Mary Foskett has made Easter baskets for more than 20 years, with the proceeds benefitting the retirement of the School Sisters of St. Francis. (Submitted photo)

It all started with a stuffed rabbit.

St. Matthias parishioner Mary Foskett and her good friend Mary Ellen Meyer, both lay associates of the School Sisters of St. Francis, happened upon an Easter bunny in a store one day in 1999. The two women had been hoping to find a way to support the School Sisters and their various international ministries.

“We had often heard about the good that they do, and when we came upon this stuffed rabbit, we thought: ‘Well, what can we do with this rabbit?’” said Foskett, a retired schoolteacher. “And that’s when the idea was born.”

For more than two decades, Foskett — with the continued help of Meyer, who has moved to California — has produced and sold thousands of Easter baskets to benefit the retirement of the School Sisters of St. Francis who live in the motherhouse on Layton Boulevard in Milwaukee.

Every spring takes Foskett and her family to parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and even as far as Cross Plains to sell the baskets, which come in two sizes and include candy, books and toys.

This year, Foskett created 450 cellophane-enclosed Easter baskets; the most she has ever produced in previous years was 600. In the 23 years she has been doing this, said Foskett, “We have never had a leftover basket that didn’t sell.”

Foskett and her helpers — which include fellow lay associates, close friends, her husband Dale and her two children — begin assembling the baskets in her basement beginning in January, after saving supplies all year. The day after Easter, she has found, is a prime day to hit the stores and purchase discounted Easter accessories.

“That’s when you can get nice bunnies and baskets and materials,” she said. “We save, save, save all year.”

Every basket contains a stuffed animal, toy, a children’s book, grab bag, Amish cashew crunch candy and a chocolate bunny. Foskett purchases 150 pounds of the cashew crunch candy every year from an Amish family in Westby.

From her new home, Meyer and her husband Jim still participate — they send seven large boxes of jelly beans from the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, California, to include in the baskets.

Foskett tries to hold sales at parishes that have previously had School Sisters of St. Francis teach in their parish schools — like at her own St. Matthias Parish, where the March 18-19 Easter basket sale was done in honor of Sr. Rita Jadin. Sr. Rita taught in the parish school at St. Matthias for more than 40 years. That sale was one of the most successful Foskett has ever had, raising more than $1,300 alone.

“We go to places that previously have had our sisters, and we’re always welcome at these places,” said Foskett. Even when she is selling in a secular setting, like at the big annual sale at Milwaukee’s City Hall, she encounters students of the sisters who are eager to support them and their ministries.

“We have many, many devoted customers who see us every year and welcome us (at City Hall),” said Foskett. “Innumerable people would say, ‘Oh, I had the School Sisters of St. Francis. I had Sister So-and-so.’ There is always that connection.”

In addition to benefiting the retirement of the sisters at the Milwaukee motherhouse, the money raised by the sale of the baskets also goes to support the sisters’ many international missions. The School Sisters of St. Francis have active ministries in the United States, Europe, Latin America and India. Foskett brings a copy of “Alive,” the periodical of the order, to each sale to showcase their various ministries.

Lay associates of the School Sisters of St. Francis are a diverse group of men and women who, like Foskett, share the sisters’ commitment to transforming the world through peace, justice and love, living the Good News of Jesus Christ in service to all people, but especially to the poor. It is the sisters’ outreach in India, where they provide education, healthcare, pastoral ministry and more, that is particularly close to Foskett’s heart. Her own two children, son Jay and daughter Maria, were adopted from India.

“Associates try to further the mission of the sisters,” Foskett said. “So, for me, it is a labor of love.”