Pax Christi Award winner Michele Armbrust is pictured with CCW Diocese of Superior chaplain Fr. Jim Brinkman and Bishop James P. Powers during the 2022 SDCCW Convention held at Heartwood Resort in Trego. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

“Everyone has their history,” Michele Armbrust of Medford said. While elements of her life story are more extraordinary than most, the 2022 Diocese of Superior’s CCW Pax Christi Award winner acknowledges the role that faith and a strong support system have played.

Starting with the “big influence” that Armbrust’s grandmother had in her upbringing, the winner’s resilience and experience of faith in community was rooted deep. The family lived near their Catholic church and school and Armbrust remembers many hours spent with the nuns. These female influences filled in gaps; her mother, who had lived through an abusive first marriage and the loss of a child and had serious mental health challenges, did her best but needed help.

She had a workaholic father, so her mother took care of things at home and grandma “was a stable presence.” She remembers grandma taking her to Mass, and stopping for hot chicken sandwiches afterward. It was grandma who also took the children to St. Camillus Hospital in Milwaukee to have dinner with their father during his work break. It was there that Armbrust was introduced to and spent time with various priests.

“The Lord has put people in my life who have helped me along the way,” she acknowledged, saying how blessed she has felt without negating the challenges she has faced.

Armbrust’s experience of living faith and the relationships with men and women who had given their whole lives to Jesus inspired her to continue seeking growth in her faith and knowledge of Catholicism at college. As a nursing student at Viterbo University, she was introduced to the Legion of Mary, became very involved with campus ministry and enrolled in theology classes.

“Nursing was in my blood,” Armbrust said, adding that her interest in theology and being drawn toward men and women “of God” made her wonder if she might herself be called to a religious vocation.

That was until she met her future husband – who was himself discerning the priesthood – and she saw her path clearly. Jeff, who was from Medford, continued with his studies in religious education at Viterbo and the couple was married in 1979.

Jeff would later serve as the director of religious education for Holy Rosary Parish in Medford. The couple started the marriage preparation program and relished working together in church ministry.

Then one hot summer day – July 1, 2011 – their lives would change forever. Jeff suffered a brain injury from an accident at home, the details of which were never totally known. When Michele found him after he didn’t make a planned trip into town, she had no idea that her husband would never again share the same home.

Through ups and downs, advances and setbacks, the remaining 11 years of the Armbrusts’ marriage was a long wait between two losses.

The worst grieving, Armbrust described, “is grieving the loss of someone who’s still alive. I was still his wife,” but the partner role changed to that of caregiver.

“You take those vows, in sickness and in health,” she stated, “And you either mean it or you don’t.”

Armbrust praised her three children for their support, but noted that it was not always easy. She expressed her gratitude for Jeff’s family, her church family and many, many friends – including the ones she met through the various adult homes Jeff lived in – who became like a “second family.”

Good humor is an element Armbrust said was essential through the ups and downs of all those years. She said she doesn’t know how she could have persevered without it and without prayer. Her own and those of others. As well, healthy pastimes and self-care fill the tank you pour out from.

Taking each day one at a time, Armbrust continued to work full-time to make financial ends meet. It allowed her to stay connected to a broad support system and helped use and hone skills and tools besides her faith to help her navigate the challenges she had been handed.

“You have to be willing to accept help when you need it,” Armbrust said. Even in simple things like accepting the gifts of meals, drives, etc. “You have to lose your pride and humble yourself to say yes when help is offered.”

A self-professed giver by nature, she realized that in turning the tables, others were experiencing the joy of giving: “It’s okay to not always be strong, and to fall apart every once in awhile.”

Armbrust admitted that when she stops to think about it, she wonders how she got through those times.

“You don’t know how strong you are until being strong is the only thing you can be,” she said, quoting an adage she heard somewhere.

“You quit asking why … We couldn’t even put the pieces together to figure out exactly what happened to Jeff. Asking why isn’t doing me any good,” Armbrust recounted her state of mind over the years. She admitted to feeling angry at times, propped up by pure, blind faith at others.

“You have to live day by day, sometimes moment by moment, and come to the realization,” Armbrust continued, after pausing, “that we are not in charge … as it says in Proverbs, trust in the Lord with all your heart. Just because Jeff had been in this freaky accident that changed everything and didn’t make sense – God was still worthy of my trust.”

That said, Armbrust admitted the sense of relief experienced when Jeff did pass in April 2022. She knows she still has a lot of life left – maybe even a future romance – not that she’s waiting on that. For now, her focus is on her relationship with God. Working with a spiritual director has been a helpful tool.

“You put intentional time in to work on that relationship … our only joy is going to be in Christ – not depending on another person,” Armbrust affirmed.

Now both retired and widowed, Armbrust has gotten involved with Holy Rosary’s parish council, a community disability board and Black River Industries, a ministry that Jeff had actually worked with for years prior to his accident.

She continues asking herself where God is calling her. The answers she is receiving is to share the good news by how she lives, be grateful and be joyful.

Admitting how easy it can be to fall into dwelling on everything she’s lost, Armbrust recalls getting to the difficult decision point that she needed, and wanted, to live with a grateful heart, to live focused on blessings not the burdens.

“You can’t go around the difficulties,” she shared. “You have to go through them.”