by Jill Ragar Esfeld
SHAWNEE — Sacred Heart parishioners Ernie and Susan Straub are in a unique position to treasure their Catholic faith — having lost it once, then found it again.
In fact, since their return to the church, their contributions to Catholic schools have grown so varied and significant that they will be honored with the “Angels Among Us” award at the 8th annual Catholic Education Foundation (CEF) dinner. But it wasn’t always that way.
“I was born Catholic,” explained Ernie. “My wife converted in 1982, and we immediately started having a family.”
The Straubs’ faith practice at the time consisted of a dutiful visit to church each Sunday — nothing more. When it came time for the oldest of their six children, Paul, to start school, they weren’t sure they wanted a Catholic education for him.
“About that time, Susan got involved with an evangelical, charismatic, prayer group of ladies,” said Ernie.
This led to an interest in Protestantism. Eventually, the couple left the Catholic Church, explored other faith congregations, and enrolled their children in a Protestant school.
Though they were pleased with the school and met many good Christian families, the Straubs never felt quite at home in their new surroundings.
“You know, it was OK,” said Ernie, “but we always felt there was something missing.”
In 1995, when the couple went on a business trip together, Susan met the wife of a business associate. In the course of their conversation, Susan shared the fact that her family had left the Catholic Church.
The woman told Susan she would like to send her a book.
Little did Susan know what an impact that book would have on her family.
“So after we got back, I got a book in the mail, entitled ‘Rome Sweet Home’ by Scott Hahn,” said Susan.
Hahn, now a professor of theology and Scripture at Franciscan University in Steubenville, was at one time a Presbyterian minister. The book tells the story of his family’s conversion to Catholicism.
After she read Hahn’s book, Susan knew she had to share it with her husband. She also knew it was time for her family to make an about-face.
“It talked about the holy Eucharist, and the truth just hit me in the face,” she said. “I told Ernie, ‘I don’t understand this, but we have to go back!’”
At the time, the oldest of their six children was 12. They knew the journey back to Catholicism would have be a family affair, and they knew it wouldn’t be easy.
“A lot of prayer took place,” said Susan. “They were old enough; it had to become their faith.”
The Straubs could probably write their own book about the process. Their children, now ranging in age from 26 down to 13, have all become faithful Catholics — thanks in part to the faith formation in their Catholic schools.
“God’s worked in all our kids,” said Ernie. “And Susan and I have worked at our faith to better understand it, so we could be better witnesses to our kids and our friends.”
On the job
The strong Christian values that guide this family are evident in the running of Straub Construction, too.
‘Times have been tough for the last 18-20 months for our economic world,” said Michael Morrisey, executive director of the CEF. “And when all that start- ed, the Straubs made the conscious decision that they were going to figure out a way to not lay off any of their people.”
What they did, said Ernie, was “put people before profits.
“And when you do the right thing, God takes care of everybody.”
Straub Construction employees accepted salary reductions to help the company weather the economic downturn and worked hard to increase business. Ernie has since been able resume paying his employees their original salaries — and even make up the difference they’d sacrificed during the period of reduction.
Ernie attributes his company’s success to his outstanding employees.
“I’ve just got the best people working for me,” he said. “I’ve been able to hire really quality people and that just permeates throughout the company.”
The Straubs believe, above all, that good character is a reflection of good education and faith formation. That’s why they’re committed to giving every child access to a Catholic education, regardless of their family income.
“It’s just so important for all kids, but especially the vulnerable kids at the urban core,” said Ernie. “Our society suffers today because we don’t have strong academics and faith.”
That conviction was validated recent- ly when the Straubs visited Our Lady of Unity School in Kansas City, Kan., whose students receive CEF scholarships.
“I’m telling you, those kids, when they can read and write and have strong moral convictions, they’re going to be just as successful as any kid that grew up in any suburb,” said Ernie.
“Along with learning our faith, learning the sanctity of marriage,” his wife added. “So these young people coming up will work hard to keep their marriages intact. That’s what really makes a strong society.”
Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, who also visited the elementary school, said it’s essential that Catholic schools not become elitist institutions, accessible only to those with wealth.
“The best gift we can give our young people is [the chance] to know Jesus and to love his church,” he said. “No child should be deprived of the opportunity for a Catholic education because of finances.
“Catholic schools give the best opportunity for children, no matter the families’ economic status, to succeed in life.”
Ernie and Susan understand that CEF is sometimes key to making Catholic education available to every child. CEF scholarships help support schools in urban and rural areas where Catholic edu- cation might otherwise be inaccessible.
“I don’t want to leave this earth thinking ‘Why didn’t I do more?’” said Ernie. So now, in addition to their financial support and the school-building efforts of their construction company, the couple hopes to help raise funds for CEF in their role as this year’s “Angels Among Us” honorees.
“We’re extremely excited about the event and the opportunity to raise funds for CEF,” said Ernie. “We hope that God plays a part in everybody’s heart to really support CEF.”
“We are honored,” agreed Susan. “But we are a small piece of the puzzle.”