MOUNT CALVARY —All God’s creatures come together at Cristo Rey Ranch, a petting zoo about 55 miles north of Green Bay run by Catholic sisters.
The compound also is the site of the motherhouse/convent of the Congregation of Sister Servants of Christ the King, Villa Loretto Nursing Home and Villa Rosa assisted living facility.
Sr. Stephen Bloesl, recently retired after 40 years as director of the care facilities, still serves as president of the ranch and cares for the animals with the assistance of four paid staff and numerous volunteers.
Sr. Bloesl is a native of Oshkosh, where she attended St. Vincent Parish.
The ranch’s petting zoo is open year-round and is home to about 300 birds and animals, including sheep, goats, llamas, emu, donkeys, rabbits, horses, pigs, dogs, cats, turkey, geese, ducks, peacocks, chickens and lemurs. They can be petted, fed and observed.
Admission is free for self-guided tours, with a small fee for guided tours and specialty tour options such as hayrides, weaving demonstrations, fiber identification, animal training and sheep-herding demonstrations.
While the care facilities have been on the site since 1949, the animal portion of the ministry began in the early 1960s, when a supporter dropped off a little surprise for the sisters: a lamb named Buster. The supporter said the sisters would have to bottle-feed it and he would be back for it in the fall.
Instead, Buster was the first in what has grown to an eclectic menagerie. They added a goat, but found that it wouldn’t stay home without a companion, so they had to add another goat — and then many more.
They added donkeys, the first one named Milton Burro.
Other species were added as they caught the sisters’ collective eye: a donated European spotted fawn; llamas, among the first owned in the state of Wisconsin; goats, which provide milk and luxurious fiber; exotic lemurs donated by a like-minded zoo operator; and rescue pigs, among many others.
This summer, they are awaiting delivery of a camel.
Sr. Bloesl said the animals provide excellent therapy for the older residents, who currently number about 60; and for children and adolescents involved in a respite care program licensed by Fond du Lac County Social Services.
“Our purpose is to provide a safe, trusting environment to promote the physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual needs of children and adolescents,” Sr. Bloesl says in promotional materials. “Cristo Rey Ranch provides opportunities for youths to develop self-esteem, healthy and meaningful relationships with others, and instill a desire to make a positive difference in the world around them.”
She told The Compass that youth learn responsibility and work ethic, and they develop self-confidence, a feeling of accomplishment and a sense of belonging. “They feel accepted here,” Sr. Bloesl said. “Some are so into the animals and bond with them. It’s very therapeutic for them.”
They also take animals for visits to nursing homes, and some of their animals are shared and can be seen at the Menominee Park Zoo in Oshkosh, Lakeside Park in Fond du Lac and Westward Ho campground near Plymouth.
Sr. Bloesl said they have learned how to care for all the different species by talking with other people and zoo owners who have the same interests.
Volunteers help the sisters with grooming, shots, parasite control, vaccination and sheering. The sisters support the costs through selling baby offspring of their animals, tours and fund-raising events, and donations and memorials.
But much of the funding comes from the sisters. Only four members remain in the order, with two in their 70s and two in their 90s.
“We feel it’s a mission,” Sr. Boesl said. “We use what we have, and when that runs out we’re done. As long as the Lord wants us to continue, we will.”
Special fundraising events this year will include Adventures on the Farm on Aug. 18, a family event with pony rides, llama walks, train and wagon rides, games, face painting and exotic animal visitors.
On the second Friday and Saturday of December, there will be a live Nativity with a live Baby Jesus and animals from the ranch. A tradition for 20 years, the live Nativity is special and always a sell-out, Sr. Bloesl said.