A priest who has a long career as an educator — and who is a leader who has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help schools as needed in the southern counties of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
A Catholic school president who faced the extraordinary pandemic effort of education at her own school — and also organized collaboration among the 16 high schools of the archdiocese to face the challenges together.
A Fond du Lac area family that operates one of largest energy and infrastructure contractors in North America — and has single-handedly changed the landscape of Catholic education in its community.
Meet your 2023 Elizabeth Ann Seton Award recipients.
Fr. Jim Lobacz, Catholic Memorial High School President Donna Bembenek and members of the Michels Family received the awards at the annual Archbishop’s Catholic Schools Dinner, held March 7.
A record crowd of 900 honored them at the event, which was held for the first time at the Wisconsin Center. The dinner raised about $200,000 for the GIFTS (Grant Initiatives for Tomorrow’s Schools) grant program that has benefited 73 archdiocesan schools since it began in 2019.
Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki established the awards presented annually at the dinner for outstanding people/contributors in three categories — priest, educator and community member.
Fr. Jim Lobacz — Outstanding Priest
“With a long career as an educator, Fr. Lobacz is a teacher at heart,” a special video presentation at the dinner noted. Ordained in 1979, he has served in various roles at St. Mary High School, Burlington; Divine Savior Holy Angels High School; Cardinal Stritch University and the Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology.
As the Vicar General for Kenosha, Racine and Walworth counties, Fr. Lobacz’s leadership for the benefit of St. Joseph Catholic Academy in Kenosha was especially important.
“When faced with a difficult situation, Fr. Lobacz is kind, systematic and thoughtful. He has served as an advocate for schools regarding many issues, and has made invaluable contributions to the stabilization and growth of Catholic education,” the tribute announcement said.
Fr. Lobacz is still teaching people in his role as master of ceremonies for Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki. He teaches people of all ages about the special liturgical details related to the Mass or other services led by the archbishop. He also serves as the Vicar for Senior Priests.
Donna Bembenek — Outstanding Educator
President of Catholic Memorial since 2017, Bembenek fostered a creative vision for the Waukesha Catholic high school that has included enrollment growth, facilities planning and outreach to the Hispanic community.
“Donna has exhibited extraordinary leadership, not only at Catholic Memorial but in the Milwaukee area — a recognized professional throughout southeastern Wisconsin and beyond,” a tribute video noted.
During the pandemic, Bembenek led the high school presidents in formulating policies and protocols, advocating for state funding and conducting weekly presidents’ meetings that have resulted in increased collaboration among the 16 high schools of the archdiocese.
Her two children are graduates of Catholic Memorial, and she is an active member of Holy Apostles Parish, New Berlin.
The Michels Family — Outstanding Community Partner
This award was given to Pat and Marysue Michel and Pat’s brother, Kevin, and his wife, Connie, for their extraordinary commitment to Catholic education in the Fond du Lac area and beyond. The award also included Pat and Kevin’s parents, Dale and Ruth Michels, posthumously.
In 1959, Dale founded what is now the Michels Corporation headquartered near Fond du Lac in Brownsville.
The support of these families was instrumental in the capital campaign for the united St. Mary’s Springs Academy campus that now serves grades K3-12.
“St. Mary’s Springs Academy would not exist without the support of the Michels family,” the tribute said. “If Dale and Ruth were here right now, they would be the first to tell you that they are just doing nothing extraordinary, just what’s right.”
“One of the qualities that makes this family so special, beyond their financial support, is their willingness to roll up their sleeves and invest their time, talent and expertise in St. Mary’s Springs. Even while running a multibillion-dollar business, they are always there when you need them, offering advice, attending meetings and tackling the issues, right alongside their school and community,” the tribute video said.
Fr. Jim Lobacz, Donna Bembenek and members of the Michels family accept 2023 Elizabeth Ann Seton Awards from Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki at the Archbishop’s Catholic Schools Dinner March 7. (Photos by David Bernacchi)