[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]ANTIGO — Sue Brettingen says she knew it was time to retire when the elephants went home.
“Bo Ryan, Payton Manning and the Barnum & Bailey elephants, all retiring this year,” she jokes. “It’s just time.”
Brettingen is not a University of Wisconsin basketball coach, an NFL quarterback or a circus performer. To members of various parishes in the Antigo area, she has served a much more important role — coordinating and leading faith formation for over three decades.
“It makes me humble that I can help students in that way,” she says. “I always tell the parents that the greatest gift they can give to their children is the gift of faith. I’m here to help them do that.”
A native of Antigo, Brettingen is the oldest of 10 children, so, naturally, she says, she has always been drawn to helping youngsters. “My first job was as a playground director,” she recalls.
Following high school graduation, she attended teacher’s college while raising a family and soon caught the eye of Sr. Fran Sulzer at what was then known as St. Hyacinth Parish.
“She asked me if I ever thought about teaching religious classes,” Brettingen says. “She got me into this. She got me hooked.”
That was 34 years ago. Within three years, she had moved into the coordinator position, first at St. Hyacinth, then at the merged parish of SS. Mary and Hyacinth, linked with St. Wencel’s in Neva, and finally with St. John Parish added to form one program throughout the area.
“I have taught just about every grade, depending on the need, as people came and went,” she says.
Faith formation is the latest name for Catholic religion programs that were known for centuries as Confraternity of Christian Doctrine and more recently as religious education classes. Along with the name changes have come a sometimes subtle shift in how and what is taught.
“Originally there was more emphasis on memorization,” Brettingen says, reflecting on the changes that came through the 1960s and the 1970s to today.
“The doctrine is the doctrine,” she says. “But we need to adapt to where families are today. It’s ‘faith formation,’ not ‘faith information,’ and it’s called that for a reason.”
The years have brought moments both silly and poignant.
Brettingen recalls having first Communion students, second graders mostly, pen letters to Jesus. She finally started saving them a few years ago.
One little boy asked, “Do you have superpowers?” while a little girl told Jesus in the letter that she was going to wear her mother’s first Communion dress for the service.
“Her mother had been in an accident and died a couple years earlier,” Brettingen says.
On other occasions, Brettingen has asked students what they pray for, with gentle suggestions as to what is, and is not, appropriate.
“I asked one little boy, ‘If you could have any wish in the world, what would it be?’ He said, ‘I wish Jesus was my dad, that would be so cool,’” she says.
Another little girl put a modern twist on the story of the Good Samaritan, telling Brettingen that the Samaritan took the distressed traveler, “put him in a hotel and paid his insurance.”
Family interactions bring tragedy as well, with children losing parents, and mothers their sons and daughters. And those times, Brettingen offers what she can: A supportive shoulder, kind words and a hug.
And there is always a healthy dose of teen-age angst.
“I will always remember the seventh and eighth grade boys who would think they were such big grown up men, and then come to me asking for advice about something,” she says. “They would open up about what was bothering them. I will always cherish that.”
Volunteers have always been a key part of faith formation, and Brettingen says the program would not be successful without them.
“I’m totally amazed at their commitment and willingness to serve,” she says. “Two of my sisters were catechists and several of my volunteers have become lifelong friends. I can’t say enough about those volunteers.”
With her husband, Steve, five children and six grandchildren, Brettingen says she will find plenty to do in retirement.
“Just because you retire, doesn’t mean you quit serving,” she says. “That’s my motto. I’m going to continue to serve.”
The longtime teacher estimated that over 500 children have come through her first Communion program and she followed many of them through the various religious classes through their confirmation, marriages and baptism classes for parents.
“They almost feel like an extension of my family,” she says. “I taught the parent and now I’ve taught their children. It’s been rewarding to see the whole cycle and to see the children who remain active in the church as an adult.”
Your Catholic Neighbor
Name: Sue Brettingen
Parish: SS. Mary and Hyacinth, Antigo
Favorite saint: Angela Merici
Words to live by: “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.”[/vc_message][/vc_column][/vc_row]