’s search climaxed on her birthday one year: members lost, and members gained.
“See how God works,” as she says.