When Donna Jensen reaches to open her refrigerator door in her Pewaukee home, she’s greeted with the message, “O Lord my God, I called to you for help and you healed me.”
On the kitchen cabinet, there’s the reminder, “For God, nothing will be impossible.”
Another cabinet door proclaims, “Worship the Lord your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you ….”
These Bible verses, printed on paper by Donna’s sister, and taped up throughout the home, are constant reminders of God’s presence in the family’s life and the faith that helped them throughout their eldest child’s terminal illness last year.
Michael “Phin” Jensen, 11, died Oct. 4, after a 14-month battle with brain cancer. He was Donna and Brian Jensen’s only son and was an older brother to 9-year-old Marie.
His death has been devastating, admitted Donna, a Milwaukee County behavioral health nurse, but as she looks back on her family’s ordeal, she’s comforted that it was made somewhat easier by their Catholic faith and their Catholic school, Queen of Apostles, Pewaukee.
‘On fire with her faith’
“Yes, their family is grieving the loss of Phin. But Donna is on fire with her faith in God and her faith in Catholic education,” wrote Katie Glafcke, a fellow Queen of Apostles parent, in an email to the Catholic Herald.
Donna, who was raised Lutheran, had her heart set on Catholic education for any children she might have, evenbefore she met her husband, Brian.
A native of Algonquin, Ill., Donna, in an interview with Catholic Herald Family, explained that she attended Algonquin Lakes Elementary, a public school located next to St. Margaret Mary Catholic School.
“Our playgrounds were separated by a tree line and we were never allowed to cross over,” she explained, adding the Catholic school kids were always something of a curiosity to her.
By the time she was in middle school, the public school and Catholic school students spent a half day together, possibly in preparation for later years when they would attend the public high school together.
Catholic students a step ahead
“Once I got into high school, I noticed the kids from the Catholic school did not have to study as hard; school was so much easier for them, especially for my best friend in English, and in science, they knew the prefixes and suffixes and went right through chemistry,” she said, describing the Catholic school students as avid readers. “Something was obviously different, so I always thought my kids would go to a Catholic school.”
Brian was a product of Catholic schools, having attended St. Mary School, Menomonee Falls, through eighth grade, and while he accepted her decision, he was not as passionate about it as she was.
“He thought either way was fine, but did not appreciate it as much as I did. From the outside looking in, I could see the difference,” said Donna, who said her husband has come to value Catholic education as much as she does.
Convert to Catholicism
Before the couple had children, Donna went through the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) process and converted to Catholicism.
Initially, she said, she questioned Catholicism’s relationship to Mary.
“The whole thing about Mary was difficult,” she admitted, noting that she grew up believing that Mary was just a woman, “nothing extraordinary or supernatural. She was just like any other woman.
“But in the Catholic Church, she’s extraordinary, and I actually have come to appreciate that,” she said, adding she prays the rosary each morning, “and that’s really made all the difference. It’s been very comforting to have Mary as my model, someone to emulate.”
Catholic school = insurance policy
When it was time for Phin to begin school, they looked at the various Catholic schools in their area, equating a Catholic education to an insurance policy. They chose Queen of Apostles after observing that the children appeared well-behaved and orderly, said Donna, adding one boy’s positive reaction to a challenge spoke volumes to her.
“I saw one of the eighth grade boys who couldn’t do the zipper on his backpack,” she explained, noting that he tried the stuck zipper a few times, but then put his head down, made the Sign of the Cross and looked up and successfully zipped the backpack.
“I thought to myself, ‘If that’s how they are teaching kids to cope with problems, we don’t have to look any further,’” she said, explaining they made their choice of a school right then and there.
“The whole thing with my kids, I always thought at some point in their lives as teenagers or as college students, it would be them and a bad decision and I thought if they had a really full spiritual life that would give them the best chance to make the right decision. It was kind of an insurance policy,” she said, explaining, “At least it would be them and God in a decision, not just them alone.”
Sadly, she said, she didn’t expect to have to cash the insurance policy in until their children were much older, but “we ended up having to use that through this whole ordeal.”
School, peers source of support
Describing Phin as spiritually grounded, Donna said he received support and encouragement from the school and his friends throughout his illness.
“He was surrounded with people who understood things the same way he understood them,” she said, praising teachers, including Nancy Ahern, who talked openly with his peers about his illness, and incorporated teaching tools like the book, “Heaven is for Real,” into their classroom activities.
As Phin’s illness progressed, he became paralyzed by the tumor and used a wheelchair to get around. During his last week, Donna said he was comatose in the family home, yet classmates took turns visiting him right up to the day before he died.
“It was a really hard lesson for anybody, but for kids that age, it was especially difficult, yet they were nothing but supportive and kind,” she said.
In the months after Phin’s death, Donna said school personnel have helped the children, especially Marie, cope with their loss. The school has implemented the Rainbows program, which helps children and teens through the grieving process, and two of the parents are counselors who have been meeting with the children.
‘Insurance policy’ reaps benefits
She is confident the “insurance policy,” i.e., Catholic education, that she and Brian have purchased for their family will reap benefits for their daughter.
“You get homeowners’ insurance, life insurance, car insurance and spend money on that and you might need the homeowners’ insurance, or the auto insurance, but I always felt with a Catholic school, why would you not give your kids the best insurance policy for that moment when they might have to make some tough decisions?” she said. “It perplexes me. The cost to send two kids to Queen of Apostles for one year is the same cost as to take the family to Disney for one week.”
Some time ago, Donna said Marie asked if the family could go to Disney World. Donna responded by saying, “OK, we can go to Disney for a week or you can go to Queen of Apostles for a year.”
Without skipping a beat, Marie answered, “Are you kidding? I choose Queen of Apostles.”
“When I look at the cost, the commitment, the value (of Catholic education), I never expected to have to cash in that policy, so to speak, but we have gotten so much out of it,” said Donna.