Dad’s heroism on the bridge through the eyes of his daughter

| July 29, 2014 | 2 Comments

St. Thomas grad hopes to carry family faith legacy in role as campus minister at U of M

Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Justina Hausmann had this thing she did with her dad almost every night during the summer after her sophomore year in high school.

In the back yard. By the fire pit. Until the street lights shut off at about 1:30 or 2 a.m. in their Rosemount neighborhood.

She called it a “fireside chat.” Little did she know that on an evening in late July of 2007, she would experience the last of these precious one-on-ones with her father, Peter.

During that final meeting, filled with her probing questions about faith and God, she would hear one simple, life-changing axiom from her father that stays with her to this day. It addressed her frustration about not being able to dispel the severe poverty she had witnessed for two weeks during a mission trip she had taken at the beginning of the month to Houma, La. She was there with a group from her parish, St. Joseph in Rosemount, to help residents there deal with the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina two years earlier.

Peter said this to her: “You may not have saved the world, but you saved someone’s world.”

It was the last message she remembers getting from him. Just days later, on Aug. 1, he was driving over the Interstate 35W bridge when it collapsed.

He escaped harm after he and his car went down, but died trying to save someone else. A police chaplain told the family seven days later when his body finally was recovered that he was found underwater in the back seat of a car trying to save a toddler and her pregnant mother.

Approaching the seventh anniversary of the tragedy that killed 13 people and injured 145 more, Justina recalled the days before her father’s death, not so much with sadness, but with an exuberant smile and spirit that she believes come from her father.

That’s not to say the pain has gone away.

“Whenever I drive over that [new] bridge, it is always Aug. 1, 2007,” said Justina, who was 16 when her father died, and now is 23 and a recent graduate of the University of St. Thomas with a degree in Catholic studies. “I cannot drive over that bridge without thinking about what happened there.”

A time to heal

The wounds are deep, but the healing is deeper, fueled by an intense love for Christ that comes from both her father, and from her mother, Helen.

In that last fireside chat, Justina got a second pearl of wisdom from Peter, one that came shooting back into her mind after she got the official news that his body had been found.

Earlier that summer, floods had ravaged southern Minnesota, with the city of Winona partially underwater, along with other communities nearby. She heard of a man who had drowned and left behind a young daughter.

“I remember saying to my dad, ‘Well, why doesn’t God show up? Why didn’t God swoop in and help that man, because now that girl doesn’t have her dad? That’s not fair,’” Justina said. “I was going on and on about how unfair it is that this girl has to grow up without her dad. And, he said, ‘But, she’s going to be fine. God’s not going to give her something she can’t handle.’

“How ominous and weird that [statement by Peter] felt after [the bridge collapse] happened. That was the first thing I thought of: ‘OK, so I’m actually able to do this.’”

The soil in which her healing could sprout and grow was carefully prepared by a strong Catholic upbringing for Justina and her three younger siblings — Andrew, 21, David, 16, and Theresa, 14. She got a double dose of spiritual growth during two years of preparation for confirmation, which took place just less than three months after the bridge collapsed.

Peter was her confirmation teacher.

Faith lessons learned

“I feel very fortunate that I’m the only one out of my siblings that was able to have him as a confirmation teacher,” Justina said. “He taught for years at St. Joe’s and he loved it. He had students who absolutely loved him, and people would request to be in my dad’s [confirmation] class.”

In the classes, Peter explained — and later showed on the bridge — what true love is.

“Christ says that the greatest love is to lay down your life for a friend,” Justina said. “These [people he tried to rescue] weren’t even friends of my dad’s. He didn’t even know them. And, in an ordinary life, he never would have encountered them. But, he still sacrificed his life for them. I know from having my dad in confirmation class that that love, that Christ-like love was something that he really emphasized.”

Next step: campus ministry

Today, Justina feels called to carry on that faith legacy her father paid for with his life. Her passion shows when she talks about her work in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota. She works with the director, Brother Ken Apuzzo.

“I know that the University of Minnesota has so much potential,” she said. “There’s so many students there, and I know what we are doing there is good, but it could be so much bigger. I want to see that campus so alive with this intense love for Christ. I want to see it burning with love for Christ.”

Yet, in order for college students to be converted to Christ, they will need to go through the same period of questioning that she did. For her, it started when she was preparing for confirmation, and reached a crescendo when she got back from her mission trip to Louisiana. A brain that she says “never shuts up” kept churning out one question after another that she just couldn’t answer. Thus, the torrent of inquiries directed at her father at the backyard fire pit.

“I had completely fallen in love with the children that I had helped, and with a woman who was nicknamed ‘Blackie,’” she said. “We painted her house for her because she had a lot of paint damage post-Katrina. So, we helped her with that. I came home feeling like my work wasn’t done, and I didn’t know what to do about it. I was just so confused, and I didn’t like that a chunk of my heart had been left in Louisiana. And, I’m like, ‘Dad, what am I doing here? What am I doing in Minnesota when there’s this awful poverty. . . just 1,000 miles south of us?’”

Grownup talk

It was then that there occurred a dramatic shift in the tone of their conversations. Though she had always been, as she called it, a “daddy’s girl,” Peter did not address her as such when they sat down by the fire pit.

Instead, he told her of the harsh realities he saw in his two years of missionary work in Kenya, which is where he met Helen (they married in 1990). He saw poverty, he saw government corruption. He met a priest there who later died of a gunshot wound. The government called it a suicide, but Peter and many others believe the priest was murdered by a government that was opposed — and even hostile — toward his views.

So, this South Dakota farm boy who left his roots behind to move to the Twin Cities, and later serve as a missionary in Kenya, knew exactly what his daughter was feeling.

And, through his patient love and eventual self-sacrifice, he ended up giving her the answer to one of life’s greatest questions: Where is God in the midst of suffering and death?

Justina has wrestled with this question, which pops up every summer as she lives through the anniversary of her father’s death. But when asked where God was when her father died in a car under water, she is ready with an answer that seems beyond her 23 years. And she delivers it with a confident smile that indicates she has gained a measure of closure that many others never attain.

“God was with dad when he went down to that car to help them,” she said. “He was in that car with them. He was with us at home. He was with the first responders [at the bridge]. He was with all of us, and he hasn’t left our side in all of this. I prefer not to think of it in terms of: Why did God let this happen? But, to think of it more as God suffers right alongside us, and God’s heart breaks when our heart breaks. God’s sad when we’re sad. God doesn’t like to see us suffer, but he’s going to take a hard thing, and he’s going to try to make something good out of it. One of my favorite things that St. Paul says is that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope. And, there is great hope in suffering.”

Hear Justina tell her story on The Rediscover: Hour.

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