SPECIAL TO THE CATHOLIC HERALD
Although Elaine Wesner Sellenheim was recently named 2019 Wisconsin Mother of the Year by the American Mothers Inc., the Elkhorn mother of two knows that without the help of her husband, family and strong Catholic Faith, she would not have won the award that recognized her for her volunteerism and community involvement.
American Mothers Inc. is a non-governmental organization established in 1935. Its founders included Eleanor Roosevelt, Mamie Eisenhower and JC Penney, according to its website, Americanmothers.org.
Confirmed in the Catholic Faith at St. Patrick Parish in Elkhorn at the Easter Vigil on March 31, 2018, Wesner Sellenheim’s conversion from the United Methodist Faith seemed to be the result of new mother exhaustion coupled with divine intervention.
“Almost exactly after my first daughter was born in 2014, my former piano teacher, who is in the choir at St. Patrick’s, called to tell me their accompanist had gone to study abroad for a semester and asked if I would be interested in filling in while he was overseas. Being exhausted as a first-time mom, I told her no,” she said. “Later, I told my husband about the conversation and he very politely suggested I try leaving the house. So, I called back and filled in as choir accompanist at St. Patrick’s. I knew nothing about Catholic liturgy at the time and the choir director stood next to the keyboard, and would tell me exactly when and what to play. Shortly thereafter, I started filling in occasionally at both St. Andrew’s (Delavan) and St. Patrick’s as needed for Masses. Then, someone asked me to provide the music for their wedding Mass, and I just kept playing more and more Masses.”
Along the way, Wesner Sellenheim’s husband, Joseph, began coming back to Mass with their daughter and later, their second daughter. Raised Catholic, Joseph Sellenheim attended St. Mary’s in Waukesha with his family, and was confirmed in the faith in 2017 at the St. Patrick’s Easter Vigil.
A few months later, during Advent, Wesner Sellenheim was sitting in the choir loft during a Saturday evening Mass by herself. It dawned on her that without realizing it, she had become part of the Catholic community and felt called to convert to the faith.
“I am forever grateful to Michael Morrissey, the choir director at St. Patrick, who is an encyclopedia of knowledge on Catholic liturgy, and Fr. Oriol Regales, who allowed me the opportunity to grow into my faith at the parish. I would not be Catholic if it weren’t for these two individuals and St. Pat’s. Our daughters were both baptized this past June.”
Wesner Sellenheim credits her Catholic faith for the tools to help her become the best version of herself that she can — something she stresses is God’s desire for everyone.
“One of my biggest prayers is that God would let me see people as he sees them and I believe that prayer has slowly been answered,” she said. “It has changed the way I interact and think about people. As a parent, I look to how Jesus lived his life and try to emulate that as best I can in my parenting. I fail frequently but keep trying. I didn’t realize the opportunities available to show God’s love to others that are available in a parish until I became Catholic.”
In addition to her vocation of marriage to Joseph, her husband of 13 years, 35-year-old Wesner Sellenheim is also the mother of Heidi, 4, and Autumn, 2. She holds a BA in Music Education and an MSE in Education and serves as the Music Ministry Coordinator for St. Andrew and St. Patrick Parishes. In addition, she volunteers at Lakeland Health Care Center, playing the piano with residents and at Delavan Nursery Center, teaching music and movement. Previously, she worked as the choir and drama teacher at Williams Bay Middle and High School, earing the Wisconsin Choral Directors Association 2014 Outstanding Young Choir Director Award.
Wesner Sellenheim began volunteering at Lakeland as an offshoot of her practice of bringing her piano and voice students to the nursing home for Christmas recitals.
“At the end of a recital a few years ago, a kind man approached me in his wheelchair and asked if I had any students who would like to play piano duets with him. My students were all beginners, but I said I would like to play piano duets,” she said “Jan Mason was the Lakeland resident, also a parishioner at St. Francis de Sales in Lake Geneva, and we have become close friends. Jan was a very accomplished piano teacher of thousands of students in Bradenton, Florida before returning to his home state of Wisconsin. We play piano together about once a week and we hold recitals at Lakeland about twice a year.”
Wesner Sellenheim jokes that she’s been known to win Bingo games while visiting at Lakeland. Through Jan, she’s befriended numerous residents and enjoys hearing about their lives.
“I ‘revived’ a Children’s Choir at St. Pat’s this year and I’m working on getting those students to make music with the residents as well,” she said. “I hope to have my daughters volunteer as well when they are a little older.”
Wesner Sellenheim learned about the Mother of the Year Award from last year’s winner, Dr. Brenda Arens Reed, also a member of St. Patrick Parish. Arens Reed nominated Wesner Sellenheim for the award. After she was nominated, she completed a digital portfolio and submitted multiple letters of recommendation.
To juggle her many roles, Wesner Sellenheim relies on her husband and parents to help with the children.
“My parents live down the street and are the best grandparents in the history of time and I say that very seriously,’ she said. “They gave so much for me as a child and young adult and they continue to do so today, and I’m eternally grateful for the role they play in my daughters’ lives. I would not be able to do what I do without my husband or parents. It also helps that I find deep joy in what I do—I love being a parent, I love my family and I love sharing the gift of music.”
On the weekend of April 28-30, Wesner Sellenheim will travel to Washington, D.C., with her family for the National American Mothers Convention. The 2019 National Mother of the Year will be announced from all the state winners.
“Each state winner will make a speech on the convention theme, ‘America, this is your mother speaking,’” she explained. “I am humbled and grateful to be chosen to represent Wisconsin.”