KAUKAUNA — Walking through the Elizabeth Ministry International headquarters, executive director Don Warden points out the chapel, memorial wall, artwork, quotes and various images that symbolize the sacredness of the space. He values working at a place where he can share faith and fellowship.
“Having a private chapel is not a common thing, so we are blessed,” he said. “We have morning and afternoon prayer with the team. We have adoration on Wednesdays and Thursdays to pray for the needs of the apostolate here and for all the people served by the apostolate.”
Elizabeth Ministry International provides resources and support to chapters worldwide, addressing issues related to childbearing, sexuality and relationships. Warden and his wife, Rose, discovered Elizabeth Ministry through miscarriage.
“Rose was so impressed that she organized a home school group to come down to tour this place,” said Warden, a 2017 Faith That Works recipient. “It was about the time they got the mandate from Bishop (David) Ricken about RECLAiM. Bishop said the first place you should start to get the message out is with the Esto Vir group.”
RECLAiM Sexual Health is an online recovery program for those impacted by pornography or other unhealthy sexual behaviors. Warden is an original member of Esto Vir, founded in 2000 to encourage men to live in faith. He serves on the organization’s core team. Jeannie Hannemann, founder of Elizabeth Ministry, and her husband, Bruce Hannemann, gave a presentation about RECLAiM to Esto Vir.
“We were all impressed,” said Warden. “Three of us ended up doing consulting with them. We thought it was something really needed.”
The timing was right for Warden. He had sold his business a couple years earlier.
“I was in the dental business. I made teeth,” he explained. “I started volunteering with Elizabeth Ministry full-time to get the RECLAiM project running. We are in 32 countries around the world. Over 2,500 students have gone through it already. Our website had almost 400,000 unique visitors last year. Almost two years ago, I ended up taking the executive director role.”
Warden oversees all aspects of business and programming within the non-profit organization. He also travels to conferences and promotes RECLAiM. When Warden looks back at his faith journey, he credits his family for setting the foundation. He is the oldest of 10 children. All attended Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary School in Pulaski.
Following graduation from Pulaski High School, Warden moved to Chicago for college. Faith was not a priority at that time, he said.
“God was not first and foremost,” he said. “I was involved in everything else. It’s not like I renounced God or anything, but he just wasn’t part of my daily conversation. After college, I’m sure it was the family foundation and all the rosaries Mom was praying for me and all the other kids. There was a curiosity and a draw to learn more about the faith.”
In 1994, Warden moved back to northeast Wisconsin. He and his father, Joe, began reading the works of Fr. Stefano Gobbi of the Marian Movement of Priests. Fr. Gobbi brought priests and religious into cenacles of prayer.
“We started a monthly family cenacle, which basically was a rosary, prayers for the Holy Father and one reading from Fr. Gobbi’s book,” explained Warden. “It became a standing date. We’ve been doing it every year since, on the second Sunday of every month.
“I think there have been tremendous blessings,” he added. “When you have anywhere from seven to nine siblings and 15 to 25 grandchildren all sitting in a circle in the living room, it’s almost like a living rosary.”
His mother died in 2012. Warden said that she would be happy that they have continued the family cenacle.
“There are spiritual and temporal blessings when you can get the family together like that,” he said. “Her kids were her life.”
Don and Rose have five children in their family. Rose’s children Cody and Logan (their father died of cancer) were 11 and 7 when Don and Rose were married. The couple had Hannah in the first year of marriage and then Isaac 18 months later. Several miscarriages followed.
“Rose really wanted more kids,” said Don. “It was tough thinking we weren’t going to have any more. Other women in the home school group encouraged (Rose) to start a group in the house to talk about health. She ended up getting pregnant. The joke is she got kicked out of her own group. Little Leo is now 3.”
Don and Rose have been married 14 years. A month after their wedding, in Rome, they knelt in front of Pope John Paul II, who blessed their marriage. They try to provide a good example of a healthy marriage to their children and give back by serving as a FOCCUS couple for marriage preparation at St. Francis Xavier Cathedral.
“It’s good for us to be able to pass on experiences and it’s a good renewal,” he said. “You have a reminder every other month of what it was like during that period of time, the challenges we experienced. Questions come up with the couples. After they leave, we continue the conversation.”
They also expose their children to other vocations, including the priesthood.
“We try to have priests over for dinner on a regular basis,” he said. “They get to see priests who are in love with their vocation. We are perfectly happy where God is calling the kids. We just want them to see good examples. Having a priest built in helps.”
Don’s younger brother, Fr. Michael Warden, is parochial vicar at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Manitowoc, and priest celebrant at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish, Newton.
Don once again played an active role in organizing the annual Esto Vir Men’s Conference, held this year on March 4. He sees the organization going full circle as men who attended the conference are interested in following up on the experience by forming small groups.
“Just remember how Esto Vir started,” he said. “We picked a Tuesday at a Chinese buffet. We had a standing meeting every Tuesday at noon for whoever could make it. Sometimes we had three guys. Sometimes we had 12 guys. There was no topic. Sometimes we would talk about what is going on with somebody’s work. Sometimes it was the Packers and other times a faith-based thing.
“We have a good group of guys from the conference who indicated they want some follow-up contact,” he added. “Hopefully, they can get together in small groups at a bar or restaurant.”
Don continues to grow in his own faith through spiritual guidance. He said that he is focusing on the exercises of St. Ignatius with his spiritual director.
Moving forward in his work, he said that Elizabeth Ministry has a renewed mission to respond to the call from Pope Francis that the church is a field hospital.
“We need to train the first responders,” he said. “One in four women is going to experience a miscarriage. For a guy, it’s six or seven out of 10 for pornography. It’s going to take many in parishes to be the first responders. They are not going to be able to offer the sacramental needs. They are not going to be able to offer the therapeutic help that is often needed, but that’s fine. How do we build materials for those first responders and connect that network?”