APPLETON — Anne Higgins distinctly remembers when her faith became more personal to her. As a sophomore at Xavier High School in Appleton, she attended a retreat where a priest did a presentation on the Shroud of Turin. “It helped me come to the realization of how Jesus was so real and so human,” said Higgins.
She and her husband, Glenn, joined St. Mary Parish in Appleton in 1981 and got involved right away. In 1986, Fr. Michael O’Rourke was appointed pastor there and a lifelong friendship began between the priest and the young couple.
“It was his first time being a pastor. In many ways we grew up together. He was the oldest in his family and loved kids,” said Higgins, who is the youngest of 13 children in her family. “He was a constant force in everybody’s life. He was a very smart man and had a gift for storytelling and presenting complicated things in ways that you could easily understand.”
Higgins later discovered that it was Fr. O’Rourke who offered the shroud presentation at her high school retreat. In 2010, the priest passed away unexpectedly at age 66. “Fr. Mike had such a gift for sharing the faith in a real way,” said Higgins. “We all had the benefit of learning from him about a lived faith and Jesus being our very best friend.”
Parishioners were determined to continue Fr. O’Rourke’s evangelization. Several key parishioners, including Susan Littmann, parish business director, Brian Dresang and Higgins, formed a ministry in 2012 called CIA (Catholics in Apostleship) — Faith Missions Operatives. It is a “volunteer faith ministry that operates under the Come Follow Me, Inc., charitable foundation, which was formed in memory of Fr. O’Rourke to carry out his legacy throughout the greater Fox Cities,” according to organizers.
“It was our attempt to encourage the kind of activities that Fr. Mike did to pass on the faith,” said Higgins. “Fr. Mike had been a role model and we were going to try to do, as a group of lay people, some of what he had done for us.”
To that end, the team hosts free public events to promote the Catholic faith. The first one they held was the presentation “Do You Believe in Miracles?” by Tim Francis. Over the course of three days, 1,200 people attended the event. “It spread by word of mouth. We thought we were starting slow, but that wasn’t the case at all,” said Higgins.
Originally, the events were held a few times a year. In 2016, they set up a formal schedule with monthly presentations held in the Xavier Fine Arts Theatre at St. Francis Xavier High School. Events are generally held the first Monday of each month during the school year.
“Fr. Mike piqued our curiosity, he got us to look into things deeper,” said Higgins. “We came up with the tagline, ‘Investigate your faith.’ If it didn’t fulfill that goal, we didn’t do it. We wanted to attract younger families if we could. Women said they loved our events because they didn’t have to talk their husbands into coming — the men loved them. We knew that there was a formula and from the get-go tried to stick to that formula.”
Higgins, who is the emcee for the presentations, credits Xavier principal Mike Mauthe and theater manager Jim Romenesko for their support and help with the events. She mentioned that the late Clarence and Dolores Wallace, who helped fund the construction of the fine arts theater at Xavier, would be happy to see the space being used for such a purpose.
The audiences for the presentations continue to grow. Last month there was a full house for the one-woman play, “St. Catherine of Siena: Brought to Life,” by Dominican Sr. Nancy Murray, who is the sister of actor Bill Murray.
During Holy Week, the group offers a two-night event and they expect full houses for them.
Losing Fr. O’Rourke was a huge blow to the St. Mary Parish community and people questioned why God would take him when he was doing so much good. Now, Higgins said, it is like God’s plan has been revealed.
“There have been so many times now that we look back and know that had Fr. Mike not been taken from us in such an abrupt and tragic way, that we probably wouldn’t have had such a burning need to remember him and honor his legacy this way,” said Higgins. “It’s almost mind-blowing sometimes to see how God has used the pain of loss and turned it into this amazing ministry.
“We’re hearing from people all the time how they love what the events are. They feel like they keep wanting to come back for more,” she said. “The Holy Spirit has this thing and Fr. Mike has it by the hand as well. We can feel him with us so often. This is an inspired ministry and we’re just along for the ride.”