On Tuesday, Oct. 8, Maureen Michaels’ long years of work coordinating the twinning relationship between her parish of St. Anthony on the Lake in Pewaukee and Santissimo Sacramento Parish in Piura, Peru, were recognized with a Vatican II Award for Service to the Missions.

But Michaels feels that the best reward for her work was the years of service themselves. They have borne a fruit in her personal life and in her spiritual life that goes deeper than she could have ever imagined.

“You think you’re going down there to help them out, but you end up taking away much more than you’re giving,” she said.

Michaels’ volunteer involvement in her parish began as soon as she and her family moved from her native Dayton, Ohio, to the Pewaukee area for her husband Bill’s career. “I immediately started volunteering at the school,” she said. Her own parents had been very active in their parish, hosting annual barn sales to raise money for the church, and the example they set stayed with Michaels, their oldest. “It was really ingrained in us,” she said.

Twenty-three years ago, she was hired to work in the faith formation office, a part-time job she still cherishes. It was in 2001 that she accompanied then-St. Anthony Pastor Fr. Tom Venne on the first parish mission trip to Piura, Peru, initiating the twinning relationship with Santisimo Sacramento Parish.

In the ensuing 18 years, Michaels has been a driving force behind St. Anthony’s relationship with Santisimo Sacramento, one of the nation’s largest parishes, serving more than 40,000 parishioners at 29 chapels in the northwestern part of the country. The typical parishioner earns between $8 and $10 per day, said Michaels. Each year, she leads a group on a weeklong service trip to bring medical supplies and services, and other much-needed items to the community there.

“Over the past 20 years, she has tirelessly devoted her stewardship of time, talent, and treasure to forging this incredible partnership,” wrote St. Anthony’s Pastor Fr. Tony Zimmer in a recent bulletin article. “Because of her leadership and example, hundreds of our faithful and beyond have been inspired to serve the poor, care for the sick, comfort the dying and their bereaved, and so much more.”

St. Anthony’s relationship with Santisimo Sacramento has resulted in financial support for the building of a chapel, a hospice, health and therapy centers, a cemetery and homes for the families of the parish; more than $3.8 million has been raised for Santisimo Sacramento since 2002.

One of the signature elements of the twinning relationship is the Family to Family Program, in which more than 335 parishioners sponsor individual families in Peru. For $30 per month or $360 per year, St. Anthony families can finance the supply of rice, beans, powdered milk, oil and various other sundries that supplement the Peruvian families’ food needs for the month.

The Family to Family program is a way for the parishioners to make a personal connection with the families of Santisimo Sacramento, said Michaels. She and her husband have sponsored several families over the years whom she has been able to visit in person — one of the families has eight children, two named Bill (after her husband) and Andy (in honor of one of her sons).

“We do provide families with the story of what’s going on with the Peruvian families they are sponsoring. Even though they haven’t met in person, they’re able to have these little relationships,” she said. “Recently, one of our Peruvian families suffered the loss of the father’s motorcycle taxi that he uses to earn a living — the mother just had a baby and they need food and milk. Our parishioner sent down $150 to help them out, and I just got back a report from the social worker showing what was going on with the Peruvian family — they’re so touched by her help.”

Santisimo Sacramento is served by Fr. Joseph Uhen, a native of Milwaukee and a Marquette graduate who was ordained in Peru in 1995 and has been the pastor in Piura since 1998. Each year, Fr. Uhen visits St. Anthony on the Lake to keep the parish up-to-date with the needs and joys faced by his parishioners in Peru. It’s always a time of great inspiration and motivation for the St. Anthony parishioners, said Michaels.

“Maureen’s ability to attract, encourage and support others in the mission relationship has created real Gospel stories of healing, hope and renewal,” said Fr. Uhen. “She has helped foster great joy by bringing countless peoples together in faith in the poor neighborhoods of northern Peru, but she also has a keen ability to manage setbacks (occasionally caused by my own limitations) with great insight and human understanding so that the work of God among the poor moves forward as it should.”

For Michaels, it’s all very simple: she can serve, and so she will.

“I can give back and I can help, so why not?” she said. “Why not live the way Christ wants you to live?”