Bishop James P. Powers stands with 2021 Pax Christi finalist Nini Milbrath at the SDCCW convention in August. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

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.

From mission trips in Guatemala and Jamaica to countless volunteer roles and a recent profession with a secular Franciscan fraternity, Anita Milbrath lives to serve God and others.

The Pax Christi finalist for the Southwest Deanery, Milbrath – she prefers to be called by her nickname, “Nini” – has been a member of St. Patrick, Hudson, for decades.

Described in her nomination papers as a “very compassionate and extremely pastoral person,” Milbrath’s guiding principle is “JOY.” The acronym stands for “Jesus, other people and yourself” – a reminder to put God and others first.

Milbrath’s dedication to living that doctrine shows in her decades of volunteering in her parish and community.
Ask her which of her many roles has been most satisfying – going on mission trips, serving as a parish council member, committee member and event organizer, sacristan, Eucharistic minister and RCIA sponsor, offering support to those with cancer, chaperoning at Extreme Faith Camp and much more – and she’ll say she feels gratified by “just serving the Lord.”

“Just serving,” she added. “That’s where my heart is.”

She’s also giving back to a community that has supported her in difficult times. Diagnosed with breast cancer at age 42, when her children were young, Milbrath’s parish helped her through diagnosis and treatment.

Although God never answered her prayers when she asked to not have cancer and to not have to undergo chemotherapy, she could feel his presence in the many people who brought meals for their family, offered emotional support and helped in other ways.

She’s spent the last 30 years repaying that kindness, giving the gift of accompaniment to others in need.
Milbrath’s passion for service led to strong interest in religious life in her middle school and high school years.

“A long time ago, I really discerned if I wanted to be a nun,” she said. “In my heart of hearts, I always wanted to be a religious.”

When she approached a religious community, she was told to go to college and then come back, but life took her on a different journey. She met and married her husband of 48 years, Bill, when she was in college, and the couple has three children – Dan (Heather), Meghan (Ben) and Maureen – and two grandchildren.

Although she didn’t take vows as a nun, Milbrath has never forgotten her early aspiration. In this stage of life, with grown children and more time to devote to her own pursuits, Milbrath began looking at secular religious orders. A few years ago, she started formation with the secular order of the Franciscan Brothers of Peace, a St. Paul-based community, and she professed her vows Sept. 14 at St. Patrick’s Church.

The Franciscans touched her heart with their ministry, she said; they are “amazing in their mission as they serve the poor.” Formed during the pontificate of St. John Paul II, their charism includes defending and serving the most vulnerable in society – prenatal children, the elderly and disabled, the impoverished, the homeless and survivors of torture.

Adopted through Catholic Charities when she was 10 days old, Milbrath attended Catholic school and pursued a degree in elementary education in college. When she graduated in 1972, there were “hardly any jobs around,” she explained, so she worked in the business office of a telephone company. She currently helps grieving families as a family service assistant for a funeral home.

Her hobbies include biking, exercising and reading nonfiction and Christian books. She and her husband have two rescue dogs, so she does a lot of dog-walking.

She also enjoys traveling. She worked at Glacier National Park in summers when she was in college, and she estimates she and Bill have visited about 20 national parks. They’ve also gone on mission trips to Jamaica for 20 years – helping build a church, working at an orphanage, doing repairs, serving the poor – and she’s also visited Guatemala four times through her parish’s mission program.

But the best of her travels was three years ago, when she got a chance to go to the Holy Land. It was an “amazing trip,” she said, one that brought the Gospel to life.

“Oh, my gosh, my heart is full,” she said. “Oh, my gosh, I’d love to go back.”