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Derek Jensen & Teresa Cereska

In our second of an occasional series, we talked to (relative) newcomers Derek Jensen and Teresa Cereska, parishioners and school parents, about their love for St. Stephen.

In 2015, Derek and Teresa moved to Michigan from Utah to be closer to Teresa’s family. Derek visited many schools on a scouting trip and when he found St Stephen he “just knew” it was the right place for their family. Not only do their children attend St. Stephen, Teresa is the Child Care Program Director and Derek is on the school board.

Derek and Teresa are both overjoyed with their experience at St. Stephen. Derek told us, ”I met a few parents during tour and was really blown away at how connected they were with each other and how easily there were willing to talk to me about their experiences. At St. Stephen, it’s personal, one-on-one, very genuine — and it's played out that way every sense. Our kids have been thriving since the first day they started.”

Teresa weighed in, “Even though it’s only our third school year, I feel we’ve made life-long friendships. We have just fallen in love with this community."

Teresa shared a timely memory: “Advent is one of my favorite memories. The first time all the kids come into the hall for prayer and song,I got choked up. It’s beautiful. Every student is singing, it’s this moment of peace. What a graceful way to start the day! If you have moment, make time for this!”

Derek shared a fun fact about his kids: "They have been enthusiastic about school every year. Going to school, there’s never any hesitation or compliant. The days they want to stay afterwards far outnumber the days they want to leave at three o'clock. That’s the e sign of a place that’s doing something right."

Their children’s faith is another source of happiness for Derek and Teresa. “When I see how interested and involved they are in mass, able to follow along…,” shared Derek with a broad smile of his own, "It doesn’t feel like a chore or obligation, but more like a want. And how they both look forward to adoration on Friday. "

"I believe in the St. Stephen community. If this campaign can attract more wonderful people to this community so more lives can be enriched, we can all grow and become stronger,” said Teresa. "I want a place that people want to come to and gather because once you bring people together… anything can happen.”

Derek added, “I’m excited for multiple reasons. I’ve always loved churches that feel “Catholic”. I think the renovations will give our community a place to be proud of. And the fact that it benefits the school’s infrastructure and financial security makes me feel that our sacrifice will be valuable and worthwhile."

Teresa and Derek agreed that they like the middle school improvements already, and feel it will help attract and retain students. On the church architecture side, “making it look and feel more Catholic on the outside as well as the inside is a really nice statement to the community.”

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Hank & Diane Milanowski

Hank & Diane Milanowski

We sat down with Hank and Diane Milanowski, longtime St. Stephen parishioners, to get their thoughts on the Renew + Restore + Rejoice campaign.

Maybe you’ve seen Hank singing in the choir or Diane enjoying mass with her grandchildren. One thing’s for certain: the Milanowski family has been a fixture at St .Stephen as long as most of us can remember.

Hank started school here in 1946, and remained an active parishioner his entire childhood, graduating from Catholic Central and Aquinas College. After studying dentistry at the University of Michigan and serving in the Air Force for three years, the Milanowski's came back to Grand Rapids in 1968 and joyfully rejoined the St. Stephen family.

They recall feeling very inspired by Msgr. Alt’s commitment to making St. Stephen a place of racial and economic diversity. The Milanowski's raised their six children at St Stephen. All four of their daughters were married here, and their youngest granddaughter, Faith Kelly, is in 6th grade at the school.

Hank remembers when the gym was built at St Stephen, thanks to a generous gift from Mr. Peter Wege, in 1951! Diane feels proud and happy that all four of her daughters were married at St Stephen.

Hank shared this memory of this time at St. Stephen school: “I remember playing in Farmer’s Field (which is now Clark Home). It was a wetland area and a great place to play. I even learned to smoke a corncob pipe there!”

They both recall fondly so many parish activities: from St. Patrick’s Day parties to “Sounds of St. Stephens” variety shows to making sfeeha (Syrian meat pies) for the Festival of the Arts.

“We need to restore the beauty and sacredness of the worship space. It’s a different feeling to walk into a church with a more historic reference to Catholic identity” said Hank. "We need both: a gentle, quiet space for meditation and prayer and a gathering space of social and ministry outreach.”

Diane added, “For so many Catholic activities — from baptisms to funerals — the space isn’t conducive to people gathering. The renovation will address this in a way that’s sensible and inspirational.”

Diane: "I’m excited how the worship space will help us focus on the altar and tabernacle.”

Hank: “I like the prominence of the worship space. I think the lighting and ambiance will feel more inspiring, and that the Stations of the Cross will have a stronger place."