Carol Gilson, third from left, winner of the 2023 Pax Christi Award given by the Superior Diocesan Council of Catholic Women, is pictured next to her daughter, Lisa. Her son, Randy, and a friend were also present to celebrate Gilson. Also pictured are Bishop James P. Powers, and from left, Fr. Sare Rajesh, Fr. Jim Brinkman and Fr. Lourdu Madanu. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Carol Gilson, winner of the 2023 Superior Diocesan Council of Catholic Women’s Pax Christi Award, was described as “a woman whose mere presence is evangelizing.” In the dossier presented for her nomination, women who know her wrote that it is her “ordinary, daily acts of compassion that make her so loved by our congregation for her living witness to Gospel life.”

Gilson is a member of Holy Family Parish in Woodruff and has lived in the Minocqua area since she and her husband, Leland, opened a bait shop in 1969. Both were employed by U.S. Plywood in Algoma but he had always wanted to move north. When an ad in the paper alerted them to the business for sale, they took some time before moving forward with the purchase.

“It was quite an investment,” Gilson admitted, quickly adding how much they enjoyed the 26 years they ran the business.

“I don’t think we had more than six people that were crabby.

Everybody was coming up for vacation; they were all ready to do what they wanted.” She loved seeing the visitors’ faces going from tired to revived over the course of their stay.

The award-winner’s natural outward focus was highlighted in the dossier. “Reaching out to others is woven into the fabric of her character,” it was said.

This was a characteristic she learned by living it out in her big farming family. The middle of 11 children, Gilson was raised in Lincoln Township, just south of Door County. The family ran an 80-acre farm, dance hall and bar and the siblings all took care of each other. Even though they didn’t have much, the children enjoyed a lot of out-of-doors time with the neighboring family.

Living only about eight miles east of what is now the National Shrine of Our Lady of Champion, Gilson recalls participating every year in the annual Aug. 15 Assumption Day procession around what was then still a simple shrine in honor of the Blessed Virgin, Our Lady of Good Help.

“We really waited every year to go there,” she shared. “It was such a nice thing to see and to see all the people who would go.”

She admits not understanding as a child what it was all about, but after she learned more as an adult about the apparition and the seer Adele Brise, she realized what a special place and honor she’d grown up so close to. Gilson said that when she returns to Green Bay to visit family, she regularly visits the shrine.

Devotion to the Blessed Mother has been a personal mainstay for Gilson, especially as a mother.

When the Gilsons moved to Minocqua, their only child, Randy, was finishing eighth grade. Thinking they’d never be able to have any more children, they found a surprise pregnancy when their son was almost 22 brought both a blessing and a challenge.

“I guess Jesus knew better,” Gilson laughed, “because she (daughter Lisa, now 45) just came along.”

When the doctor told the parents their daughter had Down Syndrome, Gilson turned to Mary. “I didn’t know what to do … I didn’t see anything different, and I treated her just like my son.”

She acknowledges that with the blessings there have been challenges, particularly now as the sole parent after Leland’s passing in 2012, but the couple raised her without limitations or apologies for her disabilities.

Lisa attended school, graduating with her peers from eighth grade and going on to high school. At the time, the district started a program called TEAM (Together Everyone Accomplishes More); the Gilsons’ daughter was the first special needs student to graduate in the program, even with academic honorable mentions.

In 1989, Gilson started a local chapter of Special Olympics. Her daughter participated in bowling, cross country skiing and even competed internationally in tennis. They have been continuously involved ever since with Gilson giving up her more active role with the tennis program just this past year as she was nearing 87 years of age.

Lisa’s condition is milder than others’, her mother said, and she has always loved to read and sing. She knew all the church songs by heart when the family began taking her to Mass. Lisa is now a lector and assists her mother in preparing for Mass and leading the rosary at their parish. She has spoken at functions in Madison and Buffalo, New York, and even Scotland.

The international opportunity came when Lisa was president of People First-Wisconsin, an organization promoting self-advocacy for people with disabilities in the state.

As stated in the winner’s dossier, the Gilsons’ outlook and parenting catapulted their daughter “to see that hard work and faith in herself and in her God, she could follow her dreams and embrace independence.”

In Gilson’s own words, “I learn so much from her. So many people think that when you have a challenged child, your life is taken hostage. It’s not rosy all the time,” she said, but affirmed, “I have just learned so much from her; I am really happy to have her.”
Gilson’s sense of service has extended beyond her immediate family in a variety of ways.

One of these was through tenacious efforts to establish a countywide transportation service for youths, seniors and the disadvantaged who could not drive. Gilson presented a concept to her town council and although the idea was repeatedly turned down, she kept attending council meetings until they agreed to look into it.

Later, when the proposal was put before the county board and turned down yet again, Gilson was not dissuaded. It took three years of committee and board meetings, but Gilson’s plan was finally approved and implemented. Her only disappointment is that the service doesn’t accommodate weekend transportation needs, a problem for which she still hopes to find a solution.

Gilson was instrumental in starting “Friends First,” a monthly social gathering for individuals with special needs in the area. During a period of personal illness, she even took on a phone outreach ministry, calling other parishioners who were homebound to offer socialization and a connection to their church.

The nomination dossier included comments from past and current pastors who have known Gilson. One called her “a devout and faithful Catholic, whose devotion and faith neither shouts nor holds her back,” and added, “Likewise, her activity both gets a job done and can and has moved mountains.”

Another recognized the “wonderful job of caring for her daughter and seeing to her religious education and the active practice of her faith.”

When asked about any particular personal devotions, in addition to her love for the Virgin Mary, Gilson said she likes reading about the saints. “It gives you ideas about how different we all are.” She said it was encouraging, “When you think about how holy, holy they became, but realize they started out just like we did.”

Questioned about her reaction to the announcement she had won the Pax Christi Award, she described the scene. With her were three women on one side of her and one on the other, as soon as Bishop Powers, who was giving congratulatory gifts to the five finalists, passed her up, Gilson recounted, “I said out loud, oh my gosh, I won.

“I was so shocked,” she said, adding she never imagined being awarded such an honor. “I never thought about the stuff I did; it was just there to do. And then to get an award for it – just remarkable.”