Mari Lu is using her life experiences in the service of her parish school.
When Richland Center native Mari Lu Marshall was a child, one of her favorite places to spend her Saturdays was at the library. “We were blessed to have a Carnegie library in our city. It was an absolutely beautiful, Tudor-style building with huge window seats on each end,” she remembers. “When I was in the second grade, I could finally get my own library card. I would go to the library on Saturdays when it opened and wouldn’t go home until it closed. I just loved the whole atmosphere of the library. I was very happy being surrounded by books and quiet.” Mari Lu’s lifelong love of books led her to her current job as librarian for Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (St. Mary) School in Richland Center, a position she’s held since 2016. “I’m able to combine my love of books and my love of kids. It’s a dream come true!” she says.
Mari Lu enjoyed a traditional Catholic upbringing in Richland Center as the only child of John and Irene Swenink. “My father was a cheese maker and culture technologist at a dairy, as was my grandfather and great-grandfather. We are truly dairy state people,” Mari Lu laughs. She went to grade school at St. Mary’s and had a strong Faith life growing up. “My father was Presbyterian, but my mother was Catholic, so it was my mom and maternal grandmother who took me to Mass every Sunday and on holy days,” she says. “I grew up loving the old traditions of the Catholic Church. I remember sitting in the pew when I was 6 or 7, looking at the altar, seeing the beautiful Easter lilies or Christmas poinsettias, and thinking, ‘I want to decorate the altar someday.’”
Every morning when I walk into the school, I say, thank you, Lord, for putting me here.”
Her love of flowers and plants led Mari Lu to her first career as a floral designer and manager of a small garden center, a job she enjoyed for more than 30 years. Mari Lu also welcomed the opportunity to utilize her floral expertise to serve the Church, just as she imagined doing as a child. “About eight years ago, the woman who had been doing the outside planters and gardens for St. Mary Parish decided to step down, and I volunteered,” Mari Lu says. “We have a beautiful church and it’s such a joy to decorate it, inside and out.” She says preparing the church for holidays can be time-consuming. “It takes about three days to decorate the church for Christmas and a day-and-a-half for Easter. But it also takes constant planning throughout the year, so the floral displays aren’t always the same.”
In 2010, Mari Lu decided spending three decades in the floral business was enough and opted for a career change. “Managing a flower shop can take over your entire life,” she explains. “You give up your personal life as far as holidays and weekends go because those are the prime selling days in the floral business.”
An idea had been percolating in Mari Lu’s mind. When she saw Vicki Faber, the principal of St. Mary School at the time, in the grocery store, she decided to act upon it. “I asked her if there were any openings at the school. I think she was kind of taken aback, until I explained I was interested in volunteering,” Mari Lu laughs. “She asked what I had in mind and I told her that I had volunteered as a teacher’s assistant when my daughter, Melanie, was in kindergarten. Lo and behold, there was a teacher needing an assistant, so I began to volunteer right away and absolutely loved it! When the teacher found out that I liked doing art, she allowed me to do the weekly art projects with the kids, too.”
Six years later, the librarian position became available at St. Mary’s and Mari Lu was very interested. “I went to the principal and asked her if she thought I could do the job. Thankfully, she was confident that I could, and I applied and got the job. It’s wonderful, because in addition to being the librarian, I also do art classes with grades K through 8 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So, once again, I am blessed to combine everything I love into my work.”
Mari Lu says she gets a special feeling when working at St. Mary’s. “Every morning when I walk into the school, I say, ‘Thank you, Lord, for putting me here,’” Mari Lu shares. “When you walk through the doors, it feels like a warm hug because you feel safe there. You can say a prayer if you want to; you see images of Our Lord and the Blessed Mother on the walls. Everyone is very open about
Just as the library was a special place for her when growing up, Mari Lu is passionate about making the school library a special place for her students. “It’s a proven fact that the more children read, the more intelligent they become. They broaden their horizons with every book they read,” Mari Lu says. “When a student says they don’t like to read, you just have to keep building a relationship with them to discover what interests them. As soon as they find that one book that clicks, it opens up a whole new world. The right book can spark a lifelong passion for reading and learning.”
Mari Lu says she feels blessed to have been able to incorporate her God-given talents into her workplace throughout her life. “I’ve always taken stewardship of time, talent and treasure to heart,” she shares. “I’m not independently wealthy, so I give my time and talent and what I can of my treasure. I believe we have to try to do our best to live out our Faith.” Reflecting on life, Mari Lu adds, “We’re all given different talents to use. When I look at my own life, all the things I’ve done and everything I’ve learned along the way has led me to where I am right now. My love of books started when I was a child, my love of art, my work history with floral design—I’m able to bring those talents to my work now at the school and church.
I truly believe life takes us along a trail that leads us to our next place to be.”Even though Mari Lu is at retirement age, she is not looking to do so anytime soon. “Work is my happy escape. I am at the school library at least one or two days on the weekend. I turn on some soft music, check in books, work on bulletin boards or art projects—
I love it!” she says. “I just can’t say enough good things about St. Mary School. Working there is all encompassing; it is the center of my life. I hope to stay for as long as the Lord wants me to be there.”
Story by Mary Ellen Bliss
Published in the May/June 2021 Catholic Life Issue