He put hospitality into usher ministry

By Lisa Haefs | For The Compass | June 1, 2016

Now retired after 44 years of ushering, Boehnlein took his role to new heights

ANTIGO — Norm Boehnlein stands at the back of the sanctuary at St. John the Evangelist Church, ramrod straight, ready for a photograph.

“Just a minute,” he says, holding up his arm. “My suit coat isn’t buttoned. An usher’s coat always should be buttoned.”

Half a second later, he is ready — dapper and helpful — the epitome of a chief usher.

Boehnlein, 86, recently capped his 44-year career as a St. John usher, including the last 34 as the head of the corps that welcomes and assists parishioners and guests at Masses every week.

Norm Boehnlein (Lisa Haefs | For The Compass)
Norm Boehnlein (Lisa Haefs | For The Compass)

“I have enjoyed ushering, I have enjoyed meeting people,” he says.

Born in Michigan’s lower peninsula, Boehnlein moved with his family across Lake Michigan to Ozaukee County, where the family operated a dairy farm, in 1932. He later spent 21 years in the printing industry in Milwaukee, rising to the position of superintendent.

He and his wife, Maryann, moved into the lodging business in 1968, first in Neenah and then in Antigo, where they purchased the Edge of Night Motel in 1970. They retired in 1990.

Raised in a Catholic family, Boehnlein was baptized in Traverse City, Mich., and had his first Communion and confirmation at St. Catherine Church in Grandville. While in Milwaukee, he was a member of Mother of Perpetual Help Parish.

He joined St. John in 1970, “around March 1, give or take a few days,” he says. He and his wife briefly moved to St. Hyacinth Parish, also in Antigo, because of the convenience of the Mass schedule in conjunction with their motel business, but returned to St. John for good in 1971.

He started ushering a year later.

“They needed someone for once a month,” he says.
He became regular usher for the Saturday afternoon Mass in 1973, rarely missing a service since, and was elected president of the Usher Society in 1981.

“I maybe missed three or four Masses a year until we got out of the motel business,” he says. “From 1990 on, I don’t think I missed more than two Masses a year.”

Boehnlein has an amazing memory for dates and details, recalling, for instance, that he and Maryann bought their first television on June 15, 1950, and that Messmer Catholic High School in Milwaukee, his alma mater, is located at Seventh Avenue and Capitol Drive.

“Those things that happened before yesterday, I can remember,” he says. “From yesterday to today, it doesn’t work so well.”

That amazing memory served him well in the hospitality trade.

“Being in the motel business, you needed to remember a lot of things,” he says. “I would remember the name of a guest who visited a year earlier and welcome him back. That one thing you should have is the ability to remember.”

That skill has also come in handy in his administrative duties as chief usher, responsible for everything from ensuring that tapes of the Masses were promptly delivered to the local radio station for broadcast to making sure every service had the proper number of four ushers, including one to serve as captain, and lining up substitutes if necessary.

Most importantly, it has given him the ability to call everyone who comes into the church by name, quickly singling out visitors and making sure they are welcomed.

“I have always greeted people by name,” he says. “I always wanted to let them know they were very welcomed at St. John. I thought I did and I hope I did.”

There were a few incidents over the years, he says, mainly involving parishioners with medical issues and, in one case, an itinerant bat.

“He just kept flying back and forth from the choir loft up to the front and the altar, swooping lower and lower,” Boehnlein says. “I finally caught him with the collection basket.”

Boehnlein brought a formality to the corps, insisting they wear pins identifying themselves as ushers, stressing that the bulletins should be personally handed to worshippers and not just placed by the entrance for self-service, and enforcing a dress code that included a buttoned suit coat.

“I’ve probably put that suit on for the last time today,” he says.

Boehnlein’s wife passed away in 2004, after over 55 years of marriage. With the help of friends and neighbors, he has remained in his home, but recently health issues have made him a bit unsteady on his feet, sapped his strength and convinced him it was time to retire.

“I feel as though I should not be involved as an usher anymore,” he says, adding that he has left the group in capable hands of his longtime associate, Greg Rusch. “After 34 years of being head usher and 44 years of ushering. I’ve done my job.”

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Your Catholic Neighbor
Names: Norm Boehnlein
Parish: St. John the Evangelist, Antigo
Age: 86
Favorite saints: Blessed Mother
Words to live by: “Be happy and be honest.”
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