ANTIGO — In Wendee Henke’s world, “food for the soul” means cake, and that’s just fine with members of St. John the Evangelist Parish.
Henke, known affectionately as the “kitchen queen,” concocts amazing creations from flour, sugar, frosting and fondant for a variety of church functions. A picnic might include a cake decorated to resemble a huge hamburger. Italian night could call for a pizza reincarnation and, of course, Easter brings out a bunny.
“Pinterest gets me in trouble every time,” Henke said with a laugh, referring to the social media site favored by crafters, bakers and decorators of all types. “I’m always researching and thinking about what I can make for the next week. Everyone is always curious to see what I can come up with.”
But Henke wasn’t always such a stellar baker, or even an active Catholic.
The youngest child and the only girl in her family, Henke was raised with five older brothers. Their parents were casual churchgoers, attending Mass on major holidays, but not on a regular basis. As an adult, a series of losses, including the deaths of her father, mother and two brothers over just a handful of years, left her questioning and resentful.
“I was mad at God,” she admitted. “I couldn’t understand why God took both of my parents and my brothers. I didn’t want anything to do with him.”
That estrangement lasted two decades. “I did a lot of soul-searching,” she said.
But, even as she fell away from the church, Henke, a hairstylist in Antigo, enjoyed the patronage of the three members of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph, the sisters serving Aspirus Langlade Hospital. When Sr. Jean Bricco passed away in 2017, Tom Bradley of Bradley Funeral Home called Henke, asking her to style her friend’s and client’s hair for the viewing.
“I took the opportunity to talk to Tom about my feelings,” Henke said. “I knew he had a son who is a priest (Fr. Adam Bradley) and I felt he could help. He gave me a card and said, ‘Call my buddy, Fr. Zach.’”
That was Fr. Zach Weber, then newly-ordained and assigned to the trio of churches — St. John and SS. Mary and Hyacinth in Antigo and St. Wenceslaus in Neva — known as Antigo Area Catholic Churches.
“I met with Fr. Zach and I had a whole slew of questions, all written down,” she said. “He took the time with me. We had three hours of conversations and he invited me to come to church.”
In addition, she reached out to Catholic friends, who took her to Mass, explained the rituals and brought her into the St. John choir loft. Soon Henke, who enjoys singing, was involved with the group.
Henke also embraced opportunities to visit other churches, and felt her life transformed at a healing Mass.
“I felt so at peace there,” she said. “That was my first ‘aha’ moment.”
Henke formally joined St. John the Evangelist Parish two years ago, completing the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, taught by Bradley and his wife, Laurel. She became involved in the wide range of groups and programs offered through the tri-parishes, including the adoration chapel, Alpha, Search and Koinonia retreats.
That led her into the St. John Church kitchen.
“I started by bringing a dessert or two for after classes, and then Fr. Zach asked me if I wanted to be in charge of the kitchen,” she said. “I just got hooked.”
The baking stopped for a time, when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered in-church gatherings. Those are gradually resuming, delighting everyone, including the baker.
“It’s obvious Wendee puts a lot of love into what she does,” said Fr. Joel Sember, pastor of the tri-parishes. “That brings joy to others.”
Today, Henke’s life is complete, with a daughter, Carressa, a granddaughter, Avery, age 6, and grandson, 4-year-old Harrison, who are “the loves of my life.” She also has two cats.
Henke is philosophical about the journey that brought her back to the church, and her role in nourishing its members physically and, perhaps, spiritually as well.
“I feel good when I can give to others,” she said. “My favorite saint is Mary Magdalene, because she walked with Jesus. I feel like that is my journey.”
Name: Wendee Henke
Parish: St. John the Evangelist, Antigo
Favorite saint: Mary Magdalene.
Words to live by: “Be still and know that I am God.” (Ps 46:10)