STURGEON BAY — There was a time in her life when Donna VanDreese could never have envisioned herself leading the rosary in church. She just didn’t have enough self-confidence.
“I had it in my head that I couldn’t do anything,” she said. “I was even afraid to drive a car.”
VanDreese said her mother, perhaps well-intentioned, discouraged her from trying new things, spreading her wings, so to speak. Even her early desire to enter a convent, or at least explore the possibility, was seen as a foolish, useless notion by her mother.
“Sometimes I think she was hoping to keep me home where I could be the one they leaned on for things as they got older,” VanDreese said.
All that began to change, however, when a friend from work lost her son in a car accident and was having a hard time coping. She didn’t want to be alone, so she invited VanDreese to live with her in Fish Creek. The move was a lifesaver for VanDreese.
For various reasons, “I was close to a nervous breakdown when I first moved in with her. She even had to feed me,” VanDreese said. Around 1969, when their jobs changed, they bought a house together in Sturgeon Bay. They joined Corpus Christi Parish because, although VanDreese was once a member at St. Joseph, the now-disabled Jean was unable to climb the long flight of steps to reach the front doors. (The church now has a handicapped-accessible door.)
“I can see the hand of God in all that,” VanDreese said, referring to the women’s shared life. “Jean and I helped each other. If not for her, I probably still wouldn’t be able to do anything. She was like a second mother to me.”
The two friends, who even shared birth dates, prayed together each day, and that included the rosary.
“I was always devoted to the rosary,” VanDreese said. “By the time I graduated from grade school (St. Joseph in Sturgeon Bay) I said it daily.”
When her friend Jean sickened, eventually requiring dialysis, it became VanDreese’s turn to be the caregiver. When Jean died in 1987, VanDreese said she wanted to give up, but saying the rosary helped.
“I knew God wouldn’t want me to give up, and neither would Jean,” she said.
After their move here, VanDreese worked second shift and so attended weekday Masses at Corpus Christi when they were scheduled in the morning. Sometime during the 1990s, a group of about six people began taking turns leading the rosary before Mass. Eventually, VanDreese was asked to lead.
“I was nervous the first couple of times,” she said. “But I thought it was an honor, and I was thankful for so many things.” Besides, the rosary was an old friend, something she could do and pray with confidence.
VanDreese retired in 2014 and now attends all daily Masses that are scheduled, currently Monday afternoon and in the mornings on Wednesday and Friday. She’s there rain or shine, snow or sleet, at least a half-hour early to lead the rosary. She worries a bit that she’s the sole leader now, except for one or two people who will fill in for her if she can’t be there.
“I worry about the (pre-Mass) rosary dying out, because it’s mostly just older people who are there to say it,” she said. She isn’t a believer in the 10-minute “speed rosary,” but leads the prayers at a leisurely, reverent pace that takes 20-25 minutes. She tries to meditate on each mystery, with her favorite being the fifth Glorious, “The Crowning of Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth.”
VanDreese credits her Cursillo weekend she made 15 or 20 years ago, when she said she experienced the touch of the Holy Spirit. That also did wonders for her confidence as a much-loved child of God.
She has a varied personal prayer life, which includes “The Word Among Us” to read and meditate on the coming Mass Scriptures, and “Living Faith” for more Scripture commentary. In the evening she examines her day and does prayers of thanksgiving and contrition — besides doing her own rosary.
“I pray the rosary because it’s a powerful prayer. Mary herself told us to say it, and she told us what she could do for us if we do,” VanDreese said.