By Nick Lichter
Photography by Michael Lieurance
“I was naughty in high school. That’s why I love and have a special place for teens in my heart. Our family would go to 40 hours devotion and I wouldn’t understand why. I would sit for that Holy Hour counting statues, watching my parents with their rosaries and daydream. My parents made sure my brother and sisters and I went to CCD, but to me, it was a waste of time. After confirmation, Father Don Przybylski approached me and asked me to help. I asked him, “Why? It’s the biggest waste of time. And he said, ‘That’s exactly why. I want you to teach, I see something in you.’”
That radical challenge to ministry continues to evolve for Julie Studinski of St. Bronislava Parish in Plover. She accompanies teens on their faith journey while living out her own. Responding as a freshman in high school, Julie has by now been helping Catholic youth for 30 years. She started as a religious education instructor, later assisted with confirmation preparation and, gradually, earned certificates and degrees necessary to her role. Through the years, Julie keeps Christ’s Gospel message ‘real’ for thousands of teens. And in return, the teens have helped keep Jesus’ voice urgent and alive for Julie, as well. Julie says His call can sometimes be pretty emphatic, like a kick in the behind!
As director of youth ministry, religious education, social ministry and as confirmation coordinator, Julie encourages youth to practice the Gospel, serve the poor at community dinners, volunteer at the parish Italian night dinner, and much more. She’s helping teens connect, helping them turn good intentions into good works. In Julie’s ambit, in her life and her relationship with Christ, there is an urgency driven not by the course of events but by the need to realize one’s calling. Julie lives the Good News, translating her own vocational call into today’s teen language. She often uses the phrase, “He kicked my butt!” in reference to how Jesus pulled her deeper into the faith and her ministry. The expression reveals so much about Julie, but also about Jesus. He lives where we live, speaking to us in the language of our time.
Jesus sometimes surprised His disciples. Working full time, pregnant with her first and, only, child Mariah, and still very involved with the Church, Julie again heard the Great Teacher. “Oh my gosh! I’m being called to ministry!” and that’s when Julie applied for the full time role of parish youth minister. Julie prayed and discussed what it might mean with her husband Earl. She already had a good job. Were she to be hired, the ministry role paid only half her earnings in the insurance industry. But Julie knew she’d been called. Then another surprise, Julie wasn’t hired. Julie sees the setback now as Christ telling her she wasn’t ready yet, prompting her again, this time more gently, to prepare for her journey with Him. A little while later, a new pastor, Father James Trempe, came to the parish and recognized Julie’s potential for working with youth.
“‘Can you help this guy? Can you organize, mentor and perhaps run the youth nights?’” He had no idea Julie had previously interviewed. For Julie, the irony is a continuing call to humility. She knows that Jesus calls us to His table to serve, not to dine.
“Everything happens for a reason and in God’s time, not mine. It was such a blessing to spend time working with others. I learned so much,” she said. “Michelle Bowe, who is now youth minister in Eau Claire, came for a while. She taught me so much. When she moved on I was hired. It was finally the right time.” At last, Julie was able to officially realize her desire to work with youth.
“I try to see Christ in everyone I encounter, especially in teenagers. We don’t give them enough credit for having a deep relationship with Christ. In my daughter Mariah, I see Christ in the way she treats others. This year, after a mission trip we took to Peru, Mariah decided, without any nudging or suggestions from me, to sponsor a young boy named Alonso. Monsignor Hirsch shared that Alonso is probably Father Joseph Walijewski’s biggest fan. Earl also had been Father Joe’s altar boy, so there was that connection, too. But Mariah is doing this on her own; $1,000 is a real sacrifice for a 16 year old girl. It’s pretty cool and a proud-mom moment.”
Julie tries to see Christ in others, and helps other teens like her daughter, to see Christ, too. Each year she leads scores of youth on missions and retreats within the diocese, to national gatherings and sometimes abroad to missions like Casa Hogar, Peru.
Julie prays for guidance on her faith journey. When asked what the future holds she replies, “I don’t know what’s ahead. I take every day as a gift. Perhaps, I will start a ministry for parents, or branch into grief ministry.”
When her dear friend, Deacon Rich Zietlow, unexpectedly passed away of a heart attack, Julie was at his side. She was devastated and it was tough working it through for herself, not to mention helping the parish teens. Julie says our human answers fall short, especially in the face of deep emotional stress and loss.
“More and more teens and parents struggle with loss, alcohol and with suicide. There has to be a way to help. Life is good, God is really good. I say it all the time. And the teens will echo back, all the time, God is really good.”
Her expression of gratitude and her questionings are, perhaps, already partial answers. Her faith points forward for Julie and for all who live in faith. Human frailty engenders suffering. It is one of our deepest connections with Christ. Being present to Christ’s suffering at Mass, joining our own suffering to His become creative acts, offering hope and healing. Christ’s healing extends God’s loving act of creation: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1 v 31) Julie’s hopeful view echoes back, “Life is good, God is really good.”
The hard thing is finding the time because there always will be something to do when you are in church ministry. “I cannot step into the parish without 18 people who want to stop and talk after Mass. My job is the Church and my vocation is my marriage and family. Where is the time for Earl and Mariah? My spiritual direction, when not directly from the cross, comes from some really good priest friends, and a personal friend Mary Yessa. Sometimes all it takes is a really good confession.”
Julie makes the time to seek reconciliation because it revitalizes her and she is strengthened by Christ’s presence.
“Sometimes I am weeping at His feet. Sometimes, I am right beside Him, other times I follow Him.” Julie embodies holy women drawn to Christ. Her struggles finding time for family are a reminder of Jesus’ close friends Mary and Martha. She favors Martha, the doer. Julie shares with us how she looks for Christ in everyone, leads teens to lasting and deep relationships with Christ, sees Christ in them, listens for His voice and lives out the His vocation call. She speaks to us of the Blessed Mother as her best advocate and offers fresh testament of Christ’s calling, healing and reconciliation. Christ makes all things new. In the early church, Paul, bent on persecuting Christ, was knocked from his horse on the road to Damascus. In these present days, Julie, a formerly naughty teenager, has been called, too. Jesus called Julie as His friend. And Julie tells us Jesus has found a new move, one that packs a real punch. Paul said he was struck by a thunderbolt and Julie says it was, for her at least, more like a kick in the butt!