Ministry of Reconciliation a Key for Men Taking Mary’s Tears to Heart

When Gerald “Jerry” Lebanowski was a child at St. Casimir’s Church in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, he knew that he was called to life as a priest in a religious community. Although family connections made the Franciscans seem a likely choice, a visit to St. Casimir’s School by two priests of the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette captured the young man’s imagination and he made the fateful decision to enter their high school seminary in Mount Olivet, Illinois, at the age of 13. In all those years of service to his community here in the United States, including nine years as provincial, and on his congregation’s General Administration in Rome, he has always been aware of Mary’s maternal care and support.

Today, Fr. Jerry is one of five La Salette Missionaries serving at the Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin. Fr. Jerry has been in residence at the shrine since 2000. The community purchased the land for the La Salette Shrine in 1967 and since then it has served as a center for reconciliation and encounter for Catholics throughout the region. Pilgrims come to the small chapel and surrounding walking trails and outdoor shrines seeking forgiveness, compassion, counsel and an encounter with God’s mercy in daily celebrations of the Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

The story of the La Salette Missionaries dates back to September 19, 1846, when the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to two shepherd children — Maximin Giraud and Melanie Calvat — near the village of La Salette, France, high in the French Alps. In the apparition, Mary wept as she asked the children to share a message of conversion, urging the people to return to the sacraments and to seek reconciliation with God and one another.

The local bishop approved the apparitions in 1851 and, in 1858, six French priests became the first Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette, the only community for men founded in response to a Marian apparition. Today the community includes priests and brothers serving in 23 countries. Nearly 250 Missionaries staff parishes and shrines throughout the United States.

“Our ministries are Masses, confessions, pilgrimages, counseling, being available for those who need to talk,” Fr. Jerry said. “At the beginning of our community, there was a tension between wanting to be contemplative and active, it was ‘either/or,’” Fr. Jerry said. “I think most of our guys are in that contemplative-active dynamic. Our members feel called to community and from community you go out to your apostolic life. But,” Fr. Jerry wryly noted, “in the community you already have this prayerful group of people, not necessarily holy, but prayerful.”
Reflecting on the notion of “wounded healers,” describing those who minister with empathy because they recognize their own need for healing, Fr. Jerry said that, “Many of our men are tailor-made for this ministry because they’ve been through a lot. They can have empathy for people. Personally, I think we do great ministry in reconciliation. People come to La Salette with a feeling of wanting to be reconciled to God.”

For the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette, Mary and her message remain the focal point for their life and ministry. “She was the ‘weeping Madonna,’ the woman that cries. There’s something about that, that grabs me,” Fr. Jerry said. “She depicts what God is doing. She is crying because — as we might say poetically — God is crying. She has a very simple message.”

Because they have taken Mary’s tears to heart, the Missionaries are able to be a compassionate presence. “I think of how I’ve been forgiven,” Fr. Jerry said. “I always feel compassion and open, before someone even comes to for confession. There’s a real open compassion that our members have for people who are hurting. It isn’t the whole Gospel, but it’s an important component: reconciliation.”

To learn more about the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette, visit: