When Noelle Thompson spotted the blue and gold personalized coffee mug on the shelf in the bookstore on the Marquette University campus with the name Mildred emblazoned on the top, she knew immediately it was a gift for her grandmother.

Noelle Thompson, a freshman at Marquette University, stands with her parents Marina and Albert Thompson and grandmother, Mildred Allison, on the sidewalk outside Gesu Church on the Marquette campus during parents’ weekend, Oct. 4, 2014. Noelle’s enrollment at MU is a homecoming of sorts for the family as some 60 years ago, Mildred worked at Gesu as a dishwasher. (Catholic Herald photo by Allen Fredrickson)The mug symbolized the gift of a Catholic education that Noelle, a freshman at Marquette, had received, thanks in large part to her grandmother, Mildred Gray Allison, 87.

It represented a bit of a homecoming for the Gray-Thompson family, too, because some 60 years earlier, Mildred washed dishes in the convent at Gesu, on the very same campus where her granddaughter is working toward a bachelor’s degree in public relations.

Noelle, a graduate of St. Monica Elementary School and Dominican High School, both in Whitefish Bay, will be the first person in her family to attend 12 years of Catholic education, but she’s also continuing a tradition that her grandmother began in the 1950s when she sent her eldest child to St. Benedict the Moor School, Milwaukee.

Mildred and Willie Gray came to Milwaukee in the 1940s and were members of the United Methodist faith.

She heard, however, that St. Benedict the Moor was a good school, and sent her oldest son there until he was in fourth grade. When the family that grew to include seven children moved closer to Holy Angels School, Milwaukee, that became their school. Some, including, Noelle’s mother, Marina (Gray) Thompson, attended first through eighth grade at Holy Angels.
Along the way, Mildred converted to Catholicism – at the urging of a School Sister of St. Francis that she befriended at Gesu whom she remembers as Sr. Mary Francis Joseph – and the family embraced not only Catholic education but the Catholic faith itself.

That faith, according to Marina, who has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, is what helped her mother through several tragedies, including the deaths of two children at ages 4 and 6 of cancer within a 13-month timeframe, and the death of her husband in 1968 of a massive stroke at age 38.

“Her faith kept her strong and really supported her through that,” said Marina of her mother’s tragedies. “I can’t even imagine going through that.”

Even after Willie died, Mildred, who has only a third-grade education, continued to send her five living children to Catholic schools for as long as she could afford the tuition.

Marina was 6 when her father died, but her mother was able to pay tuition to allow her to graduate from Holy Angels. She had her heart set on attending Messmer High School as her older sister had, but about that time the Chapter 220 program began which allowed her to attend a suburban school. She graduated from Shorewood High School, and admitted she was initially unhappy there.

“I thought to myself, if I have kids, I’m going to send them to a Catholic school, if I have the chance,” she promised herself years ago.

Marina saw the sacrifices her parents, especially her mother, made over the years to provide the Catholic education for her children – including a regular bus trip from the family’s home near Silver Spring Drive all the way to Gesu for work – but said she saw the value in what she learned in the Catholic environment.

Years later, Marina and Albert Thompson, a technical account manager for Microsoft, made the same choices for their two children, Ian, a senior at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, and Noelle.

The couple, who had been living in Seattle, returned to the Milwaukee area about the time Noelle was 2. They joined All Saints Parish, Milwaukee, and one Sunday morning just before Noelle was about to enter first grade, Catholic Herald Family columnist Annemarie Scobey-Polacheck and other members of St. Monica visited All Saints to invite parishioners to attend their Whitefish Bay school at the parishioner cost.

The offer piqued the Thompsons’ interest.The Thompson family poses for a photo in spring 2014, following Noelle Thompson’s graduation from Dominican High School. Pictured, left to right, are her father, Albert; grandmother, Mildred Allison; Noelle; mom, Marina and brother, Ian. (Submitted photo courtesy the Thompson family)

They knew it would mean a sacrifice since St. Monica was miles from their Mequon home, yet they realized that choosing St. Monica would, in part, fulfill a promise they made to Noelle’s birth mother years earlier.

“Noelle is adopted,” explained Marina in an interview at their home. “Her birth mother told us she chose us because she wanted a Catholic family and we did put down on the application that we would consider Catholic schools, so this was an opportunity to do what we said we were considering doing.”

As they weighed the challenges and benefits of sending their children to St. Monica, they considered the long commute, the financial sacrifice “and other challenges such as the fact that we didn’t live in the parish and would continue to attend our parish.”

She remembers people questioning why they’d spend money on elementary and later high school education, suggesting instead that they should save their money for college tuition.

But in the end, Marina said it came down to “the Holy Spirit showed up,” and they enrolled both children at St. Monica. Ian attended from sixth to eighth grade and Noelle from first through eighth.

It wasn’t always easy, admitted Marina.

“There were cultural challenges. The last two years, for example, Noelle was the only black girl in her grade and even though socially-economically we’re in sync with St. Monica parents – for the most part – there were challenges, social challenges, and I believe some were related to race.”

But overall, the Thompsons’ experience with Catholic education was so positive that when it came time for choosing a high school, the Catholic school won again.

Ian attended Marquette University High School for a year before transferring to Homestead High School in Mequon, in part because it afforded him the opportunity to play soccer, but Noelle and her parents chose Dominican.

“I think I got a deeper understanding of my Catholic faith than if I would have gone to Homestead,” said Noelle, who participated in theater, choir and the Veritas team, which involves a Dominican preaching conference, planning Masses and retreats.

She said she appreciated the fact that before each Dominican theater production, the cast gathered to pray.

“Before each show, everyone in the back gathers in a prayer circle and once the show starts, we pray with the audience,” she said, adding, “in basketball, sometimes if we were losing, we’d chant the Hail Mary in the stands.”

Noelle also said that being in a smaller environment like Dominican allowed her to become involved in a variety of activities and take advantage of leadership opportunities.

The decision for Noelle to attend Marquette, according to Marina, also came down to the Holy Spirit’s intervention.
Noelle had been accepted at Concordia University in Mequon, and Albert and Marina had paid for her registration and her dorm and she was registering for classes when she heard from Marquette that she had been accepted.

Marina again looks upon it as a time “when the Holy Spirit jumps in and she ends up at Marquette,” she said of the decision that was made in part by the fact that during the decision-making process, twice, the family ran into a fellow All Saints parishioner, also a professor at Marquette.

That, coupled with the fact they felt a stronger pull to the Catholic institution than the Lutheran one, even though it meant more of a financial sacrifice, led the family to choose Marquette.

“These signs came along to guide us as we were on the fence deciding, and even though it was the harder thing to do, somehow we ended up doing it,” said Marina, adding, “we are very proud of who (Noelle) is and how she’s developed because of the choices and sacrifices we’ve made, so every month, we pony up and do what we have to do to give her that education.”

Marina advises other parents making the same educational decision to “take a leap of faith. Take that leap, because I feel it’s worth it. I think she would have been a different person if not for the Catholic education.

“If you are sitting on the fence, look at your child over the long term. You’re giving them the opportunity to connect with other Catholics in college. If you are on the fence, you can do it. Get creative with financing; think outside the box. The way we thought, we had money for UWM, but we did not have money for Marquette so some of this is our retirement,” she said, adding, “It’s a financial leap of faith, financially putting our money where our mouth is.”

And their decisions have made Mildred proud. During parents’ weekend last fall, she accompanied the Thompsons to Marquette for Mass at Gesu and proudly showed her granddaughter where it all began for the family – in the former convent attached to Gesu where she washed dishes.

“I really believe this is (Noelle’s) destiny,” said Marina, “and that cup with Grandma’s name on it symbolizes the connection to Mom and Noelle at MU.”