by Jeffrey Jensen
Milwaukee — Joe Schubert could use a lift.
Joe doesn’t necessarily need one, mind you, but he could certainly use one.
And if Joe does receive that lift someday, the St. Josaphat Basilica family of parishioners will be the main beneficiary—and spiritually elevated themselves.
“It’s 50 steps up…50 steps down. I basically crawl up the stairs,” Joe said matter-of-factly, with a smile, playfully karate-chopping the table in front of him for emphasis. “I’m able to get around better than most. It takes a couple of minutes, but it’s worth it. I’d do a hundred if I had to, because it’s meaningful to be able to contribute to something so unique and special. That’s what it’s all about!”
Joe, a 23-year-old tenor, is one of about 15 members of the Basilica of St. Josaphat choir, but the only one born with spina bifida without use of his legs, and since age three has gotten around mainly in a wheelchair when not confronted with special circumstances requiring the use of his abounding mobility. Joe’s vigor, and indefatigable spirit, are assets every Sunday morning at 10:00am when he needs to negotiate the 50 steps to the choir loft…to sing.
“This church, with all its beauty and history, deserves a choir,” Joe said.
“And if I can contribute to it, I know I’m doing the right thing. And it’s especially meaningful knowing my great-grandfather probably helped build the church I’m singing in.”
Indeed, Joe’s roots go way back to the very beginnings of the church; his ancestors and family have been parishioners since 1895. His father grew up in the neighborhood. Today, the Schubert legacy prevails as Joe fully acknowledges that he is right where he belongs.
“I knew I would be gravitating here all along,” Joe said, with his easy smile and another gentle karate chop for good measure.
“I’ve been coming here literally since I was inside the womb. And I have no plans on leaving—they’ll have to kick me out!”
Here, these days, includes St. Josaphat Parish School, just one block west of the church on Lincoln Ave., where Joe is in his second year of teaching math and religion to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, (“I am the math and religious department,” he jokes) after earning an elementary education degree from U.W. Madison, which included a four-year stint as student manager for the Badger basketball team under Head Coach Greg Gard, proudly receiving a Big Ten Championship ring for the 2020 season. To the surprise of no one who’s met him, Joe brings along with him a long-enduring love of sports and competition (and a fire in his belly) and now is coach of volleyball, basketball, and soccer teams at the school.
“In the classroom I might be a little hard nosed,” he said, “but on the court, it’s all fun.”
Don’t let that flowery quote, however, give you the wrong idea. Joe’s competitive nature is real, and indisputable. He calls basketball his “strong suit,” and beginning in fourth grade, played for 10 years on Milwaukee’s entry (the Bucks) in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, traveling all over the U.S., “anywhere there was a tournament.”
“If you’ve ever seen it, it can be really brutal,” Joe said, describing the frequent collisions that are part of the game. “You’re really going at it . . . but it’s so fun!”
Joe’s impressive résumé includes more than just basketball. While a student at Milwaukee’s Marquette University High School, he was also a member of the track team, often being the only athlete at meets in a wheelchair. Despite that, he would still perform his events, the 100, 400 and 800 races, and also the shot put, in order to qualify for the state tournament in Lacrosse, where he won 10 individual championships in the racing events in four years, the first Wisconsin athlete to do so.
Inevitably (and reluctantly), the topic of conversation diverted from sports, and a questioner asked Joe to be reflective and look back on his life so far, and when he answered, predictably left no doubt about his passionate beliefs and worldview.
“It was more difficult the first two years, not that I remember much,” Joe said.
“Now, I have no issues at all. I’m living with it, used to it and I’ve adapted. Would I change anything? NO! I wouldn’t have a lot of the blessings given me if this wasn’t my cross I had to carry. Being able to help the kids overcome their own struggle, when they can easily fold, because I have the experience of having to do that, sets me apart from a lot of other teachers. Being able to adapt through different situations is a difficult life skill. Once you go through this, you’re able more to persevere and help others, and be an example for the kids.”
Joe has much to say and is just getting started.
“My job is to get the kids to Heaven and teach them the truth,” Joe went on.
“The world is not going to teach them the truth. I want to be the guy to light a fire in their soul to love God and our faith. I have that privilege to be in that position with these kids and to be a positive influence in a life — that’s what it’s all about! In that particular moment in time, it’s just me and the kids. That’s what matters!”
Finally, in addition to the Sunday morning choir gigs Joe is committed to up in the loft, he also sings regularly on Friday mornings at 8:45 for the weekly school Mass held at the church (no climbing required) for students and staff.
“It’s kind of cool that the kids know I can sing,” said Joe with a laugh, before acknowledging again the priority he places on being a positive role model.
“And me singing helps give kids confidence in their own singing.”
Editor: It is the goal of the Basilica of St. Josaphat Parish to raise $35,000 for a Chair Lift to the Basilica Choir Loft. To date $7500 has been raised. With over 50 steps leading closer to heaven, it becomes a challenge for Basilica Choir members who have a disability to go up and down the stairs. Joe, a tenor in the choir who gives of his time and talent, climbs the steps each and every Sunday using the strength of his arms. Even the Basilica’s Music Director, Lee Gwozdz, who recently underwent open heart surgery, and returned during Holy Week had to be carried up in a chair on Easter Sunday by two volunteer fire fighters. Other Basilica Choir members have had to drop out due to the challenge of climbing up the stairs. Click here to contribute.