The Van Hemerts’ Journey of Faith and Family
“I never dreamed in a million years that I would step foot in a Catholic Church, much less become Catholic myself!” shares Jacqueline Van Hemert of St. Mary Parish in Altoona. After both growing up in Protestant traditions, she and her husband Michael had a long, arduous and beautiful journey into the heart of the Church as they prepared to start married life together. As they discovered and adopted each new teaching, they came across one that was more challenging to accept than all the rest: The Church’s stance on openness to new life and what this would mean for them in the vocation they were about to enter.
Going back to the beginning, Jacqueline grew up with her parents and siblings in West Allis. The children were homeschooled and their family was very active in their evangelical church community.
Michael was born in Washington state. His parents divorced by the time he was 4 and his mother moved Michael and his older brother to Eau Claire for a new start. Growing up with a hard-working single mom, who was also earning her master’s degree, caused the brothers to work together to navigate life. When he was in fifth grade, Michael’s mom remarried and the family moved to Whitehall, where he attended middle and high school. Michael experienced several Christian denominations growing up, none with much regularity, but he explains: “I always took my faith seriously, even though we didn’t practice.”
During college at UW-Eau Claire, Michael studied music education. Encouraged by a girlfriend, he became more interested in learning about and establishing for himself personal faith. Even though the relationship ended, Michael’s quest for truth never did. He changed his music major to “world religions” to finish off college.
It was during middle and high school that Jacqueline really took her faith as her own. She became involved in a program at her church called “Evangelism Explosion.” Through the program, she was able to travel to many countries to share the Gospel. It was also this work that brought Jacqueline and Michael together.
Michael was working as a youth director at a Baptist church and signed his group up for an “Evangelism Explosion Clinic” to be trained to attend Milwaukee’s Summerfest with a mission to share Christ with those they met. Jacqueline was a trainer for the clinic. During the course of the training days, Michael and Jacqueline noticed one another and had several opportunities to work together. They kept an eye on one another until the clinic ended, at which time they departed without exchanging contact information.
But Michael had acquired Jacqueline’s number during the clinic and, a short time later, called her, asking about a book they had discussed. This follow-up call turned into many more. They never officially dated. They talked on and off without ever really defining their relationship. And they ended up parting ways on bad terms. Looking back, Michael calls this time “nine years of stupid and young.” Jacqueline agrees.
HAVING MIA AND BECOMING A MOM WAS EXTREMELY HEALING FOR ME. NFP HELPED ME DISCOVER A LOVE FOR MOTHERHOOD THAT TOOK ME COMPLETELY BY SURPRISE.” -JACQUELINE
This is where their relationship may have ended, but God wasn’t done writing their story. With encouragement from a mutual friend, Jacqueline attended a Christian conference with her. She did not know Michael would be there. Michael didn’t know Jacqueline was unaware that he would also be attending. So, the two were awkwardly reunited. After they worked through their “bad blood,” as they say, they made up. Michael asked Jacqueline to begin a dating relationship, even though it would be long distance while he waited tables and played music gigs in the Twin Cities and she worked as a Protestant event coordinator for families in Nashville. Nine months later, they became engaged.
During their months of long-distance dating, Jacqueline had been attending an Anglican church with a friend. Michael moved back to Eau Claire and was introduced to Josh Cooley, a recent convert to Catholicism from a charismatic tradition. Josh taught RCIA classes at a local parish, which Michael sat in on. He also began attending Mass.
Jacqueline and Michael recognized the difference in the liturgical churches they were now attending and liked that, even though distance separated them, they could still talk about the shared readings, so it was almost like attending together. When Michael eventually asked Jacqueline to attend Mass with him, she begrudgingly followed and was angry and confused the whole time, wrestling with a past that promoted strict anti-Catholicism. Michael, too, struggled with this reality of his past. But both Michael and Jacqueline were on a journey, recognizing the inadequacies and inconsistencies of the faith traditions from which they had come and making a path forward together as they prepared to share their lives.
In meeting Josh, Michael knew he would be a good guy to talk to and compare notes about all of his concerns with the Catholic Faith. “Through that relationship with him, through his excellent mentorship and through his patient, slow, empathic understanding of where I was coming from and what my questions were, he guided me on my journey of discovery. He showed me what the Catholic answers were and left me to make my own decision. He always made an invitation, but he was patient, knowing that this had to be my decision. He wasn’t pressuring me into the Church, but encouraged my process of research, questioning and discernment. That was really valuable and it gave me great ownership over my decision to convert later on.”
“In reflecting on my conversion journey,” Jacqueline shares, “I think what began the spark of initial curiosity for me was actually frustration with aspects of my own evangelical tradition—division among tens of thousands of denominations, theological teachings that seemed to be missing a crucial piece or two, a lack of final pastoral authority when it came to disagreement, etc. Those frustrations were the very things that prompted my openness. There had to be more. There had to be better.”
The couple committed to begin RCIA with Josh at St. Mary Parish in Altoona after deciding this was where they would settle down once they were married. During these months, Michael and Jacqueline met Father Derek Sakowski. “He put in his time with us,” Michael shares of Father Derek, recalling the many nights spent around the campfire with him, Josh and other Catholic friends, answering many tough questions for them and talking theology late into the night.
“When we found ourselves in the RCIA process, learning about the Church’s stance on openness to life,” Jacqueline says, “I’ll be honest, those teachings were a struggle. I had little to no interest in having children and had planned on using birth control (a.k.a., had never even considered the idea of not going on birth control) as soon as we got married. This part of becoming Catholic required more than just my intellectual assent. Embracing these teachings would mean changing pretty much everything I had planned about what my future life would look like. Saying ‘yes’ to this was my own equivalent of Mary’s ‘fiat’ when the angel told her she would be the mother of the Son of God.
Unexpected. Unknown. Unnerving. I said yes anyway.”
During the Easter Vigil in 2015, Michael and Jacqueline were brought into full communion with the Catholic Church. A short two months later, they said their vows in a beautiful Catholic ceremony at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Eau Claire, on what they learned was the feast of the Sacred Heart, after becoming engaged at the Chapel of the Sacred Heart in the Cathedral of St. Paul in Minnesota six months and one day earlier.
MY PRIMARY VOCATION IS A HUSBAND. AND BEING A FATHER IS AN EXTENSION TO THAT.” -MICHAEL
The Van Hemerts entered married life hesitantly embracing Natural Family Planning (NFP), “following the rules to a T.” Each month they continued to discern together, and after a year and a half, the couple heard and accepted the Holy Spirit’s prompting to grow their family. Jacqueline became pregnant two months later. Instead of immediate feelings of joy and excitement at the news, which she had expected when accepting the invitation, fear and frustration crept in. She admits it took all of nine months to accept the pregnancy.
Michael shares that “the pregnancy taught me a lot,” as he stood by to encourage Jacqueline through her struggles. “My primary vocation is a husband. And being a father is an extension to that.” Together with God’s grace, they persevered through those nine months and joyfully welcomed baby Amelia (Mia) Josephine.
“Having Mia and becoming a mom was extremely healing for me,” Jacqueline shares. “NFP helped me discover a love for motherhood that took me completely by surprise. And even more unexpectedly, NFP gave me profound glimpses of the divine Trinity, showing me the overwhelming, tender and generous love of God played out in the sweet communion of our own little marriage and family.”
As they settled into family life, the Van Hemerts also found great purpose in their careers, continuing their evangelization efforts, only now within the Catholic Church. Jacqueline works as the director of evangelization and faith formation at St. Mary and St. Raymond parishes. Michael took a position as theology teacher at Regis Catholic High School in Eau Claire.
“Michael and Jacqueline have a deep passion for the ‘Theology of the Body,’” their pastor, Father Derek, shares. “They love thinking about it, talking about it and, above all else, modeling it for others. They understand that there is a path of ongoing conversion for the disciple of Jesus and are radically committed to following that path. I cherish watching the two of them grow year by year—as disciples, as spouses and as parents. They have suffered much, and each time opened themselves to receive more healing and blessing from the Lord. I am grateful to God for sending them into our parishes.”
Now after six years of marriage, the Van Hemerts reflect on the joys and trials of their NFP journey after recently welcoming their second child, a son, Leopold (Leo) Anthony, this past November.
“Anyone who says that NFP is beautiful isn’t wrong,” Jacqueline says. “But sometimes we forget that beautiful things have a learning curve, and that’s certainly true of natural family planning. You’re learning your body, learning your cycle, learning each other, learning how to abstain (usually during the time of the month when you’re really itching for anything other than abstinence), and learning how to love each other. That’s a lot of learning happening all at one time.”
“Everything with substance is hard when we start,” Michael says. “All I can say is that you won’t know what it’s like to engage in your sexuality from a place of pure will, choice and desire until you have begun to walk this road.”
Michael and Jacqueline have come to wholeheartedly embrace and share all the teachings of the Church, especially those that have guided and grown their family. “Marriage and sexuality are given to us as a great gift to teach us about the greater gift of the love of God,” Jacqueline says. “When I desire my husband and he desires me, we are reminded that God desires us even more than this. When we come together in intimacy and joy to give our bodies fully to each other, we are reminded of Jesus who offers His very own Body to us. When we receive each other fully, knowing there is the potential to create new life, we are reminded of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life who wants to bear spiritual fruit in our own lives and the lives of ‘newborn children.’ When we prepare to give birth to a new baby and one of us lays down our body on a hospital bed and the other stands at the foot of that cross, we are reminded of the Paschal mystery. When we wake up in the middle of the night to feed or comfort a little one, we are reminded that God is attentive to our every cry and always comes swiftly when we are in need.
“At the end of the day, marriage, sexuality and NFP are not easy.
“Then again, we’ve never been very interested in easy. We do this not because it is easy, but because it is good. Because it is true. Because it is beautiful. Because it is holy. Because it is worth it.”
If you are interested in learning more about NFP and which method may be a good fit for your marriage, please contact Christy Kitzhaber at 608.791.2673 or visit the diocesan NFP page at diolc.org/nfp.
Story by Amy Eichsteadt
Photography by Katie Gardner – G&H Photography
Published in the July/August 2021 Catholic Life Issue