Rochester Hills — Nancy Carabio Belanger went to attend daily Mass one morning several years ago, but the priest never arrived.

The priest, who was a substitute that day, had merely gotten lost. But still, as Belanger sat staring at the empty celebrant’s chair on the altar, she “felt an incredible sense of sadness — what are we going to do if there are no priests to fill these chairs?”She envisioned “all these empty altar chairs without priests, and started praying about the future.

”The Rochester Hills author of two ‘tween books, “Olivia and the Little Way” and “Olivia’s Gift,” Belanger felt God say “I want you to do something about this.

”“I thought, ‘I’m just a suburban mom who writes for kids,’” she told The Michigan Catholic, but said she did start praying about the situation, and began to pray more strongly for vocations to the priesthood.

Belanger’s heroine of her two previous books is a young girl named Olivia, but she had been receiving requests from parents and kids alike to write a story with a male protagonist.

Eventually, she realized she needed to write a book “celebrating the dignity of the priesthood” — a book which became “The Gate.

”“I struggled with it for a couple years; I felt it was my most serious book; ‘should I be writing this?’” she remembered. She enlisted several priests to read it, including one priest who took the whole manuscript and read it on a plane ride to Italy.

Belanger has a strong devotion to St. Therese, which largely inspired the writing of her two other books, but this book drew her to St. John Bosco, patron saint of boys, as she created the character of eighth-grade, smart-alecky “Josh.

”Josh, who spends most of his time on video games and getting into trouble, encounters a different perspective on life when he meets a local senior citizen as part of a class project.

The senior citizen, “Pie,” is a feisty Catholic and New York Yankees fan, and challenges Josh to see life as a spiritual battlefield — bringing the boy to a greater awareness of his faith and calling as a Catholic youth.

Published only last year, “The Gate” recently won the Catholic Press Association’s first-place award for novels, and also became a recipient of the Catholic Writers Guild Seal of Approval.

Belanger said she never dreamed her book would win an award: “When I found out my jaw dropped. I’ve won in children’s categories before, but never out of all of the novels. I just started to cry, (it was) a huge honor and quite a huge success.

”“When you look at society now, being Catholic isn’t the most popular thing,” Belanger said. “I write to show these children that being Catholic is not always easy, but it’s something to celebrate and love.

”She said she has received terrific feedback from parents and teachers alike, as well as “the sweetest letters” from child readers. She has visited several schools, homeschool groups and participated in book signings, which she enjoys very much.

Belanger said she studied journalism and English education at Michigan State University, and always thought if she did any kind of writing it would be journalism, never thinking she would pursue fiction writing.

As mother herself, she says she cannot believe how the Lord has blessed her through the experience of writing for kids.

“I’ve been praying so much that my readers are drawn to God through my work,” she said. “I kind of think of myself as an instrument of him; that’s really helped me grow close to God when I see the fruits of my labor.

”Discuss the book

To obtain a PDF discussion guide for “The Gate,” “Olivia and the Little Way” or “Olivia’s Gift,” email info@harveyhousepublishing.