Life has brought Maria Schmitz full circle back to St. Mary Catholic Schools – an environment that helped her foster her Catholic faith in her youth, leading to answering the call to international Catholic mission work in her 20s, and now as a St. Mary Catholic Middle School (SMCMS) religion teacher onto inspiring the next generation of Zephyrs to be open to His call for their own lives as well.
A 2009 graduate of St. Mary Catholic High School, Maria went onto earn her bachelor’s degree in biology and theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. Initially planning to enter the medical field, her college years shined a light on a different path.
“It was tutoring and teaching during college that made me realize I wanted to teach, that I had a passion for teaching,” Maria recalls, specifically recounting her experiences tutoring and teaching in underprivileged schools and districts during that time. Propelled by that passion, Maria then went on to earn her master’s degree in education from Concordia University in Wisconsin.
Following graduation, Maria joined Pacelli Catholic High School in Stevens Point, where she taught biology and religion classes, but it was experience beyond the classroom that would lead her to God’s path for her life.
During her time as a teacher at Pacelli, she helped lead January term two-week-long mission trips with her students to Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II, an orphanage in Peru, in 2016 and 2018.
“I had grown up looking up to missionaries and people like St. Teresa [of Calcutta,] but you could say those mission trips awakened the call to say yes to missions. I wanted to do something more, to do something for longer than just a few weeks,” Maria says.
After reviewing and applying for a variety of international lay missionary opportunities, Maria accepted an opportunity with the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT) in Belize in 2018.
Over the course of the next nearly three years, Maria taught high school religion, including Theology of the Body and Encountering Christ courses, and remedial math at a parish school in Belize. The school, founded in 1990, aimed to an affordable, quality, Catholic education for Benque Viejo del Carmen, Belize’s young people. The school began with only volunteer teachers and a one-room school building, but by the time Maria joined as a missionary teacher, there was a thriving campus with full-time Belizean staff, 10-15 missionary teachers (including Maria,) and more than 400 students.
She worked and lived in community with other missionary teachers from all walks of life – some lay men and women and others priests and religious – to serve the varied needs of her students. During her missionary teaching role in Belize, Maria was even promoted to department head and continued to serve there – feeling at peace with where God had her at the moment.
“It was a joyful experience – exhausting at times – but life-giving,” Maria says. Like the rest of the world, little did Maria know during those first two years of mission work that the work was about to change with the COVID pandemic coming about in March 2020.
“First one [missionary,] then five, then ten, then twenty were returning to the States,” Maria says, recalling the events of March 2020. “With freedom granted by my family’s support, I headed to the adoration chapel to discuss it with Jesus […] With a heart brimming with peace, I would remain and serve amidst the unknowns of the pandemic.”
Over the course of that third year in Belize, as classes went online for her students and school community, Maria worked hard to still connect, reach, and teach students. Spotty internet, lack of technology, and other domestic challenges for some of her students and families made virtual learning difficult for all, but she persisted in serving where God had placed her and the best she could.
During that time, she, the remaining five missionaries, and the one parish priest noticed that hunger was striking her Belizean community in great numbers. Belize, a country heavily dependent upon tourism and its residents reliant upon tourism jobs and income, felt the dire effects of the pandemic, as well as weighty effects from flooding, nearby natural disasters, and restrictive government lockdown measures.
The missionaries, while still managing virtual teaching, shifted additional attention to feeding the hungry. They worked with their host parish to set up food distribution sites—packing thousands of pounds of rice and beans, distributing bananas, and providing chickens to those in need over the months to come. Missionaries would share in prayer and the Gospel with those they served and distributed food to every week. One food distribution site quickly turned into three sites as the need to continued to increase.
“I could have never imagined how joyful our quarantine would be… Strengthened by the Eucharist and lifted by laughter, we poured ourselves out,” Maria says. “Beautiful, challenging, joyful, exhausting, and fulfilling our days had become.”
Family members and friends from the United States helped support Maria’s missionary post and those they served through prayer and financial donations, reflective of the mission call that some give by going, and others go by giving, and it was through such experiences and lifted by prayer, that Maria’s trust in God continue to grow.
“I was given an invitation to pour myself out for people in the community, most of whom I did not know. I humbly served and gave the little I had, yet He made it enough. He communicated through my imperfect vessel, and my trust in Him deepened,” Maria says.
As Maria’s third year of mission work in Belize came to an end, she felt a call to return to the United States and still serve in Catholic education, just in her homeland and closer to family. A middle school religion teaching position became open at SMCMS about the same time, and divine providence led her back to the place she herself spent her formative years. In August 2021, Maria started as the Grade 7 and Grade 8 Religion Teacher at SMCMS, teaching New Testament, Church History, and Theology of the Body.
“The school and staff has been very welcoming and supportive, … the best staff group I have been a part of, and the students are energetic and joyful,” Maria says.
As Maria heads into her third month of teaching at SMCMS, she smiles reflecting upon her missionary experience in Belize; the foundation at SMCS, Franciscan University, and her early career that opened her heart to God’s call; and the opportunity she now has to help the next generation of Zephyrs learn their faith and hear God’s call in their own lives, whatever and wherever He may lead.
“Follow the call, and trust in Him. Whatever His call is, it is going to be a wonderful adventure, and you will find fulfillment in the call.”
The Catholic Church celebrates World Mission Sunday throughout the world on October 24, 2021, recognizing our common responsibility with regard to the evangelization of the world.