In July 2014, the Bolle family was living an ordinary life in Reedsville, in the Green Bay Diocese, with their five children. Husband Luke worked in construction, and stay-at-home mom Amy looked after Isabelle, 8; Elijah, 7; Gabriel, 5; Maggie, 4; and 15-month-old Vivian.
The Bolles attended SS. Cyril and Methodius Church, Sheboygan, and considered themselves to be deeply religious. But even they couldn’t have foreseen that an unexpected vocation would mean that, less than a year later, the family would have divested themselves of their house, car and livelihoods, moving halfway across the globe to work as missionaries on a small island in the Bohol Sea.
Christ’s exhortation in the 18th chapter of the Gospel of Luke for his followers to “sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor” is an oft-quoted but infrequently practiced Scripture passage.
It certainly wasn’t easy, but in January 2015, the Bolle family did exactly that.
Come-and-see vacation becomes permanent
“Last July, we weren’t even looking into being missionaries,” said Amy Bolle, 29. “For me, I was like … there’s no way God is calling our family to be missionaries. I’m not ready for that.”
At the time, the family had merely decided to take a vacation to Louisiana to participate in one of Family Missions Company’s “come-and-see” weekends.
Their close friends, Taylor and Katie Schmidt of Brillion in the Green Bay Diocese, had enrolled as missionaries through the FMC, a lay Catholic organization headquartered in the southern United States.
The Schmidts and their six children were in Louisiana to prepare for life as Peruvian missionaries, and the Bolles were eager to spend some time with their friends before they went abroad.
“We just decided we were really going to be open,” said Luke. “We were trying to listen to what God wanted for us.”
But, when the Bolles arrived at the FMC campus in Abbeville, Louisiana, “God started working in a big way,” Luke said.
The Bolles said through Scripture readings and other personal revelation, they began to feel called themselves to the missionary life. One particularly strong sign for Luke came in the form of an excerpt from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter four.
“It’s where Jesus calls the disciples from their boat, and it says immediately, they left their boats and came and followed him,” he recalled. “And then it talks about the sons of Zebedee – Jesus called them and at once they left their boats, they left their nets and they came and followed him. I felt that God was just saying, ‘Now’s the time.’”
The Bolles returned to Reedsville to empty their five-bedroom house and say a quick goodbye to friends and family. Thereaction of their loved ones further confirmed the decision they had already made, said Amy.
“When we started telling people that we were joining Family Mission Company, everybody was just surprised but super supportive,” she said. “Especially for our parents — that was the biggest thing. If I wouldn’t have had my parents’ support and Luke’s parents’ support, I don’t think we would be here right now, because we are so close to our families. My mom’s my best friend; I would call her every morning.”
Decision took courage, faith
The decision, said Amy’s mother, Kathy Kesner, took “a lot of courage and a lot of faith.”
“It’s been a lot of traveling and a lot of meeting new people, and it hasn’t been easy – they miss their family and their friends, and there are difficult moments, I’m sure. But they are learning. It’s an adventure for them,” she said.
During the fall of 2014, the Bolles and their children embarked on “intake,” the intense period of training for FMC families that takes place in Louisiana. The experience includes three months of prayer, work and study of Scripture, papal encyclicals, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Vatican II documents, and other texts. Intake is followed by three weeks of missionary work in Mexico, where the family learned of their ultimate destination: Camiguin, a small island in the Philippines that, for the next 12 months, would be their home.
Faith had “always been important” to her daughter, according to Kesner, who said that Amy had experienced an even deeper connection with her religion following her marriage to Luke in 2010.
Judy Wilsing, liturgist at SS. Cyril and Methodius who has known Amy for most of her life, called the young mother and her husband “a treasure.”
“Amy was a student here at Christ Child Academy,” she said. “She was in all my school plays and sang in church; she has the most beautiful voice. Luke plays guitar – they’re a musical family and they’re so faith-filled. They live what they believe. It’s a very difficult thing for anyone to sell everything they have and just follow Christ. I don’t know if I could do it! I don’t think most people could.”
Parish is proud of missionary family
The parish is deeply proud of their missionary family, said Wilsing, and even adopted them as their 2015 Lenten project.
Amy’s parents, Jim and Kathy Kesner, gave a presentation about the family’s experience in the Philippines, and the church held a second collection on March 21 and 22 to support the Bolles. FMC mission families must rely on charitable donations to meet their living expenses, which typically equal about $500-$1,000 a month.
The students at Christ Child Academy also made the family their charitable project earlier this year, said Wilsing. The schoolchildren hold “penny wars” to raise money for charity and last school year collected over $500 in pennies to support the Bolles family.
Wilsing and Amy are also working to set up a pen pal program where students at Christ Child Academy can correspond with students in the Philippines.
“It’s a real learning experience for our children here in the United States, because we have so much,” said Wilsing. “Amy made the comment that on the islands the poor there are probably the happiest and most gracious people she’s ever known and yet they have practically nothing.”
For seven months, the Bolles left the remains of their old existence, “15 or 20 totes of keepsakes in Amy’s parents’ basement,” according to Luke, for their missionary experience on the Camiguin Island. The family planned to live and work alongside more seasoned missionaries in the Philippines for a year, and would then have the option to come home or extend their stay, but they returned last month on furlough because they’re expecting a baby in March.
During their time, the Bolles started a men’s Bible study and a kids’ ministry for the many children who roamed the town while their parents worked, and invited the people they met in their everyday interactions.
They also helped on a larger scale through the church and a missionary priest, getting involved in home-building projects, sustainability projects that helped people have food through farming, pig farming and fish ponds, and piping projects that provided clean drinking water to the people.
Luke said missionary life as a family in the Philippines is very much like real life – their kids had to go to school and have baths, and their family needed to prepare meals and do laundry – but they felt called every day to spread the Gospel.
They missed their relatives – that was the hardest part, not the food or living arrangements as they had expected – but the Bolles knew they were making a sacrifice for the greater good.
“Sometimes, to answer God’s call, we have to surrender things that aren’t wrong or evil or bad,” he said. “Family’s a good thing, but in order to respond to God’s call you have to sometimes surrender things and sacrifices that are good, that are for the greater good.”
Open to the Holy Spirit
They tried to be open to the Holy Spirit each day and, through that, would meet people at the market, a taxi driver, or just run into people in need and share something, talk or pray with them. Then, they’d get to know their families and learn a little more about their lives, help them with whatever needs they had and invite them to dive deeper into their faith — like Lilay Siapo, whom they’d hired to help their family, her husband, Jerome, and their five children, ages 2 to 12.
“I sometimes would joke to people that the Lord sent us to the Philippines so that Lilay would start evangelizing, because once God got a hold of her, it was just an amazing transformation that started happening in their family,” Luke said, explaining that she and her family began reaching out to others, spreading the Gospel, and regularly attending Mass and confession.
Their family was instrumental to the Bolles’ work.
“They were a window into the culture and a window into the community,” Luke said. “Their family – they knew the local people, they knew where the need was, they knew who everyone was, so they were just instrumental in like bringing us to the people in need, and to helping us in translating when that was necessary so that we could really live the Gospel and share the Gospel.”
Sharing the Gospel would have been difficult without the Siapo family, he added.
“It would have been very difficult without them because they were just instrumental in showing us the need and also helping us to convey that Christ was the answer, so that was a huge blessing.”
Randy and Rita and their six children also left a lasting impact on the Bolles.
They met the family of eight when they started the kids’ ministry, quickly learning that they were very much in need. Randy was in despair because he could hardly put rice on the table to feed his children, and their children weren’t in school because they couldn’t afford supplies.
“I think he had tried to commit suicide and was just very in despair and so we were really able to like pray with them, and talk with them and share more about Christ, and Randy ended up attending our Bible study,” he said, adding that Rita also attended the praise and worship nights.
“We just started inviting them into a deeper relationship with the Lord, but also just expressing that Christ was the answer and that’s where they could place their trust. …” he said. “We were able to help with some of those needs and get all their kids into school and it was just really blessed to sort of just be around them.”
Luke said they’d love to return to the Philippines, because there’s enough need to spend the rest of their lives there, but they want to go wherever God calls them.
Until then, they plan to live with friends in the Brillion/Reedsville area, using some of their stipend to get their feet on the ground until Luke finds a job to support his family. The kids will go back to school, and they’ll take time to meet as many people as they can, especially supporters to share what God has been doing in the Philippines.
They’ll also spend some time at FMC headquarters in Louisiana doing some activities and functions.
“We see ourselves as missionaries because God has called us to be missionaries, so being home doesn’t change that,” Luke said. “We feel that, and hope that, we can just live out our missionary lives while we’re in the states.”
He said they hope to be back on the road a few months after the baby arrives, “back out to wherever the Lord has us going.”
“God in his mercy and his grace often calls all of us – and a lot of people say that’s so difficult,” said Luke. “And it is – it can be very hard. But the truth is, God makes it doable for each of us in our own personal way.”
(Tracy Rusch contributed to this story.)