OSHKOSH — Janet Weisse always tells her friends she’s trying to cook her way into heaven. If she’s judged on the sheer quantity of food she’s cooked in her lifetime, there’s a table reserved for her there already.
Weisse and her husband Edward, who passed away in January of 2010, are the parents of 14 children. They have 39 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren. As a stay-at-home mom, Weisse cooked a lot of meals through the years.
Thirteen of Weisse’s children were honored by Guinness World Records in 2007 for being the largest group of siblings to complete a marathon together. They ran the Fox Cities Marathon in memory of their brother Peter. “He was 3 years old when he died,” said Weisse. “He had brain cancer, which is now curable but in 1968 it was not curable.”
It was through Edward that Weisse expanded her cooking into a volunteer opportunity. She talked fondly about the love of her life. “He was wonderful man. Our courtship was mostly by mail and in one of the letters he said one of the reasons he wanted to marry me was because I could help him get to heaven. We met on Good Friday, April 11, 1952, and we were married Aug. 30, 1952. If you know, why wait?”
The Weisse family moved to Wisconsin. Edward was hired to teach education and human services at UW-Oshkosh, where he taught for 25 years until his retirement in 1991. “Through my husband’s job in human services he would assign students to do some kind of (volunteer) work. We knew Fr. (Marty) Carr because we were members of St. Peter’s when he came to town, so Father Carr’s Place 2B was one of the places where some of his students would go to. When Ed retired we both served lunch one day a week at Father Carr’s.”
All these years later, Weisse is still helping out at Father Carr’s Place 2B, which serves the poor in the Oshkosh area by providing meals and shelter. The first Monday of the month Weisse makes meatloaf, 16 pans all together, for the folks who come into eat there.
A fan of baking, Weisse makes cookies for the feast of St. Joseph on March 19 every year and brings two cookies for each student at Seton Elementary School in Oshkosh. Being of Italian heritage (her parents immigrated to the United States from Sicily), the feast day was something she always remembered celebrating as a child growing up in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
This past fall she started another cooking mission and now brings in fresh-baked cookies to the Newman Center at UW-Oshkosh every Tuesday.
Around that same time Weisse took on another volunteer opportunity, becoming a host grandma for two students from Burundi, Africa, who were enrolled at Lourdes Academy. “I always listen to Catholic radio in my kitchen and in my car and they were saying they needed a family for these two boys from Burundi.”
She said the Holy Spirit inspired her to open two empty bedrooms in her home for the students, who arrived in August. Two months later she took a pilgrimage to Italy. “When I was gone I asked two families to take (the boys) when I was gone,” she said. “When I came back I asked them if they’d like to keep the boys because it’s better for them to be with a family, not with just a grandma. By that time they knew the boys and they said sure, we’ll keep them.”
The boys still call Weisse nana (the Italian word for grandma). “They are such good kids. They appreciate me. It was not a chore having them, it was a great experience for me too. It was a blessing to have them here. It was nice to cook for somebody.”
She’s looking forward to watching the boys play soccer for Lourdes this fall. This school year the high school will have those two boys again plus two girls, thanks to the Burundi Education Fund (a non-profit organization which collaborates with the Catholic Foundation for the Diocese of Green Bay). The group is still looking for more host families.
When Weisse’s husband was teaching school, he always made it a point to go to Mass every day. Weisse went with him during the summer when she had some time off from getting the kids ready for school every morning. Once her children were all out of school she started going to daily Mass, which she continues today. When the weather is nice she’ll even walk to one of the churches close to her home.
In her own words, it’s been a wonderful life for Weisse. “I can’t get over how blessed I am. I thank God every night. When I say my prayers I praise God. I am so blessed.”