This story is featured in the fall/winter 2021 issue of Lumen.
A fashion designer. A postpartum doula. A therapist. At the surface, Catherine Huss '14, Lizzy Thibault '19 and Jake Voelker '08 don't seem to have much in common beyond their Catholic faith. Their fields are wildly diverse, but beneath the surface, these three Catholic studies alumni have two things in common: an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to champion the cause of human dignity.
Not one of them works in a specifically faith-oriented field. They are out in the world using their wonderfully unique gifts to remind their clients of their value and the value of every human person , whether that be by drafting designs for higher-coverage swimsuits, doing a load of laundry for a new mother, or lending a listening ear. In each of their businesses, the human person is cared for, respected and cherished.
Catherine of Siena … and company
Born in Minnesota and raised Catholic, San Diego-based fashion designer Catherine Huss followed her two older brothers to St. Thomas to learn more about her faith. While earning her degree in Catholic studies, Huss also studied apparel design at St. Catherine University. After graduating in 2014, she moved to California to work in fashion. But her dream had always been to start her own business.
The idea for her business first came to her in college. She had grown frustrated by her inability to find a swimsuit with all the components she wanted: decent coverage, a classic look, and made in an ethical way. Her senior project aimed to fill this gap. She created a line of swimsuits and even came up with the name of her future company: Siena and Co., inspired by her time in Siena, Italy, during the Catholic Studies Rome Semester.
But it was the 2020 quarantine which finally pushed her to turn her senior project into a business. “I had a lot of free time, and I figured, ‘No more excuses,’” said Huss. Using her savings, she began to design her collection of suits. Huss was full of ideas. She finally settled on three tops and three bottoms, all channeling a classic Italian style and providing more coverage than the typical swimsuit. The suits are sophisticated, feminine, and made to complement a wide variety of body types, which required Huss to rework aspects of her original designs after trying them on models of different shapes and sizes.
When it comes to the fit of her swimsuits, Huss highlighted the phrase “confident coverage and fit.” “As women, we have so many things going against us to really thrive and be ourselves and who God created us to be,” she says. “Finding clothing that helps us feel confident and our best selves is important.”
On the one hand, coverage is about presenting ourselves in a way that honors the dignity and worth of ourselves and others. But at the same time, it is a wonderfully practical approach. The wearer can swim freely, play beach volleyball, and run after kids without worrying about her suit riding up or slipping down. Huss’ suits allow women to function in the world – not just look beautiful. “We are more than just our body,” she said.
But these are no dowdy bathing costumes. There is an undeniable beauty to Siena and Co.’s sleek, elegant designs. The styles are designed to be flattering and to fit well “holistically” – not overaccentuating any one part of the body.
When it came to sourcing materials, Huss sought fabrics that were made from recycled materials. She is proud of the fact that her suits are sustainably made, a response to God’s call to be good stewards of the Earth.
Even more importantly, she wanted to ensure that everyone working on her suits was treated with dignity. Her suits are sewn in factories where all workers – the majority of whom are Latina – receive a fair wage and work in a healthy environment.
Siena and Co. officially launched in July with a Kickstarter campaign (an online platform that allows customers to preorder products before they are produced). Huss’ next steps involve collecting feedback from these initial customers and making any necessary improvements to her suits.
We are more than just our body.Catherine Huss ‘14
Reflecting on her Catholic studies degree, Huss noted two ways that the Catholic mindset has influenced her: by impelling her to put the dignity of the human person at the center of all decisions and by inspiring her to use her unique gifts to serve the Body of Christ. “Our vocation,” said Huss, “is to love the people God has put in front of us. We don’t need to complicate it any more than that.”
More information about Siena and Co., along with a link to Catherine Huss’ Kickstarter account, can be found at siena-co.com.
Discerning her future in adoration, Lizzy Thibault began creating a list of all her gifts, no matter how insignificant or bizarre, and asked herself, “In what vocation or in what way can these serve him?” When she first heard of postpartum doulas, she knew she had found her calling. “I saw a need and wanted to fill it,” she said. Having graduated from St. Thomas in 2019 with a degree in Catholic studies and a minor in philosophy, Thibault completed her training through Modern Doula Education and became a self-employed postpartum doula this year.
Thibault described the role of a doula enthusiastically. The term refers to a person who helps and supports a mother around the time of childbirth. Most common are birth doulas, who assist in the process of birth itself. Postpartum doulas, on the other hand, provide physical, emotional and practical support in the three months after the baby is born. Thibault’s work includes everything from offering lactation support, to cleaning the new mother’s house, to offering a few hours of child care so that the mother can shower and rest.
Thibault noted that many new mothers feel profoundly out of their depths when it comes to caring for the new life that has been entrusted to them. They often experience a surreal feeling when returning from the hospital with their infant as the reality of their new roles sinks in. “A lot of moms feel blindsided when they enter into motherhood,” said Thibault, “not only through the challenges of raising a baby and the expected sleep deprivation … but they oftentimes also experience a lot of tension and conflict between who they always thought they were and who they are trying to become.” Her job is to be there for them as they navigate this identity change. She equips women with the tools to be the best mothers they can be and reassures them that “God did intend for this baby to exist, and he intended you to be the mother.”
Thibault’s own battles with mental health have uniquely prepared her for this role. Over the years she has dealt with chronic illness, dietary restrictions, anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Now, she treasures the fact that she can relate to new moms struggling with their mental health: “I found it consoling to realize that many of my struggles, while they are not the same as what a postpartum mom goes through, have really built a great foundation for becoming ... the kind of doula God wants me to be.”
In her role as a doula, Thibault supports the dignity of both women and children. “Understanding the dignity of human life and the dignity of motherhood … is intrinsically entwined with the vocation of a postpartum doula,” she said. She notes that there is an “attack on motherhood” in our culture. Moms are shamed for staying at home and for having careers; Thibault celebrates each mother’s unique gifts and calling.
Moms are shamed for staying at home and for having careers; Thibault celebrates each mother’s unique gifts and calling.
As she continues to gain clients, Thibault hopes to work specifically with mothers whose children have received a diagnosis of Down syndrome. As a sister to three children with Down syndrome, Thibault knows firsthand the joy that they bring to families. She hopes to walk with mothers through the challenging emotions associated with the diagnosis, validating their disappointment and fear while rejoicing with them over the gift of their child.
Thibault considers postpartum doulas to be “one of the missing links in the pro-life movement” – a movement that is often accused of being merely “pro-birth.” Postpartum doulas are a concrete reality that pro-lifers can point to when they are accused of abandoning the mother and child after birth has taken place. Thibault is out to prove that the Catholic Church does indeed care for life beyond the womb.
Lizzy Thibault ia a certified postpartum doula and founder of Ascend Doula Care, LLC.
Freedom and self-compassion
“I always knew that I wanted to serve people. I knew that I wanted to make some meaningful difference in people’s lives,” said Jake Voelker, a marriage and family therapist who graduated from Saint John Vianney College Seminary in 2008 with joint degrees in philosophy and Catholic studies. After discerning out of seminary, Voelker moved to Chicago, where he spent a year leading pilgrimages to holy sites across the globe. Upon returning to Minnesota, he became intrigued with the field of therapy and applied to Saint Mary’s University in Winona. Two years later, he graduated from its satellite campus in Minneapolis with a degree in marriage and family therapy.
Even in high school, Voelker’s friends would often come to him for advice. He loved listening to people and hearing their stories, giving them space to express their emotions. “I imagine Jesus was a good listener,” he said – someone who truly stopped what he was doing to focus on the person in front of him, who listened without formulating a response. Voelker always strove to be that kind of listener.
Working as a therapist was a natural transition. His counseling philosophy is simple: “People are too hard on themselves.” Voelker wants people to relax and be kinder to themselves. “I think our culture and often our own families don’t value human dignity. We don’t give each other enough love and compassion and empathy. We’re too busy.” He wanted to create that space for understanding that the culture lacked. In his practice, Jake gives people space to be themselves. He honors their experiences, their traumas, their fears and their dreams, believing that in doing so, he is honoring their dignity as persons.
As a therapist, Voelker is most interested in the psychological effects of trauma. He describes how harmful experiences, whether demonstrably significant or seemingly insignificant, cause us to form negative beliefs about ourselves, which can lead to a whole slew of unproductive coping mechanisms. In order to defeat these beliefs and behaviors, we must process the experience that allowed them to be formed in the first place. Voelker uses a process in his practice known as EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), which simulates REM sleep to help patients process traumatic memories.
We don’t give each other enough love and compassion and empathy. We’re too busy.Jake Voelker ‘08
When it comes to his other specialties, Voelker sees them through the lens of trauma, always searching for the roots of the behaviors he encounters. One of his areas of focus is pornography addiction – a direct attack on the dignity of both men and women. He notes that porn is highly addictive and that, once the addiction begins, it is often used as a coping mechanism to avoid dealing with the real issues at hand. The addicted person turns to porn when he or she feels lonely, overwhelmed or inadequate. Voelker has found that many of his clients turn to porn because they lack genuine connections. Ironically, porn erodes the connections they do have and stands in the way of forming deep romantic bonds.
Voelker estimates that around 75% of his clients are Catholic. This means that he can address the whole person, including the spiritual side, in his therapy sessions, often praying with clients. To drive home his message of self-compassion, Voelker has a devotion to Divine Mercy and has passed out copies of St. Faustina’s diary as a component of his practice.
Jake Voelker can be found at jakevoelker.com. In addition to his private practice, Voelker works as an independent contractor for Parkdale Therapy Group (parkdaletherapy.org), Saint John Vianney College Seminary, and the Archdiocesan Tribunal.