"I am writing to let you know of what I consider to be an amazing occurrence," Jena Sales said in an e-mail note to this magazine on the last day of August 2003, as her youngest sister prepared for her senior year at St. Thomas. "I am one of six girls. We have all attended St. Thomas to receive our undergraduate degree. We have endured many events while someone from our family has been a student at St. Thomas, including the sudden and unexpected death of our father. We have lived in dorms, been off-campus residents and commuters from home. We have watched buildings go up and academic programs develop. A member of our family has been in attendance at St. Thomas for over a decade. St. Thomas is as much a part of our family history as our home."
An amazing occurrence, indeed. And as you talk, first collectively and then individually, with the Janicke sisters and their mom, it's easy to see how indelible the connections are between seven women who have depended on each other – and their alma mater – as they have grown up.
First of all, it's important to point out that all six sisters going to St. Thomas never was part of any grand plan. It just happened. One sister favored a different Catholic university and another almost broke the string because she wanted to do her own thing. There was only one rule in the Janicke household, according to Janet: "It's not if you go to college, but when. ..."
"I told the older girls that it was forbidden ground to encourage the younger ones to enroll at St. Thomas just 'to set a record' or because 'it would be a cool thing' if everybody went there," she said. "They looked around. The younger girls saw the older sisters being successful and knew St. Thomas had something to do with it. They figured the school would be good for them, too."
The Janicke family formed when Janet Willett and Al Janicke married in 1970. She had been raised on a farm near Delavan in southern Minnesota and attended Good Counsel Academy in Mankato, spending eight years as a Sister of Notre Dame before deciding not to take her final vows.
They lived in Isanti for 17 years before moving to Andover in 1990. She was a full-time homemaker for nearly two decades before returning to the teaching profession in 1990, and her husband was a family counselor.
The oldest daughter, Lisa, was valedictorian of her St. Francis High School class in 1989, and she knew exactly where she wanted to go to college.
"Marquette," she said. "But my dad insisted that I look at a second college just so I was sure about Marquette. I thought about an open house at St. Benedict and then some St. Thomas information came in the mail and I said, 'Fine, I'll look at St. Thomas,' even though I thought it would be a waste of time.
"I went for a visit and changed my mind. I decided to enroll at St. Thomas. I'm not sure why. Part of it was a recognition that if I didn't go somewhere close to home, I wasn't going to be part of my family's life. That was important to me. We always have been a close family."
Lisa thought she would major in political science and go to law school, but decided she wasn't interested in a legal career after a semester of working as a receptionist at a law firm. She got a job in the St. Thomas library the summer after her freshman year and fell in love with her work. She majored in philosophy and graduated in 1993. She went on to earn two master's degrees – in library and information science and in education – from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she is coordinator of educational programming in the library.
Lisa is surprised in one sense that all of her sisters ended up at St. Thomas. Then again ...
"Every one of us had a goal of getting a good education and having a positive experience, but the odds of all six of us going to the same school were pretty high," said Lisa, who is married to an Illinois political science professor. "I went to St. Thomas, and as my sisters visited me it became a familiar place to them. Even a comfortable place, I suspect! After you've visited three or four sisters in Dowling Hall, you do have some sense of the place."
Jena enrolled at St. Thomas in 1990. Like all of her sisters, Jena lived as a freshman in Dowling Hall. Her college choice was easy.
"I didn't think that much about it," she said. "I was really busy in high school. I applied only to St. Thomas. I figured Lisa made a good choice, so I'd go there, too. I applied, was accepted and showed up."
Jena thought she would major in music because she played the piano and guitar "and had a good ear," but settled on business with an emphasis on operations management. She graduated in 1994 and worked as a manager at Minnesota Diversified Industries, a housecleaner at a retreat center and an assistant at a management consultant company before moving to Grand Marais in 1997 and becoming director of religious education at a Catholic church. She and her husband moved to Pella, Iowa, where they are raising four children under the age of 6.
"My parents always said, 'You need to strive for excellence in whatever you do,' and I always have remembered that," Jena said.
Lisa and Jena were students at St. Thomas when their dad died of a heart attack at the dinner table, surrounded by his wife and three youngest daughters. He was 56, and Janet was left to raise six girls ages 9 to 22.
"I lived by demand and on demand," she said. "Whatever was at the top of my list to do, I did. I didn't have choices about the use of my time. I simply had to respond. I did the best that I could, and God filled in the rest. It was a monumental task, even more so now that I look back on it. I'm not sure where I got the energy!"
Janet plowed ahead with support from her parish – the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake – and financial assistance from an "angel" benefactor; a family member had been counseld by Janet's husband. Janet's special education teaching po-sition at Crossroads School and Vocational Center in St. Francis increased to full time and over the next eight years she completed her master's degree. She chose St. Thomas because she liked its programs, "and the more I went there the more I valued the way St. Thomas was helping me with my education.
"I had faith we would make it," she said. "Somebody once asked me, 'How could you afford it?' " and I said, 'We couldn't.' But we figured out a way to do it. All of the kids pitched in and worked the best that they could. They just knew they had to do it."
Janet's daughters can't say enough positive things about their mom. The youngest, Deborah, might have said it best:
"Mom is phenomenal."
Deborah also credits her sisters. "They are the most wonderful role models I could ever have," she said. "Each one picked up responsibility to help the other through the rough times."
Angela was a senior at St. Francis when her dad died. Her college choice was easy.
"I already had two sisters at St. Thomas," she said, "and our family would still be together. They were my support network. I wouldn't be too far away from home, so I could come and go easily."
Angela always had wanted to be a teacher, and majored in education and Spanish. She studied in Spain during her sophomore year and graduated in December 1995 after three and a half years, including a student teaching assignment her final semester. She was a substitute teacher for two years and has taught at The Way of the Shepherd Montessori Education Center in Blaine for five years, having earned a master's degree in Montessori education from St. Catherine. Angela has four children under the age of 7.
She doesn't think it was strange to have two sisters on campus, in part because "I never saw them unless we decided to meet somewhere! Even though we were sisters, we were involved in our own things."
Sarah – sister No. 4 – enrolled at St. Thomas in the fall of 1995 after graduating from Anoka High School and overlapped with Angela by just one semester.
"I looked at schools in Minnesota, but I pretty much knew I wanted to go to St. Thomas," Sarah said. "I liked it there and had visited my sisters many times."
Sarah thought she, too, would major in Spanish but settled on accounting. Like Angela, she also graduated in three and a half years, in December 1998, and worked at McGladrey & Pullen for a year before moving to Wells Fargo, where she remains today. Her husband also works at Wells Fargo, and they have a daughter who will be 1 this fall.
Rebecca became the third consecutive sister to graduate from St. Thomas in three and a half years when she received her degrees in international studies and political science in December 2000. For a while, though, it looked like the fifth Janicke sister wouldn't walk through the Arches.
"I had one thought about where I would go to college – and it was anywhere but St. Thomas," she said. "I just didn't want to do what my sisters had done." She looked around a lot, "but I chose St. Thomas because it was there and I just thought, 'Why not?' It came down to St. Thomas being the easiest decision to make. I knew where it was, my mom knew how the system worked and I was familiar with campus."
Rebecca worked in research at Target Corp. her senior year and moved to Marshall Field's after graduation. She worked for a youth ministry, a law firm and a department store before becoming a legislative assistant last September for state Sen. David Gaither, R-Plymouth.
She will get married in October to – you guessed it – a Tommie, Dan Utz '00. None of her older four sisters, however, is married to a St. Thomas alumnus.
With five sisters as St. Thomas alumnae, was there any question that Deborah would matriculate there?
"I had no problems going to St. Thomas," she said. "Fifty percent of my life was St. Thomas. I had grown up there visiting my sisters, so going anywhere but St. Thomas was not an option as far as I was concerned even though mom told my sisters not to say anything to me about going to St. Thomas. It felt like home to me. It was home for me."
Deborah still worried, though. "I said to my sisters, 'What if they don't accept me?' They laughed and said, 'Oh Deborah, you're going to get accepted.' "
And she was. She had attended Meadow Creek Christian School through her junior year in high school, and then left to take classes at Anoka-Ramsey Community College under the Post-Secondary Education Options program. That allowed her to graduate from St. Thomas in just three years with a degree in community health education. She is a resource coordinator for Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, having turned down four other job offers.
The photos finished in front of the Arches, the Janicke girls give each other hugs, giggle like sisters do and say things such as "Wow, this is something!" and "Can you believe it?"
Six sisters. Six St. Thomas degrees. As they sit around a table in Aquinas Hall moments later, they find it difficult to neatly summarize their feelings. They just smile and laugh and poke fun at each other. They're restless. Rebecca later offers her thoughts.
"It's really awesome," she says. "St. Thomas is what we have in common beyond being members of the same family, as we're growing up living in different parts of the country. St. Thomas is the constant in all of our lives."