Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

Editor’s note: Six women were recognized as finalists for the Superior Diocesan Council of Catholic Women’s 2021 Pax Christi Award. Awards were presented at the SDCCW’s annual convention Aug. 5 in Medford.

Community is the center of Sally Christiansen’s life. It’s the focus of her efforts, a rich source of spiritual inspiration and, perhaps most importantly, in an area with significant poverty, a call to action.

A member of Our Lady of the Lakes, Balsam Lake, Christiansen is the 2021 Pax Christi nominee from the Southwest Deanery and one of six finalists chosen by the Superior Diocesan Council of Catholic Women.

“Do for others what you want done for you” is her motto, one that has always guided her.

“I kind of just maintain that in every facet of my life,” she commented. “It makes for happy people all around.”

The importance of helping those in need is a lesson she learned early on. “That’s what living in a small community is all about,” she said. “If you can’t work together, you can’t get anywhere.”

Christiansen said she has been dealing with those in need all her life.

“I can remember as kids, we would clean up toys we had to wrap up and give to other kids at Christmas,” she added.

In adulthood, Christiansen’s passion for helping others has translated into 18-plus years of caring for children – along with her husband, Wes – through the emergency foster care system; serving meals at her parish for the last year-and-a-half; teaming up with the local Lutheran church to run a food pantry; working with service agencies to meet community needs; and providing clothes, furniture, food and more for individuals and families.

“Poverty has always been high here,” she said, citing a statistic that the region is one of the top-five poorest areas in Wisconsin.

Christiansen has been the parish coordinator at Our Lady of the Lakes for the past 15 years. Before that, she worked as support staff in the local school district for more than 20 years. Both of those occupations have given her a close-up view of the area’s socioeconomic challenges.

Foster care was similarly revelatory.

“I think it really opened our eyes” where some of these children and families are coming from, she acknowledged, and the need for emergency foster care has only grown in tandem with rural drug problems in recent years. “Meth is terrible here,” she said.

Serving as parish coordinator is a “womb to tomb” job. From helping families organize baptisms to end-of-life planning, Christiansen is deeply involved in the life of her parish community. She’s currently training someone to start learning the position, another role she takes in stride.

“I think things just happen for a reason,” she said. “They just do, and all you can do is just deal with what’s in front of you and just move ahead.”

Christiansen’s desire to serve her community has not diminished her devotion to her family. She and Wes raised their two children, and they cared first for his parents for 20 years, and now her mother lives with them. Wes has been disabled since the 1980s, so she has also been his caregiver. The couple has eight grandchildren.

Christiansen enjoys her job at Our Lady of the Lakes; she thinks one of the most interesting things about church work is getting to know so many priests. Sometimes she feels priests aren’t properly appreciated by their parishioners.

“They all bring their gifts,” she added. “You just work out the rest.”

As for her parish, Christiansen said she wouldn’t have been able to do her work for the past 15 years “without the phenomenal parish community.”

If she needs help with something, “I never have to make more than two phone calls,” she explained. It’s the mentality of the parish – there’s just a deep sense of community.

The community inspires her spiritual life as well. A self-described “Eucharistic person,” Christiansen believes God helps her to see the gifts in others, and he puts people in front of her “to make things happen.”

“They come and go,” she said of the people – some of whom are just temporary visitors – whose talents and abilities enrich their parish life. “It never ceases to amaze me that another one shows up. I think it’s by the grace of God that that happens.”

She said she gets “an energy boost” from contemplating “the gifts that God just gives us.” She also loves the Mass and “doing things with the liturgy.”

All of her service sometimes leaves her in a constant whirl of activity, but when she calms down and goes into prayer, that’s where the mindfulness comes in. In those moments, Christiansen thinks they “all use God’s gifts very well.”

On a more personal note, when asked what her hobbies are, Christiansen said, “I don’t know if I have hobbies. I don’t think I do.”

When it’s time to rest, she likes to “[tell] everyone I went on vacation, take the phone off the hook and just veg.”

She enjoys relaxing with her husband.

“We like each other’s company,” she commented.

“I’m a unique bird,” she said of herself. “That’s all I can say.”

Sally Christiansen (Submitted photo)