Colleen Smith didn’t just know how to market the Catholic faith, according to Lisa Brielmaier, associate director of advancement for Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, she lived it.

Colleen Smith (Photo courtesy Emerald Isle Marketing and PR)Smith, founder of the award-winning marketing and public relations company, Emerald Isle, whose clients include many Catholic and non-profit organizations in the Milwaukee area, died Thursday, April 24, at age 51, after a long illness.

“The beautiful thing about working with Colleen, was not only did she know how to market the Catholic Church, she believed deeply in all of it. She was not just marketing the seminary, she and her husband support it, too,” said Brielmaier.

In addition to its work with Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, Emerald Isle, the marketing agency Smith started from her home some 22 years ago that has grown to five full-time and three part-time employees, includes among its clients the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the Catholic Stewardship Appeal, School Sisters of St. Francis, the Salvatorians, Felicians, House of Peace and Sacred Heart School of Theology.

The firm also had for-profit clients including A&W, CCI Systems and West Bend Mutual, according to Emerald Isle vice president of creative services, Gina Rupcic, but Smith held a special place in her heart for the non-profit and Catholic organizations.

“She was very faith-filled,” said Rupcic, explaining, “we have for-profit clients, but the (non-profits) were her passion.”

Brielmaier recalled a meeting last year at Smith’s Brookfield parish, St. John Vianney. Brielmaier was there to see then-associate pastor, Fr. Phillip Bogacki, but also ran into Smith. But Smith was not part of the meeting, rather she was kneeling in prayer before the Eucharist in adoration.

“Faith was a part of her life,” said Brielmaier, adding that in the course of the marketing work they did with Smith, “you never had to explain Catholic nuances to Colleen. She could probably explain them to you and she always knew the importance of promoting (Catholicism) in a very prayerful way, never crass … always with reverence.”

Emerald Isle has been working with the seminary for more than 10 years and produces its newsletter, “Salt,” the seminary’s annual mailing appeal and videos, including a recent one focusing on the importance of families in the call to a religious vocation. The video can be seen on the seminary website (
Catholic Stewardship Appeal materials are also produced by Emerald Isle, and, according to Rupcic, the firm takes partial credit for the fact the appeal reached its goal last year.

Calling Smith a perfectionist, Rupcic said she valued her employees and stressed that they maintain a healthy work-home balance.

“One thing she really strived for, which I think is huge, especially at work, she was very adamant about us having a work-life balance. She didn’t want us to be so focused on work; she knew we had a life outside of work. … She was always looking out for our best interests, very caring about her employees,” said Rupcic, explaining how her former boss incorporated “lunch and learn” sessions or outings to get their nails done, into the course of the work week.

“She was just a fun loving, professional, brilliant woman and she just tried to make our work life as fun as possible,” said Rupcic.

Brielmaier also spoke of the fun-loving personality Smith exuded. For example, she said, spring meant the arrival of a green envelope – everything from Emerald Isle came in green envelopes, she noted – with an invitation to Smith’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party at a local Irish establishment for all of her clients.
Very proud of her Irish heritage, Smith “had a sense of humor about things, a real joy of life,” said Brielmaier.

Smith, the eldest of Patricia and Tom Donahue’s children, was born in Butler and attended St. Agnes School, Butler, and Pius XI High School, Milwaukee, earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University in 1984 and a master’s in business administration from Cardinal Stritch University in 1992. Prior to founding her company, she began her career at WTMJ in Milwaukee, worked as a reporter for the Daily Oklahoman, as public relations director for the Oklahoma City Public Schools and for the Minneapolis Grain Exchange.

She is survived by her husband of 29 years, Dan, and sons Mark, a senior at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and Greg, a senior at Marquette University High School.

Other surviving family members include her father, Thomas, of Wauwatosa, sisters Kathleen (Michael) Schmainda of Elm Grove; and Sharon (Bob) Hudy of West Allis; and a brother, Thomas (Tammy) Donahue of Brookfield.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be held Friday, May 2, at St. John Vianney Parish, Brookfield, at 3 p.m.; rosary at 2:30 p.m.

In lieu of flowers, the Smith family is asking that contributions be made in Colleen’s name to Saint Francis de Sales Seminary.