Fitzgerald advocates for the poor and downtrodden

Dairy farmer views workers as an extension of her own family

NEWTON — Despite being raised on a dairy farm, Sandie Fitzgerald never intended to spend her life working on one.

“When I grew up, I said to myself that I’d never marry a farmer because I knew all too well how much work was involved in farming,” she said. “It’s something I just never thought would happen.

Sandie Fitzgerald lives out her faith through involvement at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Newton and through outreach on behalf of the family’s 1,800-acre farm. Soaring Eagle Dairy donates milk to Peter’s Pantry in Manitowoc every two weeks. (Scott Eastman | For The Compass)

“But,” she added with a laugh, “I guess things change when you fall in love.”

Sandie and her husband, Jim, initially met in first grade at St. Isidore in rural Manitowoc County and started dating years later as high school seniors. They married in 1968, and Sandie started farming with Jim about two to three years after that. Now — five children, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild later — the 68-year-old Sandie is still helping run the 1,800-acre Soaring Eagle Dairy in Newton, incorporating her Catholic principles into everything she does.

For example, every two weeks, Sandie and Jim donate 200 gallons of milk through Festival Foods to Peter’s Pantry in Manitowoc.

In May, she said the farm will donate their first cull cow to Peter’s Pantry to help feed the needy.

And in her “spare time,” she volunteers at the Hope House homeless shelter in Manitowoc.

“We feel we need to give back for all the blessings God has given us,” said Sandie, who, along with Jim, makes financial contributions to charitable entities. “Helping take care of the poor is very important to us.”

Anyone who knows Sandie can attest that’s just the way she is — committed to her faith and helping those less fortunate.

Sr. Marlita Henseler, a Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity who serves as pastoral leader at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Community in Newton, said Sandie is guided in her attitudes and actions with a genuine response to “What would Jesus do?” in life’s situations.

“Her heart and spirit constantly reach out to anyone who might be in an ‘underdog’ position,” Sr. Marlita said. “She takes Pope Francis’ message seriously to reach out to the poor and down-trodden.”

Soaring Eagle Dairy is co-owned by Sandie and Jim, as well as four of their five adult children — Julie, Kelly, Stacy and Nick (Tammy, their other daughter works off the farm). They employ about 25 people, including several Hispanic workers, some of whom attend St. Thomas the Apostle. The Fitzgeralds view all of their workers as an extension of their own family.

Sr. Marlita said Sandie “treats her farm employees … with respect and equality, and pays them fair wages. She supports the parish outreach to the Hispanic community at St. Thomas, especially promoting bilingual Masses and special activities that the Hispanic community is involved in. She is an advocate for anyone in the parish who needs extra support and assistance.”

Indeed, when Sandie isn’t tending to duties relating to the farm, she keeps busy at St. Thomas the Apostle. Her involvement at the parish includes:

  • Serving as chair of the Worship Committee
  • Training parish sacristans and lectors
  • Being a member of the Women’s Bible Study group
  • Bringing holy Communion to the homebound
  • Participating (along with Jim) in mission trips to Brazil

Sr. Marlita added that Sandie’s volunteer work as a worship/liturgy coordinator is greatly appreciated by everyone at the parish.

“(Sandie’s) dedication and passion for this work is very evident, and the time and energy she gives to it is commendable,” Sr. Marlita said. “She is the behind-the-scenes person for any major liturgical celebration, and loves what she does.”

Sandie, reluctant to accept any individual credit for the work she does, said she’s happy to be part of a community — at both work and church — that is so supportive of helping one another.

“None of it can be done alone,” Sandie said. “You have to do it with the whole community and the whole family. The farm wouldn’t function without every single person working together. We are so fortunate to be caretakers of the land and animals we were blessed with. And it’s the same with the people of St. Thomas — they all work hard together to make the church the best it can be to help everyone. And I’m so pleased to be a part of the work we all do. I feel I am who I am because of so many other people around me.”

Sandie said her faith grew about 30 years ago, when she began teaching religious education classes at St. Isidore. Another boost in faith came a decade after that, when she completed the commissioned ministry program with the Diocese of Green Bay (now Emmaus). As part of that program, she attended learning sessions every Saturday for three years.

“Oddly enough, I signed up thinking I was taking one class in liturgy for that one Saturday and as I was in that first class I found I was in the commissioned ministry program,” she said. “It’s not what I thought I had signed up for, but my faith grew even more then. It was amazing, being able to learn so much about the faith. It’s the best thing I ever did for myself.”

Then, about 10 years ago, Sandie participated in the JustFaith program at St. Thomas the Apostle. The program met every week for nine months and “helped me be more aware of the poor and the immigration issues,” said Sandie, who helped others by working in soup kitchens.

Sandie intends to continue serving the church as she has been doing, but, in the future, she wants to become more involved with elderly citizens.

“I will always be involved in something until the day I die,” Sandie said. “I feel you never stop serving God’s people.”