APPLETON — St. Bernard Parish, with Fr. Orville Janssen as founding pastor, was established in 1966 with a “simple” mission, as its parish website still proclaims today: “Welcome and inspire all to share Christ’s love through faith and service.”
“The whole idea of this parish, right from the get-go, was service,” said Jeanne DeGroot. “As a parish, we’ve been leaders of many things. Elizabeth Ministries was started here, we were involved with COTS (a transitional shelter for persons who are experiencing homelessness) and the warming shelters, Pillars (housing for homeless persons) and the St. Vincent de Paul Society.”
DeGroot and her husband, Ron, joined the parish when they moved to Appleton from Waukesha 33 years ago. By chance, the house they purchased was within walking distance of the St. Bernard Church. That wasn’t what convinced them to become parishioners, however. “We visited other parishes, but the vibe here was awesome. We looked around and we really felt like this was where we were supposed to be,” she said.
Having been an avid volunteer when she and her husband were raising their two sons, DeGroot immediately jumped into volunteering at St. Bernard, and she’s been at it ever since. She sings in the parish choir, washes and irons Mass linens, and is currently president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society conference at the parish. As president, she’s the leader of a special outreach fund that was established by Fr. Janssen.
“People used to give money to Fr. Janssen, and say, ‘Give this to people who need it,’ and we’re still doing that,” she said. “They call and talk to the priest, they’ll stop him after Mass, somebody will know somebody who’s had a fire in their home or something like that. Because of our St. Vincent de Paul connection, I’ve had 20 years of experience in our office dealing with people who walk in or call and need help.”
The St. Vincent de Paul Society is near and dear to DeGroot’s heart. She has volunteered at the local St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store for more than 20 years. “When I first went into the store and volunteered, an elderly parishioner from here said, ‘You’ve got to join St. Vincent de Paul.’ She nagged me to death. So finally I went to a meeting and that’s how my involvement started. Obviously, she was right.”
About 15 parishioners, including DeGroot’s husband of 55 years, are actively involved in the St. Vincent de Paul conference. Most are retired. “It takes time, and we need people during the day because our office is open during the day,” said DeGroot. “We carry a ton of wisdom and experience though. We work together. Nobody feels like they’re out there alone.”
Volunteers working in the office try to do what they can to help people on the spot. “We stay very true to our mission statement: shelter, food and clothing. Those are all the things that we can easily offer. But we get asked to pay people’s cellphone bills, their insurance and all kinds of things.”
One of the biggest initiatives the St. Bernard St. Vincent de Paul conference sponsors is a food drive at the parish each spring and fall. “We invite parishioners to donate food for the St. Joseph Food Program. It started out that we passed out bags to remind people to fill the bag,” she said. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, stopped that very abruptly.
“Then we (started a process) where people could stop in and bring in food any time during the collection month,” said DeGroot. “Then we broadened out. There were a lot of people, especially elderly people, who were reluctant to go to the grocery store during the pandemic. We said, ‘If you want to give us money, we’ll see that St. Joe’s gets the money.’”
DeGroot said that tons of food have been donated to the food pantry since the food drive began, including 13,000 pounds in the past five years alone. “People really stepped up during COVID because of the need. These are some of the most generous people. I don’t know if God brings them to us or if they’re that way to start. People around here are very into helping. That’s the basis of this parish,” she said.
DeGroot believes there is joy to be found in volunteering. “The people I work with are awesome — the parishioners, the St. Vincent de Paul people, the community outreach people. They are treasures and they share their treasures as well. They’re good people,” she said.
“I get as much out of everything as the time I spend in it. It’s fulfilling. People can’t possibly know how good it feels to do things for other people unless they try it,” she added. “The heart of this parish is filled with people who give. There are so many people here who have taken up the flag and marched with it. It makes me very proud to be part of it.”
Name: Jeanne DeGroot
Parish: St. Bernard Parish, Appleton
Favorite Saint: Teresa of Kolkata
Words to live by: “I want my life to be lived serving the good of all.”