Milwaukee Catholic Mamas

Nancy Salerno with her son, Nicholas. Salerno prays the rosary daily and has used it to navigate some tough times in her life. (Submitted photo)

By those who are not familiar with it, the rosary is often accused of being repetitious and hollow. Words written by someone else, recited over and over, again and again. How can that be a divine conversation? they wonder. How can that be prayer?

But anyone who has ever held a crying child, be they wounded or sick or afraid or simply tired, knows that profound feelings do not always have to be verbalized to be communicated.

And so often in times of trial, the rosary is just that. It is the frantic murmurings of a child who cannot explain his feelings and perhaps doesn’t even know what he needs or wants — but who knows he is safe here, cradled in the arms of his mother.

October is the month of the rosary, and there was never a better year to take up the beads that have brought comfort to so many generations. Here are the stories of two Milwaukee mothers who found solace in the rosary in times of great trial.

‘I needed a mom’

The depiction of the Blessed Mother that most compels Nancy Salerno is Our Lady of La Salette. Seated with her face in her hands in a posture of lament, it is an image that deeply resonated with Salerno’s motherhood journey.

“It was like I could just relate 100 percent to her,” said Salerno. “Being a mom, how many times have we sat with our head in our hands, crying?”

Salerno, a parishioner at St. Anne in Pleasant Prairie, is the mother of four grown children. Her oldest, Nicholas, was diagnosed with a rare form of cerebral palsy when he was six months old. Now 24, Nicholas is wheelchair-bound and nonverbal.

It was about 10 years ago, while waiting for her younger son to finish up baseball practice, that Salerno first heard the rosary recited on the radio. A revert to Catholicism in adulthood, she was unfamiliar with the concept of Marian devotion. “I’m embarrassed to say it now — but I had never heard the rosary before, ever,” said Salerno. “When I heard these words, it was so beautiful. I just know the Holy Spirit touched my heart and said ‘I’m here, find me. Learn more.’”

She taught herself to pray the rosary and dove into the study of Scripture and tradition, completing a Marian consecration in 2014. At the same time, her own mother — “my best friend” — was suffering the effects of a devastating misdiagnosis of brain cancer, losing her short-term memory and eventually suffering from Alzheimer’s.

“I used to talk to my mom every day. Even though I still had her, now it was different,” said Salerno. “Mary stepped in at a time when I needed to have those talks again. I needed my mom.”

Now a speaker and an author, Salerno visits schools with Nicholas to educate students on the experience of individuals who have a disability. Nicholas, meanwhile, has grown to become a joyful, faithful young man who has graduated from high school and is auditing college classes.

“Everybody that meets Nick is forever changed by him,” said Salerno.

Salerno now prays the rosary daily and has even shared her story in the movie, “Power in My Hands,” produced in 2018 by the Rosary Evangelization Apostolate. She suggests keeping a journal of rosary intentions in order to reflect on prayers heard and answered — even those that were not answered in the anticipated way.

“The rosary is a force to be reckoned with,” said Salerno. “It’s a weapon against the evils of this world.”

Meeting Mary at the cross

Katie McGaver’s first memory of the rosary is reaching up to touch her grandmother’s beads. Born on the feast of the rosary, her grandmother had a powerful devotion to the prayer. “Each time I held those beads I knew there was something there that transcended life and death,” said McGaver.

In 2015, McGaver and her husband Rob seemed to be in one of those sweet spots of life. McGaver was enjoying her career as a physician’s assistant and relished her role as mother of two young sons. She was eagerly planning the family’s future, confident that she and Rob knew what was coming next.

But they didn’t. In September of that year, McGaver fell ill with viral meningitis. The healthcare provider became the patient, and she found herself completely incapacitated. Her full recovery would take more than two years.

“I was a mother who couldn’t take care of my own kids without help,” said McGaver. It was a crisis of spirit, of identity and of faith. She was crushed by the guilt of all of the things she could not do for her husband and her toddlers.

But the one thing she could do was pray. Stranded on the couch recovering, she discovered the Relevant Radio app’s rosary feature, and she began to pray the rosary daily. Soon, her children found their way to her lap, and the prayer became something they could share together in those tough moments. “My physical limitations didn’t matter,” she said. “It became a very real physical, verbal, emotional reflection of love. I could teach my children how to love through the rosary, from the couch.”

Five years later, McGaver has made a full recovery and the family has been blessed with a third child. Now a stay-at-home mom, McGaver has started a website,, where she shares her faith.

She credits the rosary and its meditations on scripture and the lives of Jesus and Mary with teaching her about redemptive suffering. “Mary and Jesus met me at the cross of my life,” she said.