Throughout the year, the Catholic Herald staff enjoys telling the inspirational stories of people of faith. Several from the last year were especially touching and inspirational. Following, in random order, are our 10 most inspiring stories of 2013.
Ed Slattery, 42, doesn’t stop. The head coach of eighth-grade and assistant coach of the fifth-grade boys’ basketball teams at St. Matthias School, Milwaukee, has coached at the parish for 15 years, even though he’s battling cancer for the second time. His wife of 21 years, Lisa, 42, and their four boys, ages 11, 13, 18 and 20, stayed positive, following Ed’s diagnosis of Stage 2 head and neck cancer in May 2011, and the return of the cancer in June 2012 – even after doctors had to sever a nerve that controls swallowing and speech, causing paralysis on the left side of his mouth. Upon waiting for biopsy results, Ed’s positivity still shone through when people asked how he was. “I tell them, ‘I have God on my side.’ I have a lot more living to do, coaching to do.” (Jan. 24) Sadly, following publication of this piece, Ed, 43, died Jan. 22.
Maria Gonzalez Nuñez, single mother of four, ages 14, 18, 19, 26, worked more than one job and went back to school while going through a divorce 10 years ago so her children could attend Catholic grade and high schools. After her husband got involved with the wrong crowd, committed a felony and was deported to Mexico in 1999, he lost touch with the family. Nuñez, a member of Mother of Good Counsel Parish, Milwaukee, struggled on her own – working by day, studying by night, using tax return money for her children’s education, asking family to help watch the children, taking out a couple of loans and a second mortgage, but gave her children the gift of Catholic education. “All I ask is for good health and that’s it…. I thank God that I have a job and that I’ve been able to give my children what they need.” (February Catholic Herald Family)
Michael “Phin” Jensen was only 11, but judging by his faith and humor following a grim diagnosis of Grade IV Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM), an aggressive malignant brain tumor last August, and 12 surgeries in five weeks, several seizures and failed shunts, a blood clot, 35-40 pounds of weight gain, fatigue, hours of MRIs and failed treatments – he seemed much wiser. The fifth-grader at Queen of Apostles School, Pewaukee, prayed only for others until his parish priest told Phin it wasn’t selfish to include himself in his prayers. Even after hearing April 8 that the Phase I study in which he participated was unsuccessful – an MRI showed more tumor growth in Phin’s brain and he experienced some mild paralysis on the left side of his face – he still had a good attitude explaining something bad has to happen to get something good. “Because Jesus, he didn’t have a perfect life, he was treated miserably, whipped and everything, but he got his good thing, you know, all of those wonderful people, all of those wonderful followers.” Sadly, Donna and Brian’s son, and brother of Marie, 9, lost his battle to cancer on Oct. 4. (April 11)
“Yellow 4 Greg” is everywhere – printed on yard signs and T-shirts, mentioned in Tweets and Facebook posts for 14-year-old Greg Von Rueden, who thought he beat Osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer not uncommon in teen boys, on March 19, after cancer therapy following his June 2012 diagnosis. But two weeks later, on Good Friday, an MRI revealed he needed surgery because he had a mass above his knee. The youngest of Denny and Sharon Von Rueden’s three sons, a graduate of Holy Apostles School, New Berlin, avid volleyball player and a Marquette University High School student, received an outpouring of support from his family, friends, school and community from the moment he was diagnosed until now as he continues to fight for his life. After completing a clinical trial, the family continued praying for a Christmas miracle, according to a post made to his CaringBridge site on Dec. 22, because Greg’s tumors grew and chemotherapy options haven’t worked. “This has been a long difficult journey and it is all the love, prayers, and support from all of you that gives us strength,” it said. (Catholic Herald Family May 2013) Sadly, following the publication of this piece, Greg, 15, died Jan. 22.
Nita Heath wasn’t expected to live past March, following the diagnosis of eosinophilia, a rare blood disorder that causes a higher number of eosinophils, one of the five major types of disease-fighting white blood cells. When doctors didn’t know what else to do, and Heath, 41, was in a vegetative state, she was removed from life support and her husband Brian brought their sons in to say goodbye. A few days and many prayers later, from family, friends and the St. Anne Parish community in Pleasant Prairie, doctors called Heath’s recovery a miracle as she began talking, eating ice cream, drinking water and recognizing people. She even witnessed her son’s first Communion still in a wheelchair, despite her blurred vision and anemia. “God is so good; I knew that I just had to be there for the first time he received Our Lord, and I got there and sat in my wheelchair to watch him. It was such a wonderful day,” she said. Heath is back home and has made amazing strides in her recovery. (June 6)
The St. Mary, Hales Corners, seventh-grade boys’ basketball “B” team may not have trophies, but the team and parents agree that it’s a winning team thanks to Coach Domitrz – all three of them. When Matthew Domitrz went out for the seventh-grade team this past winter, his grandfather, Joe Domitrz, agreed to coach the team, while his father, Mike Domitrz, and his brother, Anthony Domitrz, became assistant coaches. Joe, 72, a retired dean of the business school at UW-Whitewater who started coaching basketball more than 50 years ago, drove an hour from Whitewater to Milwaukee three to four times a week to coach with Mike, a professional speaker and founder of The Date Safe Project, Inc., and Anthony, who graduated from Whitnall High School in June. Their philosophy is that youth basketball is about developing as a player and a teammate, so each person gets equal playing time. (June 13)
Fifty years of Eugene and Bernice Brah’s 67-year marriage have been spent making handmade quilts for families in need. It all began when the West Allis couple, parishioners at St. Therese Parish, Milwaukee, received the miracle they prayed for after their fourth child, born significantly premature and weighing only 3 pounds, grew into a healthy baby. To express their gratitude to God for the gift of her health, the Brahs became foster parents, giving 10 infants a loving, temporary home while waiting for permanent adoptive families. Each time a baby came to their home, the hospital sent blankets of various sizes. After years of accumulation, the Brahs made use of them by cutting them into squares and crafting simple quilts to donate to organizations that could distribute them to families in need. The solution to their cluttered home has since become a life’s work – they completed 164 quilts in 2012 and surpassed that number in 2013. (Mature Lifestyles, July 25)
Cindy Bentley has defied the odds since she was born. Born some 55 years ago with fetal-alcohol syndrome to a drug-addicted mother with cocaine and heroin in her system, Bentley was given just 24 hours to live. She would continue to fight for her life after she was placed in a foster home because of her mother’s drug abuse, and received third-degree burns at the hands of her foster mother at age 2, leaving her with scars on her arms and legs, even after nine surgeries. Bentley, who battled breast cancer last year, views challenges as storms in her life that she rides out with faith and the help of organizations like Life Navigators that provide assistance to people with disabilities, and Catholic Social Services (now Catholic Charities). Not only has she forgiven her late mother, but she knows she’s made her proud – Bentley lives on her own, was honored by Life Navigators at the 30th Annual Challenger Event in September, gives presentations, co-authored her life story, competes in several Special Olympics sports, works as advocate director for People First Wisconsin, a grassroots nonprofit advocacy organization run by and for people with disabilities and more. (Sept. 5)
A recent graduate of Dominican High School in Whitefish Bay, 18-year-old Maureen “Mo” Jurgens’ life should be bursting with dreams and ambitions, but until recently, the Marquette University freshman didn’t allow herself to dream much beyond the present. The Jurgens family, members of St. Robert Parish, Shorewood, have relied on the support of family and friends and their faith for the first 18 years of Mo’s life, which has been filled with doctors’ visits, trips to the emergency room, medical testing and 27 surgeries. Mo is the first person in Wisconsin and the 30th in the nation to be diagnosed with the genetic mutation that has come to be known as Loeys Dietz Syndrome. When Mo’s health problems kept her from activities like sports, she turned to theater, and though she originally wanted nothing to do with the health profession after experiencing her own medical journey, Mo is studying nursing. “Even though I am not really big on science, if I can survive chemistry, I think I can be the best nurse because I have been on the other side,” she said. (October Catholic Herald Family)
Dan and Linda Topp, members of the St. Jude Parish and School, community in Wauwatosa, and their three daughters, Annie, 15, Kathleen, “Cookie,” 13, and Claire, 9, have overcome more than their share of challenges thanks to their faith, and faith and school communities. The health scares they experienced when Claire was born in 2003 with an underdeveloped heart, and her diagnosis at age 2 of Jacobsen Syndrome – a chromosomal abnormality causing cognitive delays, a bleeding disorder and a variety of health problems that continue to crop up unexpectedly – prepared them for another battle in 2012, when Cookie was diagnosed with Cutaneous T-cell Lymphoma, a rare form of blood cancer usually found in 50-and 60-year-old men. Love and prayers poured in from all over: the community, their friends, neighbors, co-workers. Cookie received a bone marrow transplant from Annie, a perfect match, and is in remission, though she’ll continue to see an oncologist twice a month for at least a year.
Here are a few stories that almost made it into our top-10 listing:
Gail Grenier Sweet, 62, of Good Shepherd Parish in Menomonee Falls, once a liberal Catholic and staunch defender of a woman’s right to an abortion, is now a pro-life advocate and founder of HOPE (Holistic-opportunities-parenting-education) Network, in 1982, a nonprofit organization that assists single mothers and single pregnant women in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee counties. Before and after delivery programs help women gain a sense of community, enhance their parenting skills and develop self-reliance. Sweet, who continues to teach part-time creative writing classes at Waukesha County Technical College, also published two books; the proceeds from one of them benefit the network. (Mature Lifestyles, Feb. 14)
Juan, 41, and Michele, 31, members of St. Joseph Parish in Waukesha, desperately wanted to be parents, but God had a different plan for the couple. After three years and no children, they began thinking of other ways to create their family and scheduled and appointment with Catholic Charities to inquire about adoption – something that’s not prevalent in the Hispanic culture. Juan and Michele, relying on their faith, began the adoption process without expectations of the ethnic background of a potential adoptive child. Rays of hope shone for them, and then disappeared as adoption opportunities came and went. Until one day Juan received a phone call: They could pick up a baby girl the next day. The birth mom’s request: That the adoptive couple keep the name she selected for the baby – Arianah – the same name Juan and Michele had chosen. Arianah won’t genetically match Juan and Michele, but she blends in perfectly, completing their “family: circle of love,” as the plaque reads on their living room wall. (December Catholic Herald Family)
Jean Davidson, 75, lost her grandson Ryder in 2006, when the 4-year-old drowned in a water-filled ditch while playing with a couple of neighborhood boys. The 8-year-old boy who was with Ryder and another 4-year-old when the two youngsters fell into the water, was afraid and ran home instead of calling for help. Ryder’s father was nearby, but saved just the other 4-year-old without knowing his son was in the water, too. Jean, the granddaughter of the founder of Harley-Davidson and Wauwatosa resident spent the next few months developing the Yell and Tell Program, a curriculum to teach children, kindergarten through fifth-grade, what to do when they see a dangerous situation by taking action and warning someone about what is happening. Jean’s program, which she used to teach alone, is now taught by volunteers and used throughout the U.S. It has been translated into Hungarian and Spanish, and will be presented in Honduras. Since its inception in 2007, more than 100 children have been recognized as heroes for saving lives. (May 16)
Souheil and Lisa Badran, members of Holy Family Parish in Whitefish Bay, could have reached into their pockets or donated money online to help the victims of Superstorm Sandy, but they needed and wanted to do something more. Lisa, a longtime volunteer with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, reached out to a local chapter in New York to learn what hurricane relief it was providing, finding that a huge need still remained for bedding, household items and furniture for people whose homes had been damaged or destroyed, and who were moving from temporary housing to long-term living situations. The Badrans rented a truck, collected supplies – getting donations from Holy Family Parish and the school, where their chilren attend, BiltRite Furniture and the larger community – before Souheil drove it 20 hours to Hungtington, N.Y., to the St. Vincent de Paul distribution center that agreed to receive the shipment. (April 18)
Dominique Connolly, 16, a junior at St. Joseph Academy in Kenosha, was a Christmas angel to St. Rose Catholic High School in Belmar, N.J., which had been gutted by Super Storm Sandy last October. After hearing about the nearly $5.1 million in damages to the school from her dad, Tim Connolly, who works for a distribution company with associates on the East Coast, Dominique sprang into action. She raised $10,000 in just three weeks through a chili cook-off, raffle tickets, sales of T St. Rose T-shirts she designed in the school colors with a rose, and “out of uniform” passes. Connolly and her father flew to Belmar to see the devastation firsthand and to deliver the check to Fr. Ed Arnister, a priest at St. Rose, and Sister of St. Joseph Kathleen Nace, principal. (March 28)
– Compiled by Tracy Rusch