by Cari Bousfield
One of the things I find most inspiring about Fran Dwelle is that she finds herself “pretty uninspiring.” Even after all she has gone through and all she has done, she claims to be an average, ordinary, everyday woman. But whether she admits it or not, she has inspiration written all over her.
I became aware of the name, Fran Dwelle, after attending a JOY breakfast. Though I had never met her, I was in awe of her and the ministry that she had founded in Vienna, Austria and then began here in Bismarck. I didn’t ever think I would actually meet her, let alone become friends with her.
I first met her at a JOY writer’s group and after discovering we lived in the same neighborhood, Fran very kindly offered me rides to JOY events and even doctor’s appointments. As I got to know her, I admired her more and more for her strong leadership, her dedication and her heart for women. But it was during one particular ride home that I truly connected with her – we discovered we both had physical issues with our hearts. While a congenital heart defect has caused me to undergo four open heart surgeries, Fran had to have a complete heart transplant due to a rare blood disorder.
A Heart for Missions
Fran has wanted to be a missionary since she was eleven. She didn’t know where or when, but it was a desire of hers from that young age to share the love of God with other cultures. After eight years of pastoral ministry in Wisconsin, Fran and her husband, Arland applied for overseas missions. Her excitement waned, however, when she realized their potentially appointed country was a communist one.
It was 1983. Eastern Europe, including Yugoslavia, was still under communist rule. Fran said she was initially resistant to move there, especially since she and Arland had three young girls, the youngest being just two months old.
After much prayer, God changed her heart and gave her peace. It was under His protection and by His strength that she and her family dealt with a new language and culture, food shortages, blackouts and the ever-watchful eye of the government. In the end, Fran enjoyed her time living in Yugoslavia. They made good friends, lived in a comfortable apartment, and even though they had to climb 71 concrete steps to get to their front door, they were thankful for God’s provision. Fran, her husband and three daughters remained in Yugoslavia until their residence visas were revoked, which forced them to relocate to Vienna, Austria.
A Heart for Women
It was in Vienna that Fran and her husband took part in starting an International Christian fellowship. It was also in Vienna that Fran founded JOY International as a way to help women in their search for a life of purpose and a deep, practical faith in God. The flagship event, the JOY Breakfast, brought together women from many nations and walks of life and gave them a place to find encouragement, inspiration, and hope. The first breakfast yielded 120 attendees and eventually 350 ladies attended the biannual event.
While their work and ministry were going well, neither Fran nor anyone in her family were prepared for a near-tragic turn of events.
A Hurting Heart
One day, after coming home from her daily walk, Fran blacked out. Thankfully, her husband was there and she fell right into his arms. An ambulance rushed her to the hospital; two days later, the doctors sent her home after finding nothing wrong. Ten days later, she suffered a major heart attack. This time, she did not return home so quickly. During a four-week stay in the Intensive Care Unit, doctors told her that she might not live. On the third night of her stay in the ICU, her family gathered around and prepared to say goodbye. Even her eldest daughter, who was attending college back in the United States, flew to Vienna to be by Fran’s side. But Fran knew it was not time for her to go. She felt God tell her, “You shall not die but live and declare the works of the Lord.” (Psalm 118:17)
The doctors in Vienna discovered that a rare blood disorder caused Fran to have two heart attacks and a stroke, ultimately destroying the front wall of her heart. The only thing that saved her was that her heart had been healthy. Besides the severe damage to her heart, Fran’s lungs began filling up with fluid and her kidneys were shutting down. Although Fran became a candidate for a heart transplant, her doctors did not think she would survive the nine-month wait to get a new heart. Miraculously, a perfectly-matched heart became available within 24 hours of going on the transplant list.
A Heart of Joy
Fran was up and around just three days after the transplant and out of the hospital in two weeks. Three months later, she became sick with a blood infection. Ten years after the transplant, her body showed signs of rejecting the heart. Despite these close calls, she recovered each time, a testament to God’s continual help. Now 20 years after her heart transplant, Fran’s doctors are very pleased at how well she is doing.
When reflecting back on that time, Fran knows God’s grace was there in the midst. Even all of her medical bills were paid – friends and colleagues helped raise the necessary finances to help pay for the heart transplant.
Sadly, Fran had to leave their life and ministry in Eastern Europe because she knew that her long-term medical care could not be sustained overseas. A church offered her husband a pastorate in his home state of North Dakota. Upon moving to Bismarck, Fran found new doctors, many friends, and wonderful opportunities for reaching out to women.
In 2006, Fran, along with a team of women volunteers, launched Bismarck’s first JOY Breakfast. The intent of the Breakfast was to be an event where women could connect and experience spiritual life and renewal. JOY International continues to hold these Breakfasts annually. At the most recent Breakfast held in March of 2012, the attendance was nearly 700 women. More than 2,000 women have attended JOY events over the last six years. The next JOY Breakfast will take place on March 23, 2013.
JOY also takes part in serving the community by helping women at Teen Challenge and The Abused Adult Resource center. Additionally, JOY reaches out to women in the community by hosting small-group Bible studies held the first Thursday of each month called Java JOY. At this event, local speakers address topics of life and faith and women can find friendship and acceptance. None of this would have been possible without Fran’s steadfast devotion to prayer and God’s unique gift to her – a new heart.
A Heart for Family
Besides having a heart for the women around her, Fran also has a special place in her heart for her three delightful married daughters – Kaci, Jessica and Cambria. All three of them are thankful for the years they lived in Eastern Europe, as living overseas enriched their lives in many ways. Her eldest daughter, Kaci is a research analyst who lives in Boston. Fran’s middle daughter, Jessica is attaining her Master of Fine Arts in Fiction Writing. Finally, Cambria, the youngest of the family is an editor for a food and cooking blog in New York City. Fran also has one granddaughter and two step grandsons.
When one looks at these three amazing, accomplished women who also have a heart for God, it is clear to see Fran’s influence in each of their lives.
Fran’s marriage to her husband Arland of 44 years is inspiring to their three married daughters too. Their daughter Cambria says, “My parents are an example of true, lifelong commitment. In sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, they are there for each other 100%.”
Fran Dwelle – wife, mother, grandmother, friend, mentor, leader. But first and foremost, servant. Her heart has been spiritually, emotionally and even physically tested, but through it all she has remained faithful. As a result, she lives a life of pure joy. To me, that’s true inspiration.
For information on the JOY Breakfasts and more, visit www.joyintl.org
Cari Bousfield is a customer service rep by day and a writer/blogger when she finds the time. Her website can be found at www.carijean.com