OCONTO FALLS — From acoustic guitar music floating through the halls, to vibrant decorations adorning the church, and students and adults growing in their faith and knowledge, the volunteer work of John and Amy Dessart can be spied all throughout St. Anthony Parish.
For over 30 years, the Dessarts have volunteered countless hours to the Oconto Falls parish, playing an essential role and becoming close with many in the parish community.
“We have met so many nice people at St. Anthony,” Amy said. “When we came here, our son was in fifth grade and parents of the other fifth graders are still our friends today.”
The Dessarts will celebrate their 44th wedding anniversary this August. They met while on a retreat through the Newman Center at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. From the very beginning, the Dessarts built their relationship on their shared faith.
After graduation, John and Amy began their teaching careers in Stevens Point before moving to La Crosse. No matter where they lived, the Dessarts found time to volunteer their talents to the church.
“As our lives went forward, we were always involved in church,” John said. “When we moved to the La Crosse area, Amy taught at the Catholic school there. I was teaching in the public schools, but I was still involved in church with playing guitar for Masses.”
John was in sixth grade the first time he strummed a guitar for Mass. He played with his friend in the church basement because guitars were not yet allowed upstairs.
“That was when guitars were first coming into play for liturgies,” John said. “So it’s been over 50 years of playing for Masses, and it’s been consecutive wherever we went.”
The Dessarts moved to Oconto Falls and became members of St. Anthony Parish in 1984. Amy said it did not take long for them to find their footing at the parish.
“John played guitar for the church the second week we were there,” Amy said.
“They needed a musician, so I was like, ‘OK, I can do that,’” John said.
Amy taught at Oconto Falls High School before getting a job at St. Anthony. Over the next two decades, she became close with many at the school, especially a couple of fellow teachers.
“When I first started working there, Rosie Marifke, Kathy Knall and I were the same age,” Amy said. “They were born in August and I was born in September, about three weeks apart. We all worked there together for so long, and it was just fun.”
While Amy worked at St. Anthony, John taught elementary music at the public school. The Dessarts are now both retired, but that has not slowed them down.
Ken Harter, president of the St. Anthony Parish Pastoral Council, said John and Amy’s volunteer work at St. Anthony is a terrific example of faithful participation.
“The Dessarts really stood out to me as being active, involved people that work for the good of the parish and beyond,” Ken said.
John is a member of the parish choir as well as the building and grounds committee. After a fire gutted the school in 2012, he helped plan the school’s restoration, including the new computerized boiler and heating systems, which he now monitors. He also plays guitar for funerals, weddings and other parish events.
Amy teaches religious education and adult faith formation. She and John are also members of the liturgy committee and decorate the church for the different seasons.
“John and I are out tramping through the woods to get those red dogwood branches, or we’re digging up those little pine trees for Advent,” Amy said. “We were in our rock pile digging up rocks for Lent. We are in the nitty-gritty.”
Every Wednesday morning, the Dessarts can be found helping out at the school. John teaches music, plays guitar for the student Mass and helps write original music for school events. Amy assists the teachers by taking over classrooms to allow for instructor prep time.
The Dessarts said volunteering at a parish and being active in one’s faith brings a person closer to their neighbors and God.
“(St. Anthony) feels like family,” John said.
John and Amy have three children and 10 grandchildren, with an 11th on the way. The Dessarts said their children were expected to attend church with them, and there was no resistance.
“I think they saw in us that we wanted to be part of our faith, and not just a spectator,” John said. “I think they liked that, so they became quite active in theirs, too.”
When they are not volunteering at the church or babysitting their grandkids, the Dessarts enjoy spending time at their cottage on Kelly Lake and cross country skiing in the winter. Bike rides, walks and woodworking projects also find their way into the schedule.