Catholic Herald staff
Editor’s note: “Love is the heart of marriage and family” is an ongoing series about families in the Diocese of Superior whose practice of their Catholicism is a public witness of their faith. To suggest a feature family, please contact Anita Draper at 715-394-0213, ext. 2213.
On a sunny August afternoon, five energetic children play with kittens on a farm in rural Amery. They are the sons and daughters of Mike and Julie Novak, a Catholic couple whose vintage-sized family is founded on old-fashioned values.
Members of St. John Parish, Clear Lake, the Novaks count faith and family among their top priorities. They endeavor to teach their 10 children the virtues of hard work, responsibility and service to others.
“We’re open to life. That’s obvious,” Mike said of their large family.
The Novaks married in 1987. Their children are Matthew, 25; Elizabeth, 23; Nicholas, 22; Joseph, 17; Maria, 15; Julia, 12; Michael, 9; Claire, 7; Peter, 5; and Isabelle, 2.
Despite that their youngest is still a toddler, the couple’s family tree is already expanding. Matthew and his wife, Christine, have three children: Chrysoganus, 4; Athanasius, 2; and baby Lucille. Nicholas and fiancé Lauren Wendt will be married in September.
The Novak family raises chickens, ducks, pigs and beef cattle on their hobby farm in Amery. They also have cats, a pony and a horse.
Both locals, Mike, 53, and Julie, 46, chose to stay and raise their children where their families are deeply rooted.
“Mike grew up in Amery; I grew up in Clear Lake,” Julie explained. “Both our parents were lifelong Catholics.”
Matthew and his family live in Julie’s childhood home, and all the Novaks attend St. John, where Julie’s parents were founding members. Her dad helped construct the baptismal font at which his children and grandchildren were baptized; when she looks at the church, Julie sees her father’s handiwork.
The Novaks continue the tradition of parish involvement. Julie is the coordinator for religious education; Mike has served on the parish council; the younger kids are altar servers and choir members; and the older children are lectors and ushers.
“It’s a small church, so everybody has to kind of pitch in,” she said.
If faith is one priority for the Novaks, family is another. Over the years, homeschooling has made it possible for them to keep family and faith at the core of their everyday lives. Prayer and Catholic history are written into the children’s daily lessons.
“It’s not just secular,” Mike added. “You get the whole history of the (church). I think my children know world history way better than I do.”
Julie, who has a degree in education, began homeschooling the children years ago at the request of a friend who wanted to try a joint experiment. The friend changed her mind, but the Novaks stuck with it. For them, it has been a blessing.
When Julie’s sister died suddenly, Julie took over her sister’s children’s education. When Julie’s mother was dying of cancer, the family helped her through hospice, then cared for Julie’s father in his time of need.
“If you hadn’t been homeschooling …” Mike said to his wife, “… we wouldn’t have been able to do that,” Julie responded.
The flexibility of homeschooling has also granted them opportunities to work with Carmelite Sr. Kristine Haugen, whom Mike is glad to have nearby as a role model for their children. The Novaks spent many workdays at her former hermitage in Amery, and they’ve been to Luck a couple of times to put in a dock at the new hermitage.
Sr. Kristine also grew up in a large family, Mike observed.
“I know she recognized how much the kids just wanted to get out of the house,” he said.
A master automobile technician, Mike most recently accompanied Sr. Kristine on a shopping expedition for a four-wheel drive vehicle capable of scaling her hilly driveway in winter.
Work is intrinsic to rural life, and the Novaks’ hobby farm – which is more farm than hobby – keeps them busy year round. There’s cropping, feeding the stock, testing fences, maintaining the property and raising 100 broilers in the summer, not to mention hauling and stacking wood for the winter.
Mike’s family farmed when he was growing up, and the couple believes children gain maturity from taking on those responsibilities. It also led Nicholas to his passion for agriculture. A UW-River Falls graduate, he is now a herdsman at a 600-plus cow farm in Clear Lake.
“It’s nice to have the chores for the kids to do,” Julie said.
An added benefit?
“The food,” she said. “There’s nothing like the fresh stuff.”
In addition to her other activities, Julie is the leader of the Little Falls Livewires, one of the oldest 4-H clubs in Polk County.
She sees 4-H as a way of “filling in the blanks” of homeschooling. The kids socialize and learn diverse skills, but they also have opportunities for national competition and travel that are comparable to those in public school.
“It’s helped them grow to be comfortable in front of people,” Julie said. “If you want to learn about anything, it’s a good place for resources. There are a lot of people out there who want to pass on their craftsmanship.”
Homeschooled kids have a reputation for being unsocialized, but Mike said their children think public school kids are awkward.
“They’re not afraid to visit with adults,” he said of his children. “They can carry on a conversation. They’re more mature.”
Being part of a large family also teaches them maturity, according to their father. The older kids watch the younger kids; all of the children know how to cook and clean and work outside.
“When they leave here … they have a pretty good idea of what it means to be responsible,” Mike said. “We do a lot.”
“We like to work hard and play hard,” Julie added.
The Novaks worked hard this summer, but they also enjoyed a stay-cation with a visitor from Hong Kong, whom they took to all the nearby sights in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
“It was really nice to see how the kids worked together,” their mother said.
With fall approaching, Mike and Julie’s focus has turned to impending nuptials – Nicholas and Lauren’s – and, once again, to education, and the many lessons they hope to teach their children.