NEENAH — Sandy Janssen is on fire with the Lord, she says: “I like to leave people better off than when I met them.”
That philosophy keeps her going as she smiles and laughs while carrying some heavy crosses in her life, including a battle with cancer. “Cross” is a key word for her, and she has found a way to lighten other people’s crosses.
It all started with her Cursillo group, which meets on Mondays. “Someone gave me a cross,” she said, and wished her all the best. The cross is small and fits comfortably in her hand. She was inspired, and bought several similar crosses over the internet and started giving them to people.
During the next two or three months, she gave out the first 10 crosses and ordered more. “Now I give them out all the time,” she said. She gives them to people who seem to need a lift, or to people “God tells me to give them to.”
At a local drive-in, for example, she paid for the meal of the woman in front of her. “God told me to do this,” she said. As they were leaving, the woman gratefully told her that she was having a difficult time as a single mother. Her husband had died recently and her son was struggling with the loss — as was she. “I gave her a cross and one for her son, too,” Janssen said. They continued to have contact and the son gave her some stones that he has been collecting as a thank you.
In another instance, she gave a cross to one of her doctors. “I don’t know. God told me to take a cross with me that day when I went to see my doctor, and I gave it to him,” she said. “He told me his dad was a minister, so he understood the meaning of the cross and that he needed an operation that year, something that worried him. He went through the operation and all went well.”
Two years ago Janssen saw a man walk by to light candles at church. He was sniffling like he was crying. “God told me to go talk to him,” she said. “I thought, ‘I can’t, I just can’t.’” But someone gave her a pamphlet about Padre Pio and she thought she would offer it to the gentleman. “I said, ‘I know I sound crazy, but God wants me to give you this pamphlet and I will pray for you.” They talked and she gave him a cross. The friendship with him and his wife continues.
The crosses she gives out come in two sizes. The large ones have a saying on them, such as “Lord, hear my prayer.” The smaller ones easily fit in a pocket or purse. “I’ve given out more than 100 large crosses and countless small ones,” Janssen said. When she gives someone a cross, she puts their first name in a diary and they are added to her daily prayer list.
Janssen has always been active in her parishes. She comes from a family of 11, all of whom help others in one fashion or another. After she got married, she and her sister started Janssen’s Upholstery in Antigo. They charged $5 a chair and $10 a sofa. “It would take us three days to do each order, but it provided us with grocery money,” she said. When her family moved to the Neenah area, she continued the business, which she ran for 50 years. Her son took it over two years ago.
She has been a volunteer with St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP) at both the conference and store levels and served on the board for many years. “To see that we help people pay their light bill or put food on their tables was wonderful,” she said. “Of course, we also gave them clothing vouchers for the store.”
When she started 18 years ago, the SVDP conference at St. Gabriel was floundering. She joined, but made it clear that she was willing to do anything needed except be president. At the first meeting, jobs were divided and she ended up as president. “I took it. I never thought I would, but God pushed me that way,” she said.
She continues to volunteer at the Neenah SVDP store on Fridays, but left the conference work behind in March when she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She had successful surgery for that, but cancer showed up in her liver and she continues chemotherapy every two weeks.
“I got to know some of the people who come in for regular chemo and we pray together. God is with us, and knowing that means it’s not so bad then,” she said.
With six months of chemo remaining, Janssen said, “I know God is with me every step of the way.”