The Diocese of Superior’s Council of Catholic Women named Esther Sykora, member of St. Bridget in River Falls, their 2021 Pax Christi Award winner. Sykora is pictured with Bishop James P. Powers after the convention Mass at Holy Rosary Parish in Medford on Aug. 5. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)
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.
The nomination essay for 2021 Pax Christi Award winner Esther Sykora reads like a litany of virtues: Not concerned about material goods; focused on others, especially the overlooked; lives a modest life with eyes set on the life to come; acts out her faith in service; diligent, modest, reliable and a quiet leader; a role model for all.
In conversation with the Catholic Herald, Sykora discounted the volume of praise, even calling herself “not overtly Catholic,” just someone who is doing the things she likes to do.
The mother of six – who converted to Catholicism when she married her husband, Pete – was raised Lutheran.
“We didn’t have saints,” she said and admitted it was an uncomfortable element of the faith as her children were growing up and attending St. Bridget’s Catholic School in River Falls.
She has grown to find comfort in the example of the lives of the saints as people who weren’t perfect but kept practicing the life of faith. What summed it best, however, was the testimony she recently heard of a Catholic sports star describing the role of faith in his upbringing.
“We just lived like Christians,” the athlete acknowledged, after sharing that while attending church and praying was present and important, it did not stand out over and above living a regular life.
Sykora was called a “miracle baby” in her nomination, an assertion she owns up to while refocusing the attention on her parents.
Her mother was told for 14 years she would never have her own children, even undergoing a number of procedures to help offset physical challenges doctors had diagnosed.
During that time, the couple fostered numerous children, many of whom were struggling teens. They were never able to adopt any of them and later learned of the tragic endings to some of their stories.
Asked if her parents had huge hearts, Sykora chuckled and responded, “We called it being stubborn Germans.”
She described them as persistent people – “no matter what went wrong, they were going to work through it.”
Sykora’s mother, in her early 30s when Esther was born, would end up having four children in five years, all delivered by cesarean section.
When Esther was born, the doctor diagnosed her with torticollis, then called “wryneck.” Her head lay on her chest looking up over her shoulder, presumed to have been caused by the mother’s small uterus.
The pinched nerve was so severe that Esther’s parents were not given a hopeful prognosis that their miracle baby would be able to gain normal muscle movement in her neck.
In “a testament to other people,” including her parents, Sykora shared that her father’s chiropractor began treating her at 3 weeks old, driving 15 miles three times a week for years.
Treatments were successful, and although she has needed chiropractic care her entire life, Sykora says the small limitations she experienced never occurred to her as something that made her different in any way. She couldn’t tumble in physical education class but didn’t really understand why.
Her physical condition was not an obstacle for playing sports.
“I was a farm kid,” Sykora said. “There was no time for playing sports.”
She did wonder why she had never successfully learned to swim, realizing when her own children were in swim lessons that the head-turning motion needed for the front crawl was something she was unable to do. Sykora also added humorously that, although her family members could get that last swallow from a can of pop, she always thought it might have been a design flaw that she was unable to do so.
Sykora’s father took the family to Lutheran church regularly, although her mother was unable to attend because of severe asthma aggravated by the fragrances in the Avon products used by other women. She remembers praying as a family and pulling together to help out around the house when her mother was hospitalized.
Her mother died at age 59, when Esther and her brothers were in their 20s.
The task of helping her father with township bookkeeping introduced Esther to numbers, math and accounting. An eager student, she went on to earn an accounting degree, master’s degree in business and other certifications.
Marrying after college, the Sykoras raised six children in the River Falls area. Pete was self-employed, working in construction, and Esther worked for 3M and used her accounting expertise in other ways professionally and voluntarily.
She is grateful that five of her children live within an hour of her; the sixth is in Des Moines, Iowa.
Sykora loves to craft, especially with paper, but admits she prefers making the cards to sending them. She also crochets, making many prayer shawls and sews some. One year she made quilts for all her children and grandchildren.
With three of her children suffering from conditions falling under the umbrella of arthritis, Sykora has been involved with and fundraising for the Arthritis Foundation since her daughter’s diagnosis at age 18.
Over the last 20 or so years, she has raised more than $60,000, participating in annual 5K and 10K walks and even completing a few half marathons.
Once again, Sykora gives the bulk of the credit to her supporters. She commented that some family members and friends call her every year with their desire to donate to the cause.
Sykora acknowledged again the influence of her father, “a gruff, stubborn old German,” who believed in second chances. The characteristics of perseverance and resilience are “ingrained in me,” she said, attributing it also to the difficulties of farm life.
“You have to believe that in the long run it’s all going to work out,” she asserted and added, “Which really is God.”
To support Esther Sykora’s fundraising efforts for the Arthritis Foundation, visit events.arthritis.org and enter her name in the fundraiser search bar.