ELM GROVE — Several times each week, pediatrician Dr. Andy Swietlik, his wife Julie, and their nine children drop by the neighbor’s house to spend quiet time with a loved one.
They spend their time in prayer – sometimes praying the rosary, sometimes praying the Stations of the Cross, and sometimes praying in other ways.
Often the children drop by on their own, open the large doors of St. Mary Visitation Parish, and enter the adoration chapel in an effort to grow closer to their friend Jesus.
“We have been taking them for a long time and it helps our kids grow by seeing their good friend, Our Lord, each day,” explained Julie, member of the parish. “We try to go in the evenings together as a family, but the kids will often stop by on their way home from playing in the park. They say a quick, ‘hello’ and often bring their friends and cousins to the chapel as well.”
Members and friends of St. Mary Visitation Parish have tallied 218,000 hours of prayer in continuous eucharistic adoration since the Feast of the Holy Rosary (Oct. 7) 1985. The parish marked this milestone on Oct. 6, with a prayer service, Benediction and social gathering.
No matter what time of day or night, or which day of the year, with the exception of Holy Thursday through the Easter Vigil, at least one person remains before the Blessed Sacrament, and generally two volunteers are scheduled around the clock to ensure someone is always present.
When former St. Mary Visitation member Don Riemer learned about perpetual adoration from a Catholic magazine in the 1980s, he knew it was something he wanted to pursue at the parish, so he approached his late pastor, Msgr. Joseph E. Emmenegger, about the possibility.
“We talked back and forth for a while, and I gave him some information about perpetual adoration and a few months later we started,” he said. “We decided to use this small room that was reserved for nose-to-nose confessions and started with eight chairs. I made the altar and my wife Carole did the decorating.”
While enthusiasm was great in the beginning, continuing the prayerful practice took a bit of ingenuity, especially as the air began to chill and the snow blanketed the roads.
“We had some drop out, but there was always someone there,” said Riemer, a member of St. Anthony Parish, Pewaukee. “I was the main coordinator for five years and every week we had a sign-in book and another book for those wanting to sign up for a spot. No matter what, the Lord made sure someone was there, even if a person slept through their 2 a.m. time – the person in the spot before would just stay on the extra hour. It all worked out.”
Most touching to Riemer was the faithfulness of a now deceased elderly gentleman who kept a 3 a.m. vigil in the tiny chapel. It was his sole desire to gaze upon the Lord and await his homecoming.
“I used to tell his wife that he can’t continue coming at that hour,” said Riemer. “But she said it was his goal to die in that chapel. That really touched my heart.”
When the cramped space became too small to accommodate those wishing to stop for a visit, the chapel was relocated to the former parish baptistery where it is today. In 2006, the chapel was renovated to seat 12 among ancient relics, icons and a hand-carved crucifix from Jerusalem. Since then, husband and wife team, Dr. Jerry and Fran Auger, have taken over decorating and cleaning.
While many eucharistic miracles exist, according to Vatican-approved documents, such as the miracle documented in 8th-century Italy, when a doubtful priest witnessed the Communion host transform to human tissue as he consecrated it, worshippers at the St. Mary Chapel find solace with or without dramatic occurrences in their own lives.
“We don’t know the graces and wonders from the hours of praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament,” said Julie. “But the Lord does and we are always thankful for what we have, such as good health and keeping us close as a family. We also continue to pray for vocations for our children and it will be interesting to see how that plays out in 10 to 20 years with all of them. It’s a great thing to live next door to our Lord.”
Some who come to fill their slot among the 168 hours per week often enjoy praying during the early hours. Others appreciate spots later in the day, where they can cast aside their cell phones, dim the noises of the outside world, ignore the traffic and rest in the comfort of holy silence.
“We have people who come from all over several counties to pray here, and not just from our parish,” explained coordinators Joseph and Mary Schwarz. “We are very blessed to see more coming here who are in their 20s and 30s, too, and it seems that this age group is really growing.”
For the Schwarzes, stopping in every day, even for a few minutes, has kept the couple close to God and to each other.
“We don’t always make it, but we try,” admitted Mary, who also writes a weekly column on eucharistic adoration for the parish bulletin. “We go and thank him for all he has done for us and know that coming here has helped us get through life. He has blessed our marriage and blessed us personally – and going to adoration is such a good place to pray for our kids and grandkids.”
Like many couples who began 25 years ago, parishioners Al and Kay Eberle have a set time each week for eucharistic adoration.
“It is just a very special part of our lives and it becomes near and dear and we always look forward to our hour a week with the Lord,” said Kay. “I would, in a sense, compare it to not missing Sunday Mass, and whenever we can, we will sub for those who can’t make their visit.”
In an effort to streamline the volunteering process, a steward program was recently started to oversee the scheduling.
“That is working out well,” said Kay. “We have one steward for each day. That person makes sure all 24 hours are covered, and is the go-to person if people can’t find a substitute. This has helped a lot because Mary and Joe were getting so many phone calls and would fill in anytime someone couldn’t make it. They have done such an amazing job for 20 years and it’s nice to give them a little break.”
Riemer remembered that Msgr. Emmenegger often alluded to the many blessings the practice of eucharistic adoration has brought to St. Mary Visitation.
“He would always tell me, ‘You have no idea what this chapel did for St. Mary’s,’” said Riemer. “I don’t really know what he meant, but he said there were so many blessings. I believe that this is true simply because we have the 25 years of longevity – I don’t know of too many parishes that have had eucharistic adoration for this many years.”