LANGLADE — Mary Jo Peters is proof that, no matter what the adage says, you can go home again.
The Langlade native, her family as deeply rooted in the hills surrounding the Wolf River as the pines that grace the riverbanks, left the area in the 1970s, vowing “never to go back to little rural Wisconsin.” But three years ago, she and her husband returned home, not to retire, but to embrace a community and a little parish church that never strayed far from her thoughts or heart.
“When I walked into St. Stanislaus after being gone for so many years, it felt like home, the light coming through the windows … the smells,” she said. “All of that really touched me.”
Peters, one of five daughters born to Ken Peters and the late Joyce Peters, grew up within a stone’s throw of her grandparents’ homestead, dating to the late 1800s in far eastern Langlade County, home of the Wolf River.
“You know the movie, ‘A River Runs Through It?’ Well the Wolf River definitely runs through all my family,” she said. “It’s a tight connection.”
The family all attended St. Stanislaus Parish in Langlade, which was then a mission parish of St. James in White Lake, located just a handful of miles away.
“There was never a reason to stay home on Sundays,” Peters said. “It was a social activity as well.”
It was an outdoor-charged childhood, with skiing at nearby Kettlebowl, swimming and canoeing on the Wolf River, and hiking the wooded trails.
But after graduating with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Peters said it was time to go.
“I said I was never going to live in little rural Wisconsin and I headed to Tucson, Ariz., with literally two suitcases,” she said. “Then I moved to Taos, N.M., because I wanted to ski.”
That’s where she rekindled a friendship with a childhood friend, Patrick Peters, who had grown up in Waukesha but often visited family in eastern Langlade County, where Peters is a common surname. He worked as a professional in the ski industry in Montana, New Mexico and Colorado.
They exchanged vows at her beloved St. Stanislaus Church in Langlade.
And then it was off again, this time to Vail, Colo., for a decade. But after their children, Corey, 31, and Ben, 25, were born, they felt the tug to return to the Midwest, first to Hudson and, upon retirement in 2015, back to Langlade, where many family members remained.
“The area itself, the river, is the strongest pull,” she said. “Every day I walk down to the water and enjoy the natural beauty.”
In her absence, many things had changed but others stayed intact. St. Stanislaus and St. James had merged and, for a variety of reasons, the parish had become demoralized, with dwindling membership.
Peters, with a can-do attitude, forged in decades of experience in the hospitality industry, jumped in to help.
“There was no one picking out songs for Mass, so I thought, ‘I can do that,’” she said. “There was no one to lead the singing one Sunday, so I mustered the courage to start the hymn.”
These days, she often shares that duty, done a cappella since the parish has no organist, with another woman at St. James and two brothers at St. Stanislaus.
“If they are there I defer to them to start the songs,” Peters said. “We have a very endearing system and it works very well.”
Peters developed a Facebook page to list Mass times and activities at both locations, heavily promoting the parish in the local community. She also serves as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and a lector.
Most recently she, with help from many others, coordinated the joint congregation’s centennial celebration, drawing on memories from both parishes for a day of celebration that many thought never would come.
“We have two very special churches,” she said. “Priests come and go, but it’s the people, the community who persevere. The churches are for the people who want to have God at the core of their lives. We hope the recognition that we made it 100 years will be a launching pad for us to do more positive things as we move forward.”
Her efforts have been infectious, with parishioners stepping up to clean churches, keep the grass mowed and the snow plowed. They are filling the pews and bringing others to Mass.
“These unsung heroes just get it done with little to no direction,” she said. “Some of them have parents and grandparents who attended these churches and feel strongly about continuing to carry the torch. They really are the heart and soul that creates the indescribable love and dedication to these churches.”
The parish is growing in vibrancy and welcomed a new pastor, Fr. Edmundo Siguenza, this past weekend.
“People just do these things because they love the church,” Peters said. “It’s the atmosphere. It’s not perfect and well-orchestrated. It’s a blessing in a special way.”
The return home has been a success, for her and the parish.
“I remember back when I was 10 or 12, putting the flowers on the altar at St. Stanislaus with my grandmother,” she said. “It’s a wonderful memory. And when I go into that church today, it remains holy ground.”