ELLISON BAY — The common denominator between the two-pope canonization ceremony in April and a Door County parish celebration in May is a 76-year-old woman with faith and ideas.
The first part of the story began when Michelle Piatek decided she wanted to go to Rome to watch Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II become the church’s newest saints on April 27.
“For one thing, how many times in a person’s lifetime can you participate in a canonization?” Piatek explained. “But secondly, April 27 is my birthday, and I decided to treat myself to a trip to Rome.” So, she began researching tour companies, and by January, she was signed up.
Meanwhile, the second part of the story began. As chairman of the Stella Maris Parish Pastoral Council, Piatek became part of a discussion about a site-wide Marian celebration, the first of its kind for them. Stella Maris, while being one parish with one pastor, is comprised of churches in five sites — Egg Harbor, Sister Bay, Fish Creek, Jacksonport and Baileys Harbor — plus the people of Washington Island, who rent space in a Lutheran church.
Everyone liked the idea of the celebration, but they needed someone to organize it, and Piatek found herself with her arm in the air volunteering.
“I’ve always had a devotion to Mary,” she said. “I’ve been to Lourdes several times, I have Our Lady of Mt. Carmel on my porch pillar, and the name ‘Villa Maria’ on my house — I figured I could do this.”
She credits the Holy Spirit with filling her head with ideas for ways to include people from all the sites in the celebration, but she wanted a “hook” that would encourage people to attend.
“The best way is to give people something,” she said. For a Marian feast — rosaries, of course. She bought 150 of them, and then decided to take them with her to Rome to be blessed by Pope Francis. She also brought rosary bracelets for girls, and leather arm bands with the Hail Mary on them for the boys — and bought six dozen more rosaries when she got to Rome. These had pictures of the new saints and the current pope on the medal, and proved to be the most popular of the rosaries that were given out.
Piatek returned home from Rome on May 2 and spent the next two days appearing at all the Masses at all the parish sites, encouraging people to come to the Stella Maris celebration at the Baileys Harbor site, dangling the pope-blessed rosaries before them as added incentive.
One hundred fifty people responded and turned out for the special Mass, recitation of the rosary, litany to Mary and the May crowning. It became the first of what everyone has already determined will be a yearly event.
For Piatek, it was more than that. It was a way of spreading her new-found appreciation for discipleship and Catholic community that she found in Rome, when over 800,000 mingled together to honor the two new saints.
“That many people, and there were no (bad) incidents that I’m aware of,” she said.
She was impressed by the large number of young people, many of whom spent the night camping in St. Peter’s Square. Her group was lucky enough to stay in a hotel within five minutes of St. Peter’s and Piatek could see the famous dome from her window.
At 4:45 a.m. they were awakened and headed out by 5 o’clock to get seats and get settled for the long wait until the canonization Mass. They all carried portable chairs, and identifying blue banners, since they were warned their group would likely get split up. Piatek has been to Rome several times before, and wasn’t worried about getting lost. Even if she had, she felt she was with a community of fellow believers, a huge extended family, and each would look out for the other.
“The people all around were Spirit-filled. They weren’t there for a good time,” she said. “They were there for a rejuvenation of their own faith. And although ‘awesome’ is an overused word, how else can you describe the experience of this wonderful moment?”
For Piatek, the challenge became how to bring that spirit of enthusiasm and discipleship, the new evangelization the pope has asked for, back into her own world. There’s no one way, she said, and she’s still exploring options.
“You have to live each day trying to seize any moment or opportunity that comes before you. I think our Lord puts opportunities in front of us and we can either accept them and do something with them, or we can just do nothing,” she said.
Piatek began the process even before she left for Rome by agreeing to oversee the Stella Maris parish celebration. When she returned home, she brought more than rosaries. She brought a renewed enthusiasm for encouraging others to build up the kingdom of God within her own parish community.