By Kay Cozad
ARCOLA — Four faith-filled women in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend have faced the heartbreaking and oftentimes lonely struggle with infertility, but have found hope in camaraderie and methods of conception approved by the Catholic Church. The four have met monthly for spiritual and emotional support since 2010 and have found their way to parenthood.
Beth Ann Spisak, St. John the Baptist, Fort Wayne, parishioner, Nicki Lenhof of St. Joseph, Roanoke, Holli Strack, St. Patrick, Arcola, member, and Michelle Alles of St. Paul of the Cross in Columbia City, are an unlikely foursome save they have each experienced the sorrow of miscarriage, expensive treatments or surgery, and much more, in their attempts to have a family of their own. And though each woman, along with her husband, has experienced her own circumstances surrounding her infertility issues, all four have been relentless in seeking God’s will in their desire to have children.
“Infertility is one of those silent crosses,” says Alles. “It’s a personal and lonely cross.”
As she watched friends and family members bearing children, her infertility had her questioning her life purpose. “It was a profound struggle to watch others’ blessings. I struggled for my role,” she says.
But meeting with Holli Strack, Alles’ cousin, who had struggled with her own infertility issues, soon began a friendship that would undergird the hope they clung to in their search for answers. Strack says, “After talking with my cousin Michelle Alles, we were both seeking out other Catholic options for treating infertility and getting together with other women like us.”
Both invested in the Creighton Model FertilityCare System, a natural fertility tracking system, with the help of Theresa Schortgen, FertilityCare Specialist of Northeast Indiana and Dr. Thomas Hilgers, in Omaha, Nebraska, the founder of the Creighton System, and local physicians like Dr. Patrick Holly, a specialist in Creighton Model and NaPro Technologies, a women’s health science that monitors and maintains a woman’s reproductive and gynecological health.
At the same time Alles and Strack were meeting, Spisak, who had returned to the Catholic faith of her childhood during her infertility trials, was meeting with Lenhof at the invitation of Theresa Schortgen and soon after several phone calls the four women gathered together at Spisak’s home. These faith-filled women formed a circle of friendship in which they found the spiritual and emotional support that they sought as they shared their harrowing journeys, prayer and devotions to special saints with each other. And hope is what they found.
Spisak says, “We had so much in common and I felt such a sense of joy and peace knowing I was not alone in this struggle. I knew God had brought each of us together at that specific time for a reason. … We each found comfort in our pain, a voice that expressed what we couldn’t wrap our heads around and hope in our suffering.”
Strack adds, “We decided to call ourselves the HOPE Group. We came up with a few words that inspired us that had the letters H.O.P.E. in them. Handmaid (Mary said, ‘Be it done to me according to Your will’), jOy (Seek out joy even under the heaviest of burdens), Perseverance (‘Well done my good and faithful servant’) and stEadfastness (Staying true to our Catholic faith).”
As the four met monthly, Spisak began to feel the need to assist others in their search for Catholic methods of conception. She says, “I felt called to do something for other couples who were in our shoes, struggling with no one to reach out to. I presented the idea of a retreat for couples with infertility to the HOPE girls and we quickly got to work on planning this event. With the help of our Creighton Model coach, we were able to organize, advertise and obtain speakers, a Mass and dinner for the event. We were happy with our turnout of nine couples from around the diocese, some coming from as far as South Bend.”
Now five years later, on April 24, eight of the original couples attending the retreat in 2010 gathered at St. Patrick Parish in Arcola for a Mass of thanksgiving and reunion of sorts, bringing with them a total of 15 children, some biological and others adopted.
The HOPE ladies extend a message of hope to anyone who is experiencing infertility issues. “Through great tragedy comes great triumph,” says Alles. With prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe and perseverance, she and her husband Jacob gave birth to their daughter Clare Guadalupe in 2010 and adopted Henry Michael in 2014. Spisak and her husband Scott, who came into the Church in 2005, are the proud parents of their adopted daughter, Sophia Marie. Holli and Nathaniel Strack now have two biological children, Lydia Rose and Levi Nathaniel. And Nicki and Eric Lenhof have two biological sons, Augustus and Elijah.
Now walking the joyous path of parenthood, the HOPE group continues to meet monthly for encouragement and support. Lenhof is grateful for the fellowship the HOPE group offers and says, “The comfort I received from these meetings was incredible. These were three other women with their own individual infertility experiences from which I could learn. It was even more meaningful to me because they too were Catholic. We talked and prayed during our meetings. They were included in my prayers often and I knew that they were praying for me. I didn’t feel alone anymore.”
Strack says of her faithful group, “The Hope Group truly helped me to grow deeper in my faith. I drew strength from the other girls’ strength and they always showed such love and support no matter where we all were on our journeys. The love and appreciation I have for my HOPE group goes beyond words.”
Alles agrees and says, “We offer hope. If you’re open to the Spirit, God will provide. … He is always providing in the suffering. The support of the HOPE women kept me in faith.” Husband Jacob declares, “We are a people of great hope!”
Infertility has become an increasingly prevalent issue for over 6 million women in the U.S. today. For those seeking help with infertility visit www.infertiltiycross.com, a diocesan website sponsored by the Office of Family Life. The site offers stories and videos of other couples struggling with infertility, provides answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about infertility treatments, the Church’s teachings and the struggle involved in bearing this particular cross. Suggestions for friends and family, resources for further reading, and other websites or organizations are also available.
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