Sr. Marlita Henseler to retire at the end of June

By Suzanne Weiss | For the Compass | June 17, 2021

Franciscan Sr. Marlita Henseler, pictured near a painting of Our Lady of Guadaluple inside St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Newton, retires as pastoral leader at the end of June.

NEWTON — Reach Sr. Marlita Henseler’s office voicemail and you will hear her on two recorded messages, one in English and one in Spanish.

That’s because the Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity is pastoral leader of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish, which claims the largest number of Spanish-speaking members in Manitowoc County. And because she speaks both languages.

Born and raised in Hilbert, about 30 minutes from Newton, she has come full circle via Bolivia, Peru and New Mexico, to name a few locales where she has served. Along the way, she has learned the language of our neighbors to the south. 

At the end of June, Sr. Marlita, 75, will retire from her position after 12 years of service.

“It’s not a matter of wanting to leave the community here; it’s just that it’s the right time for change. I love the community. I love the people here,” she said.

“The thing I will miss most is her tender heart and huge smile,” said Pam Fischer, director of Creating Catholic Disciples at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish. “She is a living example of how to be the hands, feet and heart of Jesus.” 

Where others might see language and cultural barriers, Sr. Marlita has always looked for opportunities to bring people closer to each other and to God.

“We’re all God’s creatures, created equal, with dignity. God doesn’t see distinctions and nor should we,” she said.

“She always puts on other people’s shoes to understand their needs and feelings,” said Alina DeWitt, who is Hispanic and serves as the parish’s Hispanic coordinator. “Sr. Marlita (has) cared for those in need of love, health, money and, most importantly, for those in need of knowing the immense love of God. The Hispanic community will dearly miss her.” 

Next, Sr. Marlita plans to take a year off so that she can travel to Nogales, Mexico, where she will volunteer with the Kino Border Initiative. The humanitarian organization offers assistance to immigrants waiting to come to the United States.

“The dignity of these people in need sometimes goes unrecognized,” she said. “Many who are on the border are waiting for a better life. I feel like I can do something to help some of these people. To be the face of Jesus to them. Let them know they count.”

Ever since second grade at St. Mary School in Hilbert, Sr. Marlita wanted to join the Manitowoc-based religious community.

She had served as principal and teacher at numerous schools in Wisconsin, before traveling to Bolivia to learn Spanish. Sr. Marlita then served as principal of Maria Reina, an elementary school in Lima, Peru, from 1989-2001.

“I have a good ear for music. I think that helped me to learn foreign languages,” said Sr. Marlita, who plays guitar by ear and loves to sing.

She also served as a translator during a mission trip to Haiti in 2018 and ministered to Hispanic populations at St. Philip Parish in Green Bay.

One reason Sr. Marlita was drawn to St. Thomas the Apostle Parish was that it has always had Spanish-speaking members with roots in Mexico and Central America. They come to worship from all over the county, and beyond.

“The community here is a very warm and welcoming community,” she said. “It was when I came here, and it still is. That aspect of our community is a very treasured quality of St. Thomas.”

Sr. Marlita’s most visible accomplishment in her 12 years there was shepherding the construction of a bright and airy 9,100-square-foot worship space, which was added to the church’s existing facility in 2014.

But, more fulfilling for Sr. Marlita, has been ministering to her diverse congregation and reaching out to often forgotten individuals who live alone and in nursing homes.

“I helped to be a connection between the church and these individuals, letting them know they are an important part of the community,” she said.

“Sr. Marlita embodies hard work and she is always very optimistic,” Fischer said. “Her guidance and encouragement have helped me and so many other co-workers thrive in our respective ministries. We’ve been so fortunate to have her expertise to rely on. I have always appreciated how sister is always readily available to lend an ear and to help solve any problem.” 

Fr. David Beaudry, founding pastor of the parish, will return to serve as pastor starting July 1.

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