Consider that for nearly three decades, the longtime schoolteacher has made five to eight trips each year – 580 miles each way – from her home on Milwaukee’s south side to the mountains of Kentucky, transporting each time, a truckload of donations – food, furniture, books, household goods, holiday items and toys – for the people in this economically challenged part of the United States.

For many years, Czarnecki made the long trek in her Astro minivan, but after 23 years, she said the van “bit the dust” and she now rents trucks to make the haul. The 26-foot, or her preference 18-foot trucks, are filled with the donations which have come from friends, coworkers, fellow Our Lady of Lourdes parishioners, her beautician, veterinarian, dental hygienist, anyone who has heard of her dedication and ministry to the people of Kentucky.

People of Faith

Name: Grace Czarnecki
Parish: Our Lady of Lourdes, Milwaukee
Occupation: Teacher, 36 years in Milwaukee Public School system
(Catholic Herald photo by Maryangela Layman Román)

Czarnecki stumbled upon this ministry during a poker game in the early 1980s. One of the members of the poker club suggested that Czarnecki attend Mass at St. Thomas in Waterford that weekend as there was to be a special missionary speaker. School Sister of St. Francis Noel Le Claire was to give a presentation on her work in rural Kentucky. Sr. Noel, along with three other members of her religious community, Srs. Joanne Hardtke, Kathleen Zanio and Ruth Griesemer, had been ministering in the area since the late 1960s.

During the presentation, Czarnecki and her mother, Anna, learned of the sisters’ efforts in this part of the United States that in some ways was more like a Third World country as many homes lacked indoor plumbing, education was not a priority, teens often married as young as 14 and medical care was lacking.

Sr. Noel described the community’s needs and asked for prayers, money and volunteers to help with a census and to transport donations.
Czarnecki figured she’d pray and give a financial donation, but her mother had different ideas.

“My mother had tons of stuff and she told me to clear it out and said, ‘You’ll go down there and give it to that nun. You love to travel and you love to drive,’’’ recalled Czarnecki of the first trip she made to Booneville in August 1983.

Sr. Noel and her mother never let her travel alone, she explained, so on that first trip, she went with a friend and her young daughter.

“The poor child barely had room to sit in the back seat, we had the car so loaded with donations,” recalled Czarnecki.

In the years since, Czarnecki has made the trips with various traveling companions: Beatrice Wiesner, Natalie Horch, Marge Brewer, JoAnne Baldewicz, Kathryn Robison, Maureen Quinn, Mary D’Amico, Sharon Lynn Pelon, Sr. Noel and Peggy Spence to name a few.

Want to help?
“Amazing Grace” encourages others to contact the Workers of Rural Kentucky directly to offer assistance.
PO Box 157
Booneville, KY, 41314
(606) 593-7697 or

She also suggests a visit to the center and noted a specific need is for a piano teacher to spend time there teaching music to the children using a piano recently donated
to the center.

Her trips are three-day ventures and typically take place on weekends, explained Czarnecki, adding that in 36 years as a teacher in the Milwaukee Public Schools system, she never missed a day of school because of the Kentucky trips.

She has them down to a science. Days before the trip, a group that she refers to as her “loyal truck packers,” come to her home and load the truck. Wanting to give them credit, Czarnecki said her volunteers include Dennis Wrycza, Karl Spence, Jim Dix, Michael Babby, Chad Smith, Michael Adrian, Maureen Quinn, Steve Muschinski and the Yang and Her families.

Czarnecki built a large shed in her backyard to accommodate the donations she receives between trips. Right now, for example, she has lots of Easter baskets, grass, stuffed animals, candy and new Easter outfits on hand in anticipation of her trip in about a week.

Traveling south on I-65, she said the trips by truck take about 14-15 hours. She spends Friday night in a motel and makes sure she is not traveling the last 60 miles into the mountains in the dark.

“The last 33 miles are the hardest on the truck especially when it’s loaded,” said Czarnecki. “It was real adventurous in the 80s until Kentucky did some real road repairs. It used to be more scary the first 10 years, but (the road repairs) took all the scariness out of it.”

Once she arrives, unloading the truck is a priority. She spends the second day, however, socializing with the Kentuckians who have become dear friends over the years. During her Thanksgiving trip the weekend before Thanksgiving, it’s become tradition to celebrate a turkey dinner with some 45 to 50 people.

Over the years, Czarnecki has seen the impact of her missions.

“I’ve seen the effect it has had on the people, especially the women have taken on more responsibility,” she said, noting one woman in particular, Stella Marshall, who earned a master’s degree and now serves as director of Workers of Rural Kentucky, the organization developed by the sisters to provide services to the community.

Czarnecki added that the people of Kentucky are more trusting of outsiders like herself and while the community is still poor financially, “I’ve seen growth in personalities and I see people taking more initiative to tackle problems like garbage pickup and road repairs.”

She also knows her work has personally touched others. For example, in 1990, when her 51-year-old brother died suddenly of a massive heart attack, she went to his home in St. Louis, rented a truck and transported all his belongings: dressers, clothes, furniture, pots and pans from St. Louis to Milwaukee to Kentucky.

His beautiful king-sized bed made the final days of a dying Kentuckian more peaceful. The man, who had cancer, had been released from the hospital to spend his last days at home. Much to his surprise, when he returned to his simple home, he found he and his family would not have to sleep on the floor, as the king size bed which could accommodate him, his wife and two children was waiting for him.

“Tears streamed from his eyes when he realized he would have the comfort of the bed in his last weeks or months, and I know my brother would have really appreciated knowing that it was going to good use, too,” said Czarnecki.

Over the years, word of mouth has helped her ministry spread. As Milwaukeeans learn of her regular trips to Kentucky, donations have poured in. Each November, for the last 14 years, she has hosted a Christmas party at Our Lady of Lourdes where guests are asked to bring new toys to give to children in Kentucky. Their donations have brought smiles to hundreds of children and have made their parents feel important, too, as the parents select the toys for their children during a special toy selection party.

“They were going shopping for free because of the generosity of the people in the Wisconsin area,” said Czarnecki of the event which “makes people feel the spirit of Christmas even if they could not afford a darn thing.”

Czarnecki plans to continue her road trips for as long as she can.

“The dear Lord uses me this way. I like driving, I don’t mind a lot of traffic, although I’d rather have the open highway. He gave me the love of being behind the wheel, going to new places and meeting people,” she said.

She attributes her ministry to the example she received from her parents, William and Anna Czarnecki.

“My mother and father gave me a beautiful gift of faith, something my mother shared with me for 92 years of her life,” she said. “I believe Christ is with me. People ask me if I am afraid to go, but he walks right with me, he directs me and if I have a problem, I call upon him.”

Through what Czarnecki describes as “her little acts,” she said she knows she has made a difference.

“When you can definitely touch someone’s life …. The key thing is faith, belief in God, belief in Jesus Christ. I know I could not be this person if not for my parents passing down their faith,” she said.

And to the person Czarnecki describes as her hero, Sr. Noel, she is simply amazing.

“Because of her generous giving heart, Grace has lovingly been dubbed by all her Appalachian friends and volunteers as Amazing Grace. That’s how we refer to her. She’s done some amazing things so that’s the right name for her,” said Sr. Noel.