APPLETON — When Jerry and Julie Lopas retired 11 years ago, they wanted to cut back on volunteering since they had done so much of it through the years at Nativity of Our Lord Parish and the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay. Those plans fell to the wayside after they moved to the Town of Harrison and joined St. Bernadette Parish.
“Fr. Don (Zuleger) shows up at St. Bernadette’s and somehow finds out I’m a retired civil engineer,” recalled Jerry. With Julie’s accounting skills from a career working as an international controller for Fort Howard Paper Co., and Jerry’s 21 years as the village engineer and building inspector for Ashwaubenon, Fr. Zuleger found ideal candidates to join and eventually lead the parish finance council and the buildings and grounds committee, respectively.
Those two groups work hand-in-hand at the parish. With his wife heading the finance council, Jerry quipped, “She gets the money and I spend it.” One of the first major projects they worked on was the “Fifty and Free” campaign to retire the parish debt before its 50th anniversary in 2010.
That campaign was successful, as have other subsequent campaigns, they said, because they started with a catchy slogan, usually supplied by Fr. Zuleger. They also broke the financial need down into palatable amounts for parishioners.
Another task they worked on five years ago was underfunded and Jerry was reluctant to start without the money on hand. “I’m a fiscal conservative — I’m cheap to put it better. We were about $100,000 short to do the project,” said Jerry. Fr. Zuleger encouraged the committees to keep the faith and move forward, so they instituted the 30/60/90 program where 60 families were asked to donate $50 a week for 30 weeks to raise $90,000. Within a month, they had commitments for the total amount.
As part of their parish outreach, St. Bernadette transitioned its former school building to the home of The Thompson Center on Lourdes, a non-profit organization benefiting older adults. Consequently, the parish has taken on more expenses to keep that building operating and in compliance with city codes.
Since it takes a lot of fundraising to keep a 55-year-old structure up and running, the Lopases turned to a spiritual exercise: the St. Joseph Novena, a nine-day prayer petition to St. Joseph.
“We were talking to people in the City of Appleton to raise money for the air conditioning for The Thompson Center on Lourdes,” said Julie. “A few of us got together and decided to say the St. Joseph Novena every day. We were praying, that if it was God’s will, we would raise money for this project. When the phone started ringing and people started pledging, every time we received a pledge, we’d say the novena again, even though we had already said it that day.”
Sometimes they said the novena three times in the same day, she said.
Projects for all the buildings on the parish property never seem to end. In addition to the air conditioning, which was installed for both the school and the church, countless other things were accomplished since Jerry and Julie came on board. These include putting a new roof on the school, sealing the parking lot, installing an elevator in the school, replacing a generator and water heaters, and updating the fire alarm system and lighting in the school.
Making donation appeals to the public takes a special skill, and Julie’s career background has been helpful. “Every quarter we are supposed to do a talk to the parish about the finances and it ends up being me because I don’t have a problem with it,” she said. “Every time I’m at the podium I’m raising money. … Thankfully, St. Bernadette’s is a very giving parish.”
Julie’s corporate background in writing grants has also benefitted the parish while Jerry’s project management background has been helpful. Between meeting with city officials, getting bids, hiring contractors, and being on the worksite, he estimates that he puts in 30 to 35 hours a week in parish volunteer work.
Other parishioners with useful career backgrounds have also helped the parish save in labor costs, said Jerry.
“I’ve got an electrician, a guy in telecommunications, we have a retired guy who does pneumatic controls, a plasterer, a painter,” he said. “I’m not an expert in everything. I also know a lot of contractors in the trades.”
Some of the parish projects come with sleepless nights, said Jerry. But Julie was quick to add, “There is a joy when you see a project done within budget.”