Pope St. John Paul II, addressing the faithful in Australia on Nov. 30, 1986, said, “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.” A bold statement from a bold pope touches on a reality – family life is the heroic life-blood of society. Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary parishioners Joe and Melissa Chesek reside with their seven children in Marathon, and every day live out their own heroic venture through their selfless devotion to each other and to their Faith.
Married for 15 years, Joe and Melissa keep family and Faith at the center of their lives. Although Joe and Melissa originally started their lives together in Joe’s home state of Illinois, as their family grew larger and their kids grew older, they considered moving to Melissa’s home state of Wisconsin. Joe reflects, “Where we lived was getting very overpopulated. We knew we wanted to get out of that. We were going on five children. We wanted to send them to Catholic school and raise them Catholic, but the overpopulation took its toll on Catholic schools in terms of cost. We knew we wanted to get out of that heavily populated area and send the kids to Catholic school.”
What seemed to be God’s plan all along, Joe eventually landed with his family in Marathon in 2013. “I ended up taking a job in Marshfield,” Joe begins, “and I commuted from Illinois. One thing led to another. I stumbled upon a house here in Marathon on an Ash Wednesday, and the pastor, Monsignor Joseph Diermeier (Father Joe), stopped me after Mass. I told him about my family and he said we’d really like it here – the following week we were signing the mortgage papers and moving up here.”
You know, I was raised on ‘dad had a strong hand and mom was the comforter.’ I’ve realized I can’t do that, so I’ve changed the way I thought about raising children 180 degrees. Especially in Faith life, I have to be more tender. If I didn’t have kids I don’t know where I would be in my Faith life because it has always been about trying to offer that example. Seeing them, as they get older, when they go down that aisle in church and genuflect and roll into that pew – I feel pride in that.”
Joe’s initial meeting with Father Joe had a profound impact on him and Father Joe continues to impact the family to this day. Joe says, “Spiritually, Father Joe is a big part of our family. He’s taken us in, very strongly. Father Joe is very pro-family and I think he can see that in us.” Melissa adds, “Father Joe was very welcoming in saying ‘come on, sit up front.’ Don’t be afraid with a large family, where most families our size maybe want to sit in the back.”
Joe and Melissa work each day to ensure their kids are exposed to and practicing their Catholic Faith. Joe also reflects on how they keep their Faith alive throughout their busy daily lives, “We always try to make time for prayers. We pray every night before the kids go to bed, say grace before meals, and pray the rosary every week on Sunday.” Melissa adds, “The kids each take turns leading the rosary.” Joe and Melissa are also grateful they are blessed with St. Mary Catholic School where they know their children are receiving a great Catholic education.
Joe and Melissa’s Faith is influenced by their children as well. “I pray for them daily,” Melissa begins, “I think, for me and for Joe too, we just assess what to do and how to interact with them and pray for graces to be good parents and do the best we can with God’s help. Watching them grow and thinking back on when they were little and what they are like now, we are truly so thankful. From pregnancy to giving birth and watching them grow, it is an awesome feeling to know that God has given us such a gift and that we participated in creating all of these lives.”
Joe adds, “A lot of reflection. I try to learn from my mistakes and always try to improve. They all have helped me understand humanity better. You know, I was raised on ‘dad had a strong hand and mom was the comforter.’ I’ve realized I can’t do that, so I’ve changed the way I thought about raising children 180 degrees. Especially in Faith life, I have to be more tender. If I didn’t have kids I don’t know where I would be in my Faith life because it has always been about trying to offer that example. Seeing them, as they get older, when they go down that aisle in church and genuflect and roll into that pew – I feel pride in that.”
An essential quality that has always filled this family with God’s graces is their openness to life. “Getting married I knew I wanted a larger family,” Joe begins. “I had a great childhood growing up with five siblings. The meals together were always exciting, never a dull moment. I always thought that was normal, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. So, when Melissa and I met and started dating, the openness to life was there and it was perfect. Being open to life is such a blessed way to be, and the graces that are there are incredible. I feel sad when people are not open to life; ‘how depressing’ I say to myself sometimes.” Melissa adds, “It is very sad.” Melissa adds couples who may not be open to life, “They are missing out on so much that they have no idea how rich kids make your lives. After you have kids and you look back and you go ‘oh my gosh’ what was life before them? Not that life didn’t have meaning, but it has so much more meaning and with each child that just adds more and more to it. We were always open to having children, but it never occurred to me that we would have seven. I could not imagine my life without any of them.”
Joe adds further reflection on having a large family, “The more you give the more you get. I can speak to that on a financial level, on a relationship level – the more you give the more you get.” Melissa concludes, “God is not going to give you what you can’t handle and those struggles that you go through are going to make you much stronger. It is going to be hard at times, but it is well worth it. Your life will be so much richer with each one.”
Story and Photography by Ben Williams