Pax Christi Award finalist Vivian Ernst, a member at Butternut’s Immaculate Conception parish, is pictured at the Superior Diocesan Council of Catholic Women’s annual convention in June with chaplain Fr. Jim Brinkman and Bishop James Powers. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles featuring finalists for the Superior Diocesan Council of Catholic Women’s 2022 Pax Christi Award.

Not only was Vivian Ernst of Butternut surprised by her nomination for the Superior Diocesan Council of Catholic Women’s Pax Christi Award, she was also deeply touched by her friends’ comments about her.

The tributes submitted in her nomination form described her as, “dedicated, passionate about her faith,” and “loving and full of kindness” and added as, “She leads with quiet grace.”

“Our candidate is indeed a Christian example of hospitality and kindness,” they wrote. “She lives her life each day demonstrating Jesus’ command that we love one another as he has loved us.”

Ernst, a lifelong member of Immaculate Conception Parish, Butternut, who grew up just blocks from the church, has given much of her life and energy to the church.

The parish’s CCW, the Christian ladies group, is a “loosely put-together unit” as Ernst described it, although the women are very active.

“We consider every woman in our parish a part of our group,” the award finalist said.

When a woman joins the parish, one of the first things she is told is she is part of the Christian ladies’ group, and she is invited to become an active member.

As in many parishes, organizing funeral luncheons is one of the group’s ministries. Ernst commented on the generosity and teamwork she is amazed by as a “testament to our sense of community.” Many members donate their homemade specialty side dishes, the group donates ham as a main dish, and no cost is charged to the family.

“Like the loaves and fishes,” Ernst said of how the food multiplies.

Ernst also organizes the parish’s annual Seder meal, a Holy Week event that Fr. Linus Evers started more than 20 years ago. She has been a catechist for almost 30 years and during much of that time has also written and directed the parish’s annual Christmas Nativity program.

Immaculate Conception is a small parish of mostly older members. Ernst explained that most young adults move away for college or to seek employment and not many return.

One Butternut native, the late John Besse, who founded the Besse Forest Products Group enterprise, also a Catholic, set up a scholarship fund to encourage families and students to keep their children in the Butternut School District. High school graduates who have attended Butternut schools all 12 years are awarded several thousands of dollars for each year of college or trade school.

This “wonderful gift” was acknowledged by Ernst as an example of how faith and service go together.
Ernst married her husband, Bill, whom she has known since grade school, at Immaculate Conception in 1963.

The church has “pretty much been a part of our whole life,” she affirmed. Just a few miles outside of town, the couple owned and worked a dairy farm for 38 years, where they raised four children – all whom raised their own families in between Butternut and Park Falls – and Ernst feels “very fortunate” for the rare gift of having all her family nearby.

Asked how her children have been able to stay in the area, Ernst spoke of the family’s participation in farm life, their work ethic and resourcefulness in finding employment.

One of the perks of living in such close proximity is the ability to gather on short notice for a shared meal. “Cowpie picnics” have become their family tradition. Asked to describe this, Ernst laughed. She said even after the dairy operation was sold, she and her husband kept some grazing animals on the land.

Where the creek divides their pasture, Ernst added that one area expands into a pond where her children, grandchildren and now great-grandchildren enjoy fishing. It is also the animals’ watering hole.

“And consequently, (we) do a lot of other things, too,” she chuckled. “Because we’re always dodging cowpies, it became known as a cowpie picnic.”

Besides the enjoyed together-time and good memories, Ernst agreed the picnics give a strong family identity.

Despite the primary focus Ernst has dedicated to her family, she also volunteered often at the school during their farming years, “whenever and wherever they needed me.”

The biggest challenge of her life came when, with her youngest child in high school, Ernst stepped into the parish secretary role. Due to the severe illness of the former secretary, the church needed to fill the position urgently.

It was “a change of scenery from milking cows” for Ernst who, although she helped keep the family farm records organized, had never used a computer.

With determination and perseverance, the new secretary entrusted herself to the Holy Spirit and successfully and hospitably ran the church office for 10 years. Ernst said it also brought many moments of connection and laughter with her children, whom she often had to ask questions as she learned to navigate the computer and digitizing records.

Ernst again expressed what a “very special honor” her nomination for the Pax Christi Award was, saying, “I hadn’t expected it at all.”