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Faith in Action

Arizona family teaches by example

By John Burger

When you look at them from the outside, the Ulmens might appear to blessed with little stress. Brian, the dad, heads up the local Knights of Columbus council, and mom Heather leads the American Heritage Girls. They have four children, one of whom is already starting a career of his own, while the others are homeschooled by parents who have a lot of learning and experience to share.

And the family always seems to be together—at Mass or at volunteer activities.

No doubt, they’ve got it made.

But if you probe a little deeper, you’ll find that the Ulmens have had their share of challenges, including the loss of children and battles with cancer. The key is in how they’ve responded to those challenges.

Their grace under stress is one reason why the Arizona State Council honored them as 2014 Family of the Year.

The citation for the annual honor lists a litany of activities the Ulmens take part in, including the Bishop’s Appeal Dinner and the quarterly highway cleanup.

“This Brother Knight is currently the Deputy Grand Knight of his council. Both he and his sons are active in the council,” it continued. “This family is also very active in the Boy Scouts of America and American Heritage Girls. … worked multiple shifts at the council’s pro-life booth at the County Fair. … attends the Teen Mass at their home parish and participates or leads many other programs for the church.”

One part of the citation makes Brian Ulmen especially proud: “This family puts into practice the core values of the Order and serves as an example for all Catholic families.”

“Most of what we do together as a family revolves around the Knights, Boy Scouts, American Heritage Girls etc.,” said Brian, now the grand knight of Bishop Salpointe Council 4584 in Sierra Vista, Arizona. “That and homeschooling mean the family spends a lot of time together.”

Brian and Heather met in high school, but it took years for their friendship to blossom into more.

“Her brother and my brother became good friends, so we met that way,” Brian said. “She was friendly and compassionate, the kind of girl you wouldn’t mind bringing home to your parents.”

Said Heather, “He asked me out, and I turned him down, but we became really good friends.”

Brian joined the Army after high school (retiring from the service in 2009), and the relationship took a turn.

“I was getting ready to deploy for Desert Storm and just decided to give her a call, and it just kind of went from there,” he said.

In the long months they spent apart, they “wrote old-school, pen-and-paper letters” to one another, he recalled. “We still have them in a shoebox somewhere. It gives us a chuckle, when we think back on it.”

“At the end of my first year in college, he came home from the service, we got engaged. One year and two months later, we were married,” Heather said.

That was 1992, and the family began to grow. Today, their children are Philip, 21; Gianna, 16; Joseph, 6, and Andrew, 3.

There are other children who are counted as part of the family. One son had Trisomy-18, a chromosomal abnormality that often leads to early death. The family found out when Heather was five months pregnant.

“They tried for three hours to convince us to terminate the pregnancy,” she said. “We refused. It was one of the biggest struggles we’ve had as a family.” The child died shortly after birth.

Two other children died in the second trimester of pregnancy.

Another great challenge was Brian’s bout with cancer.

“I was pregnant with Joseph when he was diagnosed,” Heather said. “You reach a point where you have to give that to God.”

In addition, their oldest son almost died during surgery to remove a pectus bar that had been inserted to correct a structural problem.

Heather said, “God always provides what we need. We ask people to pray for us, and it always works out according to God’s plan.”

Father Gregory Adolf, pastor of St. Andrew’s in Sierra Vista, Arizona, said that the Ulmens set an example for the parish.

“He’s a grand knight, and she directs the American Heritage Girls, which is sponsored by our council. So they are both very involved in formation,” Father Adolf said. “Theirs is really a kind of shared ministry of formation of young adults, and they lead by example. Their own family is very involved and have leadership roles.”

Philip, for example, who works as a youth detention officer, has served as a lector at Life Teen Masses, and Gianna sings in the parish choir.

Also important is their “great sense of humor,” Father Adolf said.

“They’re pretty fun people to be around,” the pastor said. “They’re just enjoyable company. People like to work with them and be with them because they’re just so pleasant to be with, down to earth. They invite people into the circle of their family in a very engaging way.”

“We try to instill in our children the value of putting other people first,” Heather said. “We try to teach the children through example.”

John Burger is a news editor for Aleteia.org.