Throughout the year, the Catholic Herald staff enjoys telling the inspirational stories of people of faith. Several from last year were especially touching and inspirational. Following, in chronological order, are our 10 most inspiring stories of 2015.
Life didn’t work out as Sr. Charity Keolsch had planned. She joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1942, but 20 plus years later, uncomfortable with changes in the church and religious life that came with Vatican II, she left.
With Bishop Leo J. Brust’s approval, she professed private vows and since 1976 has lived as a consecrated virgin. On her own, she had to support herself financially and turned to her creative talents and became a toy designer and pattern maker. She created animal patterns that were sold well-known pattern books like McCalls and created a line of dolls for the Franciscan Friars.
Yet, she dreamed of following in the footsteps of two of her role models, Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day. Sr. Charity dreamed of founding a religious order dedicated to helping the poor, the homeless, the “bag ladies.” That was never to be, but she met and worked with Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day and for years, she served the poor and vulnerable in New York, Chicago and Milwaukee. In fact, she helped out at the Cathedral Center in Milwaukee until she was 87.
Among her efforts, she rounded up the money to place a statue of Mary in a particularly troubled neighborhood, believing “it would be good to have a statue of the Blessed Mother in a very bad neighborhood among the poorest of the poor, the wanderers.” For years, the statue, that she named, “Our Lady of the Street” looked out for the prostitutes, homeless and poor in the area near North 27th Street, just north of Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee, and later moved to a couple south side locations. Sr. Charity is just months away from her 93rd birthday and she doesn’t leave her home anymore, but she’s still working to make others’ lives better. Today, she spends her time writing children’s stories, creating “nice fairy tales, in response to what she sees as the “awful scary stuff that children are exposed to.” The first of her stories, told with beautiful detail and a sweet message or moral, “Papa and the Christmas Tree,” appeared in the December Catholic Herald Family section.
With the help of the Catholic Herald, Sr. Charity hopes her work will appear in book form to be enjoyed by future generations. (Jan. 15 and Nov. 26, 2015)
Talia Westerby was an overachiever, the perfect child, according to her father, Michael Fahrenbach. The eldest of Michael and Tanja’s three children, her good grades led to scholarships that paid for college where she held a 4.0 grade point average. She graduated in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in music and elementary education from Butler University in Indianapolis, and began her teaching career. But the perfectionism, drive and focus that had helped her excel started controlling her. She suffered severe panic attacks and her need for everything to be perfect was diagnosed as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). She also learned that she was one of approximately 13.6 million people who live with a serious mental illness like schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder. Medications, family support and her Catholic faith have help Talia cope with her diagnosis. In an effort to help others with a similar story, Talia wants to offer people hope and encouragement by sharing her experiences. She shared her story publicly for the first time in 2014 during a Theology on Tap session. “I’m proof to show you, you can get through, and I’ve seen relief in countless faces, just knowing…. So to offer hope in my stability today, I’ve seen as a very powerful tool,” she told the Catholic Herald. (Jan. 22, 2015)
Mildred Gray has a third grade education. The closest she came to Marquette University was decades ago when she washed dishes in the convent at Gesu Parish on the campus grounds. While not a formally educated woman, Mildred, who with her husband, Willy, came to Milwaukee in the 1940s, and, at that time, were members of the Methodist Church, knew education would be important for their seven children. Hearing that St. Benedict the Moor, a Catholic school, was a good school, she enrolled her eldest son there until fourth grade. When the family moved, they switched to Holy Angels. Not only did Mildred embrace Catholic education, but she embraced the Catholic faith as well, converting to Catholicism after befriending a School Sister of St. Francis (Sr. Mary Francis Joseph) at Gesu. It was that faith, she said, that helped her cope with the deaths of two children from cancer at ages 4 and 6 during a 13-month timeframe, and the death of her husband in 1968 of a massive stroke at age 38. Even after her husband died, she continued to send her children to Catholic schools for as long as she could afford the tuition. Today, at age 87, Mildred, a member of All Saints Parish, Milwaukee, is the proud matriarch of a family of several college graduates, including daughter Marina Thompson who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, and granddaughter, Noelle Thompson, a Marquette University student working toward a degree in public relations and who, when she graduates, will be the first person in her family to attend 12 years of Catholic education. (Jan. 29, 2015)
Jesuit Fr. John Schlegel was about nine months into his new position as pastor of Gesu Parish, Milwaukee, last January when his own version of Lent began. After a storied career that included serving as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Marquette University (1984-1989), president of the University of San Francisco (1990-2000) and Creighton University (2000-2011), and president and publisher of America (2011-2012), Fr. Schlegel was looking forward to pastoral work in a parish as a way to close out his career. He had no idea that his last assignment would be cut short. He was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer in mid-January and was told by doctors that he had perhaps a four-to six-month window of time before the disease would take its toll. A self-described “Easter person,” Fr. Schlegel made the most of that window, even making a visit to Pope Francis and celebrating morning Mass with him in his private chapel. Additionally, he spent the next months reconnecting with people he touched throughout his life. He inspired friends, family and parishioners with his approach to his illness as a counterpoint to the growing movement supporting so-called “Death With Dignity” or euthanasia.
“Maybe it is a counter-statement to euthanasia. I think I will die with great dignity, without that kind of human assistance and if I can speak to the needs of others contemplating that kind of situation, fine, it is a grace and a gift,” he told the Catholic Herald. Fr. Schlegel died Nov. 15. (April 2, 2015)
Larry Malanowski retired as an art teacher last June, closing out an 11-year career teaching students in Milwaukee County. His students, however, were not typical young artists. Mr. M’s students, for example, were prohibited from using certain ordinary art supplies, such as scissors and clay. Additionally, the rules in his classroom were stricter than some, and breaking them carried severe penalties. “No rapping, tapping, singing, cussing, swearing or ribbing,” he said.
Breaking the rules might mean restriction to a cell block, barred from school and recreation time and compelled to eat their meals in solitude. Mr. M’s students were juvenile offenders incarcerated at the Wauwatosa Juvenile Detention Center. Not only did Mr. M expose the students to the world of art, but he helped arrange for their work to be shown in a gallery setting, “Windows of the Soul,” at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee, where he is a parishioner.
“You have to realize that these students of theirs are people who have always been put down in life and got into a situation, so to show some kind of accomplishment like this has got to bring some pride into their life,” said Deacon Tom Hunt, a close friend of Mr. M’s who has helped him coordinate the annual gallery showing at the cathedral. (May 7, 2015)
Huddled on a milk crate in the shadow of a church on North Avenue some eight or nine years ago, Michelle Kasper knew she had hit rock bottom. Homeless, living on the streets, smoking crack daily, she was surrounded by drugs, violence, prostitution and poverty. She saw no way out of the cycle of desperation, but she said she felt an overwhelming presence of God as she sat behind the inner city church. Yet, in the years that followed, Michelle continued to rebuff the outreaches made by Deacon Steve Przedpelski and Carmen Mojica of Franciscan Peacemakers who reach out to men, women and children who engage in prostitution on the streets of Milwaukee, until one day, she contacted Deacon Przedpelski out of desperation. He dropped everything – including his planned Summerfest date with his wife – to be there for Michelle, and he’s been there ever since. In the years that have followed, Michelle has left life on the streets, moved into her own apartment, enrolled at Mount Mary University where she made the dean’s list and is working toward a degree in social work. A client support specialist for Franciscan Peacemakers, she made another change in her life last Easter when, moved by the example of Carmen and Deacon Przedpelski, she entered the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil at St. Gabriel Parish, Hubertus. While Michelle said she has been inspired by their example and faith, according to Carmen, Michelle is the true inspiration. “She really inspires me and when she has questions about faith, it causes me to think about what I am doing. She has a really deep spiritual side to her, and I see her reaching out to people like Jesus would,” said Carmen. (June 11, 2015)
Instead of preaching at her 34-year old son’s September 2005 wedding as she had been planning, Mary Kay Balchunas found herself preparing his eulogy in November 2004. Her son, Jay Balchunas, a Wisconsin Department of Justice Special Agent, was shot and killed while on duty. In her eulogy, Mary Kay spoke of Jay’s life of service, his love for his family and how his strong faith guided his life. That same faith has guided Mary Kay, a member of St. Mary Parish, Hales Corners, as she has turned her grief and loss into efforts to help others. Not only did she inspire those who heard her on the day of the funeral, but she has continued to share her healing message of hope and forgiveness with survivors of violence, trauma response teams and law enforcement personnel by speaking to law enforcement personnel, at a restorative justice event and at law enforcement memorials. She said she uses Jay’s life example to say, “How can we love?” and by looking for grace in the world. “For me, often that type of grace is in other people, knowing that Christ lives in them,” she told the Catholic Herald. (Sept. 3, 2015)
In his 89 years, Linus Doll has had many titles: woodworker, waterfowl hunter and wordsmith to name a few. He added a title to his resume some nine years ago: writer. His columns, written in pen in block letters, are typeset into electronic format by his grandson for delivery to the Fond du Lac Reporter newspaper. He published his 90th hometown commentary last fall, but it’s not only Reporter readers who can enjoy his reminiscences of “the good ole days.” Linus has self-published a collection of his first 89 columns in a booklet titled, “Looking Back …. Stories by Linus Doll.” A devout Catholic, longtime member of St. Mary Parish and Holy Family Parish, Fond du Lac, he is donating proceeds from the booklet that he assembles himself, to help fund new stained glass windows at Holy Family Catholic Community Church. (Oct. 8, 2015)
Krystina Finn’s time on earth was comparatively short — she died at age 26 on Dec. 6, 2014 — but in that time Krystina left a legacy that will affect the poor in the slums of Kenya for generations. Krystina was honored posthumously by Catholic Memorial High School with the Distinguished Young Alumni award for her work cofounding a non-profit that helps impoverished Kenyan women become financially independent. Called the Kipsongo Project, it helps Kipsongo women — Kipsongo is one of the most depressed slums in Kenya — make and sell home goods, jewelry and clothing. It employs 15 Kenyan women as jewelers, seamstresses and project managers. They have approximately 20 local children enrolled in a combined nutrition and education program and about 25 local women enrolled in their microfinance program, which has distributed over 100 microloans subsequently used by the women to support their small businesses. “Krystina truly, in a short life, accomplished what I would think any parent would want their child to be able to do, any school administrator would want a graduate to be able to do, any person of faith would want to see themselves or another person accomplish,” said CMH president, Fr. Paul Hartmann. “She really was a very special and a unique person when all of those qualities came together.” (Oct. 29, 2015)
Four-year-old Kaylee Guijosa Orozco received a pink, puffy, warm winter jacket courtesy the Milwaukee Fire Department’s Warm Up Winter Initiative. It was one of more than 16,000 jackets donated by the fire department to Milwaukee children, including approximately 1,000 of them which went to Kaylee’s K3 to sixth grade schoolmates at St. Anthony School, Milwaukee. While the recipients were certainly grateful, Kaylee, a member of St. Adalbert Parish and K4 student at St. Anthony, Milwaukee, took her gratitude one step further. In addition to creating, with the help of her mother, Sandra Orozco, a homemade thank-you card, she brought the entire contents of her piggy bank – about $10 to $15 – and gave it to the firefighters to use for future donations.
“This is the first time we’ve had a young child, especially of this young age, specifically say, ‘This is my piggy bank money and I would like to give back to the next group of kids that are going to receive coats next year,’” said John Litchford, Milwaukee Fire Department Battalion Chief. (Dec. 24, 2015)
Compiled by Maryangela Layman Román