Born in Japan in the 1940s and ending a distinguished Air Force career as a colonel, Jim Sterzinger’s life has taken him to many places. No place, however, is like the place where Jim ended up — moving to where his family roots have grown deep for more than a century. Jim made his home more than 20 years ago in Colby and continues to build on his family’s legacy throughout the community and, in particular, at St. Mary Help of Christians Parish. St. Mary is a parish that generations of his family have built up to become the parish one can see today. In a small community like Colby, seeing a vibrant, thriving parish, beautiful church and Catholic school creates excitement for all who can experience and observe them.
Jim’s great-grandfather moved from Germany in 1873 to Milwaukee, then to the Colby area in 1881. As Jim relates, “He got here and he was shocked because he left St. Matthias in Milwaukee, a full, well-organized parish, and here there wasn’t even a regular priest. It wasn’t until three years after he got here that they had Mass regularly, and that was only twice a month” Jim’s great-grandfather, along with the greater Catholic community, continued to grow and push for an organized parish life. Jim continues, “The first church was a school they moved to this spot; the second church they built here in 1888. In between them, my great-grandfather and 16 other men bought the land for the cemetery.” The parish grew and by 1903 they had already started construction on a larger building. The church that stands there today was dedicated and blessed in May of 1905. After the Mass celebrated by Bishop Schwebach, dinner was served to more than 800 people.In the early 1960s, the church’s interior was simplified quite a bit. In the early 2000s, however, the parish began a restoration project that would see the roof repaired, stained-glass windows fixed and much of the beautiful church adornment restored to what we see today. Jim explains the motivation for the restoration, “The big drive was — this is a beautiful church now. The parish wanted to return to a beautiful church and they thought it would bring us closer together — and it has.” You can see some of the restoration work continuing even today. “We are still going,” Jim explains, “the vigil candle went up in the last week and we turned to more traditional candle stands.”
The first Catholic school for the community was built in 1894. The present building the school uses was built in 1937 and continues to provide energy and excitement to the parish life. On average, the school enrolls more than 100 students.
The big drive was — this is a beautiful church now. The parish wanted to return to a beautiful church and they thought it would bring us closer together — and it has.
Jim’s mark on the parish may be most noticed through his work as a confirmation teacher. He became a confirmation teacher simply because he was asked to help. Now, 22 years later, Jim still works hard to help form the young faithful. “Initially,” Jim begins, “they asked me and I said I would do it, and that’s how I started. A lot of people now say this new generation of teenagers doesn’t have the grit, doesn’t have the sense of community, doesn’t have the things they need. I say I don’t believe that for a minute. I tell the youth, ‘You are the future of our Church, the future of our community, the future of our state, the future of our nation and you are great adults. I’m glad you are here.’” Jim believes much of the positive response he receives from his students comes from the fact that they are juniors in high school. “We went away from eighth-grade confirmation” Jim explains. “In my day, we continued religious education until we graduated from high school, but that changed. We confirmed kids in eighth grade and they never hear about religion again.” Working with juniors gives a few extra years of maturation that Jim feels is invaluable. “We talk about adult things. For example, we talk about community service; we also talk to them about how to come to confession and how to do that. We try to teach them how to be an adult Catholic.”
Working with the kids more than 22 years has been a positive experience for Jim. Jim’s confirmation classes flourish year to year. This past year, there were 20 students in the parish confirmation class, which is typical. “In 22 years, I’ve only sent a student out of class one time. But other than that, I have had no problems. You treat them like adults — they act like adults.”
Jim has had more experience with Catholic youth than most — and his refreshingly positive outlook for them speaks volumes to the integrity and vibrancy of today’s youth. “If you go to a big Mass where a lot of the confirmation kids come together, or adoration we hold here for all the confirmation kids, they sing all the songs in Latin and they are just all singing so loud. They all want to be here; they want to participate.”
Story and Photography by Ben Williams