file_001By Jody Kerzman

JoAnn Brilz loves kids and she loves Jesus. A few years ago, she figured out how to combine her loves and started her own little ministry. The secret to her ministry: candy.

JoAnn is known to many kids at St. Mary’s in Bismarck, North Dakota simply as “The Candy Lady.” After 11:00 Mass on Sunday mornings, kids quietly line up beside JoAnn’s pew and wait for their turn with The Candy Lady.

“They hug me, I whisper in their ear ‘Jesus is so happy you’re here,’ I give them a piece of candy, and then it’s the next kid’s turn.”

The candy is nothing fancy, usually a sucker.

“I buy the big bags of suckers from Sam’s Club. Sometimes I add something special for the holidays. I try to give candy that isn’t a big mess and won’t completely ruin their appetites.”

JoAnn keeps her candy bag in her car so she’ll never forget it. She looks forward to seeing kids week after week and knows them all by name.

“I think of them all as my kids. I’m so proud of the kids in our parish when they help out by ushering or carrying the gifts. They remind me of my own kids.”

JoAnn’s kids are grown now, ranging in age from 21 to 30. She and her husband, Barry, raised four kids and now they’re happy to spoil their four grandkids. And although they’re grown and have their own families, the Brilz kids still attend Mass with their parents every Sunday.

“We have always gone to church together,” says JoAnn. “We go to church and then out for lunch. That’s just what we do on Sundays. Sundays are a day for family.”

That family time is what prompted JoAnn to start her ministry.

“It was something I felt I needed to do. Kids are our future. So many don’t come to church, and when they do they don’t know what to do. I wanted to give them a reason to be excited about church. This is my ministry. In the Bible Jesus says we won’t get into heaven until we become like little children (Matthew 18:3). They are so innocent. I have always loved kids. My ministry gives me a reason to connect with so many children.”

She’s also connected with adults and watched others form strong friendships. All because of a bag of candy.

“We are a church family and it’s so important we make time for our church family. If I can keep the kids busy with candy, the parents have time to visit,” JoAnn explains. “Some people have given me money to pay for the candy. I don’t want money. I’m able to afford this, but it’s so nice that they want to help me. What I really want is for families to make time for church. I can feel the presence of the Lord when I’m handing out candy every week. It feels good.”

While JoAnn hands out candy her family waits patiently for her. They know the importance of The Candy Lady’s work, no matter how long it takes.

“We’re always the last to leave church!”   

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