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December 20, 2009

After 95-plus years these Catholics still active

By Hilary Anderson


Age makes no difference to Gus Schaller, Dorothy Tapajna and Catherine Schouten when it comes to practicing their Catholic faith or volunteering at their parishes. Each of the three is observing a century of life, or nearly a century, but they still continue their unbroken traditions of Mass attendance, participation in devotions and service to their churches.

Schaller, the youngest of the three and parishioner at St. James- Sauk Village, will celebrate his 96th birthday in May. Tapagna will observe her 100th birthday in July and Schouten will mark her 101st birthday in January 2010. Both women are members of Infant Jesus of Prague in Flossmoor.

None of the three believe there is anything special about their involvement at their respective parishes.

“We shouldn’t be exalted,” said Tapajna. “God gave us certain talents. If there was something that needed to be done in our parishes and it matched our talents, we did it.”

Tapajna served most recently as a sacristan until a heart attack last year limited her activities.

“I did everything from cleaning all the small linens, cared for the altar candles and votive lights and did inventory,” she said.

Tapajna first became involved as a room mother for the eight years her son attended a Catholic grade school in Gary, Ind. She and her husband, Joe, later moved to Flossmoor and IJP when their son moved away to college.

“It became a wonderful relationship,” she said. “We went to 8:30 Mass every morning. We still say the rosary afterwards and pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. I love the companionship of people who do volunteer work at church.”

Helped build church

Schaller, like his two peers, became involved in church as a youngster. He first served Mass at age 10 and continued throughout his years at St. James until recently when a previous knee injury prevented him from climbing the altar steps.

“Mr. Schaller is likely to have been the oldest altar server in the archdiocese and definitely one of the best,” said Father David Simonetti, associate pastor at St. James. “He still serves at bingo and is an usher.”

Schaller has a long list of service to his parish. He’s been a member since he was baptized when the former church building stood among acres of farmland.

“Gus Schaller’s name appears repeatedly in our parish history,” said Father David Krolczyk, pastor of St. James.

“He even helped build our new church in the early 1960s. It’s documented Mr. Schaller worked late into the evening before Christmas helping install the new pews so parishioners could attend Midnight Mass there for the first time.”

Schaller and his wife, Rosemary, prayed the rosary nightly and often would recite the litany of the saints together. The two were married for 58 years.

“We would pray it together. I had eye problems and sometimes she would rub them [his eyes] while we said it,” he said. “I still pray it daily.”

Desire to give begins

Schouten attended Catholic grade and high schools and attributes some of her desire to give back to the church to the “wonderful nuns who taught me.” She and her family lived in Chicago’s South Side before moving to Flossmoor and IJP parish.

Schouten, one of seven children, began giving of herself at age 15 when her mother died. She took charge of her family and raised her siblings.

Schouten later met her husband, James, through friends at church, married at 30 and has four children — Barbara, Fran, James and Margaret. Her family now includes 13 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

Schouten became involved in adult formation at her parish.

“I attended Bible classes and adult catechism,” she said. “It was interesting to learn more about your faith and share it with others. It also became a source of meeting people your own age. When I lived closer and could walk to church, I attended First Friday and other devotions. I still pray every day and read the Bible.”

“These centenarians are an inspiration to all of us,” said Father Mike Nacius, parochial administrator for Infant Jesus of Prague.

“They faced many challenges in their lives, raised families, worked hard but still found time to share their faith and stay involved in their parishes. They have done so much good with the years God has give them.”

The three say they had it tough growing up but are better for it.

“We were just doing what Jesus told us when we stepped up to help,” said Tapajna. “I think there are others who would do similarly if they only knew the need. I believe people just have to be asked regardless of their age.”