ALLOUEZ — The Christmas spirit came early for Brynn Larsen, a health and physical education instructor at Father Allouez Catholic School. What began as misfortune and near tragedy ended with what Larsen said was a sign of hope and faith.
Larsen, who is in her first year teaching at Father Allouez, commutes 35 miles from Oconto Falls, where she lives with her parents, Todd and Dawn Larsen. They are members of St. Anthony Parish in Oconto Falls.
On Wednesday, Nov. 28, Larsen was driving home from school on Interstate 41 when her front left tire blew out near Suamico. She was able to maneuver her car from the left lane to the right shoulder and pull over. After breathing a sigh of relief she called the police and then her parents.
One hour later, Larsen’s mother arrived to take her home. The 2002 Pontiac Bonneville — which had been handed down from her parents and her sister, and which Larsen nicknamed “Bonnie” when she took ownership — would stay on the side of the freeway until her father could arrive and change the tire the next day. Larsen grabbed her school bag, but left other items in the car, including a large duffel bag with gear she used for umpiring softball.
Around 10 p.m. that evening, about 90 minutes after Larsen arrived home, a car driven by a 25-year-old man rear-ended Larsen’s car. Both vehicles burst into flames and Bonnie the Bonneville was incinerated in the fiery fire.
Larsen was awoken around 5 a.m., when her father was contacted by police and told about the accident: “He said ’There’s nothing left’ and I lost it,” she said.
The large duffel bag with her equipment, including four pairs of shoes, an umpire’s mask and chest protector, were destroyed. “Those are all replaceable,” said Larsen. What could not be replaced were the souvenir coins received for refereeing at tournaments around the country. “I was really crushed,” she said.
She also thought about what might have happened if she were still in the car. “If you see pictures of the car you’ll understand. I wouldn’t be sitting here today if I was in the car,” she said. “The police said (the driver) was under the influence. To think that my mishap could have killed someone, that kind of hurts the heart,” said an emotional Larsen.
She returned to school the next day and her father drove to the salvage yard, where Larsen’s car was taken. He texted her one photo. Again, she said she was moved to tears. That morning, a shaken Larsen, wearing no makeup, greeted her first students. “They were like, ‘Are you OK?’ I lost it in front of them and told them what happened. I said the only place I wanted to be was here with them. Honestly, being with the kids took my mind off of it.
“To realize that I have a job at a Catholic school with kids that just adore me, I just absolutely love them,” she said. “This whole room of 32 kids, you could not hear a pin drop. It was so quiet. I told them, ‘I don’t care if you don’t learn anything from me this whole year, but please know this: any action you have in life could affect someone else and you don’t know how.’”
As the school community learned about Larsen’s experience, they began to offer support.
“I told my fifth graders and they gave me hugs. They said, ‘We’re going to start you a Go Fund Me page to help you buy a car,'” she said.
The school faculty began collecting donations and a letter was sent to parents, who also donated contributions to help Larsen purchase a car and softball referee gear.
“The love and support that this school gave is unbelievable,” said Larsen. “I don’t know how to say thank you enough for all of the good things people have done.”
On Saturday, three days after the accident, Larsen’s father drove her to the scene of the accident to look for her officiating coins. The black burn marks from the fire were still evident on the roadside blacktop. What they found turned the story of tragedy into what she believes was a miracle.
“I was walking on the side near the tall grass … just looking at stuff and there’s glass shattered everywhere,” said Larsen. She then spotted a wooden cross in the distance.
“I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” she said. “I sort of laughed and cried at the same time.”
Larsen had made the cross, which measures about one-foot in height, out of two pieces of wood during a school retreat with sixth-grade students last September at Camp Tekakwitha, which is owned by the Diocese of Green Bay. She took the cross home and kept it in the back window of her Pontiac, where it sat, along with a few books, when the car was hit. The cross was the only item not destroyed.
“What are the chances that you find this cross still sitting there?” said Larsen. “It was like God was looking out for me that day and trying to tell me, ‘Hey, I’m here for you.’”
Larsen said the entire experience has been like an early Christmas gift.
“I know people keep telling me it’s an unbelievable story, especially when you are talking about God and how I’m trying to figure out still what the purpose was,” she said. “At first, I was like, ‘Why do bad things happen?’ But more and more with this story and the cross, I’m starting to see, like, maybe my story can change one person’s beliefs, to believe there is something greater in life, that there is a better place.
“I think it brought me closer to God and my faith, honestly,” Larsen added.
The wooden cross which miraculously survived the collision and fire has found a home in Larsen’s new Nissan Rogue. “This will stay with me forever,” she said, a constant reminder of the loving community at Father Allouez Catholic School and a renewed faith that is her early Christmas blessing.