Family says new church opens doors to all

By Benjamin Wideman | For The Compass | June 4, 2014

Accessibility is one of Newton church’s benefits

NEWTON — Twin brothers Nathan and Jason Hartman weren’t expected to live more than three days.

Born three months early, they had bleeding on their brains and were diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

At left, Leon and Diane Hartman, members of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Newton, are pictured with their twin sons Nathan, seated, and Jason. The family brought up the eucharistic gifts at the dedication Mass in Newton May 2. Above, Bishop Ricken receives the Communion hosts from Nathan. (Benjamin Wideman | For The Compass)
Leon and Diane Hartman, members of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Newton, are pictured with their twin sons Nathan, seated, and Jason. The family brought up the eucharistic gifts at the dedication Mass in Newton May 2. (Benjamin Wideman | For The Compass)

“The doctor said they weren’t going to make it more than 72 hours,” said their mother, Diane Hartman. “But here they are. They’re miracle babies.”

The resilient and upbeat 26-year-old twins — who spent their first 103 days in the hospital and have since undergone a combined 15 surgeries — joined with their parents, Leon and Diane, to bring up the gifts at the May 2 dedication Mass for St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Community’s new church building.

The long-awaited church provides parishioners a formal place of worship for the first time since the rural Manitowoc County parish was founded in 2000, following the merger of St. Isidore, St. Casimir, St. Wendel and St. Joseph parishes.

“The excitement of that whole night … it was overwhelming,” Diane said. “We’ve never been to a dedication like that before, so to be part of it and bring up the gifts … it was cool.”

Nathan described the new church as “awesome,” while Jason said it’s “nice.” Both of them use wheelchairs, but Jason was able to walk while bringing up the gifts. They accessed the altar area in the new church via a permanent handicapped-accessible ramp, and presented the bread and wine to Bishop David Ricken.

Having that ramp incorporated into the new church means the world to the Hartman family and other people who use wheelchairs, walkers and the like.

“Fr. Dave Beaudry (St. Thomas’ founding pastor) came up to me a while ago and said, ‘Diane, I want you on one of our committees for the church. And the reason why I want you is I want it built handicapped-accessible and for the elderly,’” said Diane, who ended up serving on the Building Committee and History Committee.

“To be able to use the ramp that very first night at the dedication was great,” she added. “The church has been getting a lot of compliments. Even a funeral director came up to me and said thanks one time while I was there helping out. He said, ‘You’d be amazed how easy it is to get a casket in and out of here. We’d had a lot of challenges with other churches trying to carry a casket up the steps or back down the steps. Everything is so accessible for so many people now.’ He really liked it.”

Bishop Ricken receives the Communion hosts from Nathan during the St. Thomas the Apostle Church dedication May 2. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

In addition to the ramp, the church features a hearing loop to assist people with hearing aids, and chairs positioned in front of the pews can be moved to accommodate people using wheelchairs.

The family attended St. Isidore and then St. Casimir before St. Thomas was formed.

Previously, Diane was a Protestant before becoming Catholic in 1980 after meeting Leon.

When Nathan and Jason were born, the family was living in the Sheboygan County town of Gibbsville. It wasn’t until Diane started having contractions six months into her pregnancy that she discovered she was having twins.

One month before the twins came home for good (they were initially baptized in the hospital in case their health took a turn for the worst), Leon and Diane moved the family to a farm in the town of Meeme, a couple miles from Newton, where Leon was raised. In 2009, they tore down the home that had been there and built a new one with a spacious floor plan, allowing Nathan and Jason to get around easily in their wheelchairs.

“Everything was made here in case something happens to Leon and me … then Nathan and Jason can still stay here,” Diane said while the family sat around the home’s dining room table. “That’s our big concern — what happens to them if something happens to us?”

The family has operated the 45-cow dairy farm since the boys were born (the twins also have an older sibling, Adam, who’s 27). In addition, Leon works full time as a cabinet maker in Sheboygan Falls.

The family usually attends Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle on Saturday nights.

“It’ll be different, but nice, going to Mass in the new church from now on,” Leon said.

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