Walk to Mary a family affair for Dodge County clan

Wiebelhaus family walks in thanksgiving to Blessed Mother

Walk to Mary participants, carrying a statue of Mary, lead a group of pilgrims on their way to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion on May 1. This was the eighth year of the 21-mile walk, which was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

CHAMPION — Prayer intentions and prayers of thanksgiving are often part of the motivation for pilgrims who participate in the Walk to Mary. For the Wiebelhaus family of Dodge County, it was a little of both.

Deb and Ken participated in the first six Walks to Mary, from 2013 to 2018. This year, recovering from a bout with cancer prevented Deb from walking more than a few blocks on May 1, but she and Ken, who did walk the 21 miles, were accompanied by their four daughters and their children. 

Among her family completing the 21 miles from the National Shrine of St. Joseph in De Pere to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion was daughter Janelle Finger and granddaughter Ava, 14. 

Ava uses a wheelchair following a mountain biking accident that happened during a family vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in August 2020. “We thought it would be fun to go mountain biking and the first run down, I had taken a turn and thought I could do the trail and I couldn’t,” Ava told The Compass while completing the last half-mile of the pilgrimage. “I did a few somersaults with the bike and hit my back on some rocks.”

Ava was transported to St. John’s Health in Jackson, where spine surgeons performed a six-hour surgery to stabilize fractures. She spent two weeks in the ICU at Jackson, and was then transferred to Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago for six weeks of inpatient rehabilitation, followed by 10 weeks of outpatient rehabilitation. Ava was then transferred to Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee to be closer to home. She completed her treatment there the first week of April.

Janelle pushed Ava most of the 21 miles — except along the trail that required Ava to be transported by vehicle. 

“Before Ava had her accident, she walked with us the last two miles on the (2019) Walk to Mary,” said her grandmother. “Shortly after her accident, she said, ‘Oh Grandma, I can do the walk with you this year.’ She knew she could do the walk because she could get pushed.’”

Janelle Finger pushes her daughter, Ava, along the Walk to Mary route on May 1. Janelle’s three sisters and their parents, Deb and Ken Wiebelhaus, took part in the walk, giving thanks for Ava’s recovery from a biking accident and for Deb’s recovery from cancer. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Deb said she gets emotional thinking about her diagnosis, treatment and recovery from cervical cancer and Ava’s progress after the life-threatening mountain bike accident. 

“The Blessed Mother sent us all here,” she said about the 2021 Walk to Mary. In all, 22 family members participated in some part of the walk.

“We’ve always had somebody (do part of the walk),” she said. “This year — we have four daughters and two sons — all four daughters joined us and parts of their family. I did have cancer, so that’s part of that, too. I think the Blessed Mother was calling us all there. She did a fantastic job.” 

Ava attends Dodgeland Middle School in Juneau, located in Dodge County. Her family attends St. John the Baptist Parish in Clyman. 

“My parents really led our prayer life and our faith life,” said Janelle, Ava’s mother, “so being here with them and being part of (the Walk to Mary) now, as we are adults and we have our kids, I think that is something really special. Through all of this, family and friends and faith brought us through.”

At the closing Mass celebrated by Bishop David Ricken, Ken, Janelle and Ava brought up the eucharistic gifts.

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