ANTIGO — Sarah Darr has a simple goal: To bring people to Christ no matter what stage they are at in their spiritual or physical journeys.
The Antigo native came home a handful of years ago after spending much of her adult life in Madison, choosing to return to a more simple life. Now, through the Antigo Area Catholic Churches (which includes St. John the Evangelist and St. Mary & Hyacinth in Antigo) and her home parish of St. Wenceslaus in Neva, she is embracing that long-held goal.
“I want people to understand that they don’t have to be ashamed of being at a beginning stage in either their physical fitness life or their faith life,” she said. “I want people to feel free to ask questions and know that other people aren’t going to judge them — whether they are praying, offering petitions or flipping tractor tires for a workout.”
Key to that purpose is “Faustina Fit,” a women’s exercise program that meets every Saturday morning in the St. John Church parking lot, although it can move inside in changing weather conditions.
Named by the participants for the Polish saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, the program is a natural offshoot of the “Fit Shepherds” men’s class, started at the tri-parishes by Fr. Zach Weber, who has since moved on as director of the Newman Center at UW-Oshkosh.
Darr explained that the organizers chose the name in honor of the saint who shared visions of heaven, purgatory and hell, all while emphasizing the divine mercy of Jesus.
“I resisted joining at first, but I am so glad that I changed my mind,” Darr said. “My usual Saturday mornings used to include just sitting around drinking tea, not taking care of myself. But our workouts have helped me to get motivated to take care of my body while also getting my weekend started right.”
Faustina Fit is tailored specifically for women’s social and physical needs. It opens with prayer and a warm-up and then participants take turns leading a mix of cardio and strength moves, with the routines changing depending on who is in control.
“Being women, we like a little more free form,” Darr said. “Sometimes it’s strength based, sometimes it is cardio. A couple weeks ago, a member from the men’s class brought in tractor tires so we started flipping them, which was super fun. We laugh a lot.”
The morning ends with prayer and perhaps a reading from St. Faustina, also led by various group members.
“The prayer adds that community aspect,” said Darr. “We share petitions for what’s going on in our lives and families, so that we can love and support each other.”
Encouragement is key, she added.
“All the ladies who attend are incredible at not judging anyone,” according to Darr. “We show up and do our best for wherever we are fitness-wise, and we just focus on being healthier and happier.”
Faustina Fit also gets people comfortable leading prayers.
“So often, when people are asked to pray out loud, they are afraid to make a mistake,” Darr said. “We show them that you don’t have to be perfect when you pray.”
Darr grew up attending St. Wenceslaus Parish under the leadership of Fr. Omer Kelley, who remains beloved in the community today. After graduating from Antigo High School, she pursued her education in Madison, becoming involved in the St. Paul Newman Center on the UW campus, as well as the St. Raphael Cathedral Parish.
Upon returning to Antigo after 14 years in Madison, Darr was eager to become active in her faith, rarely saying “no” to a challenge. “I find myself saying ‘yes’ to people,” she said. “I am comfortable being in a leadership position.”
That has also included the Alpha program, a 10-week course that focuses on the meaning of life in a relaxed, friendly setting. Like Faustina Fit, Alpha is for everyone, she said. No assumptions are made about background knowledge or belief in Christianity.
“It’s OK to talk about your faith no matter where you are,” Darr said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has trimmed participation in Faustina Fit for now, but members have begun a new promotional effort through the Antigo Area Catholic Churches Facebook page that may be reaping dividends. With ample space available inside St. John’s, the program will continue through the colder weather months.
“We’ll either go inside or play out in the snow,” Darr says. “That’s a lot of fun, too.”
Faustina Fit is open to all ages and denominations of women. The only requirement is to “just show up” on Saturday mornings at 8:15 a.m. at St. John’s in Antigo.
“The friendships that have been built are incredible and have helped keep us all sane during the COVID restrictions,” Darr says. “It’s the perfect way to stay social safely and work on being healthier. I really hope more women join us.”