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His joy in the Lord is contagious

Mr. José inspires students with hard work, encouragement and high fives

by Paul R. Kopenkoskey |Photography by Holly Dolci

Happy chatter fills the lunchroom at St. Stephen Catholic School in East Grand Rapids, where students gather to munch on their midday meal.
 
The giggles rise to a crescendo when José Anleu goes into action. One by one, the students line up for their half-pint containers of white or chocolate milk. Only José doesn’t just hand the refreshments to them. He juggles each container in the air before the waiting students. The brief circus act generates appreciative hugs.
 
“He’s always funny and laughing with the kids,” says first-grader Melanie Ignacio.
 
José has worked as maintenance supervisor at St. Stephen for the past 12 years, although he, the school staff and Grand Rapids diocesan priests who know him affirm that he accomplishes much more than changing light bulbs, fixing leaking faucets and mopping floors.
 
“He will tell you he is blessed in many ways,” says St. Stephen’s principal, Cindy Thomas.
 
She is not exaggerating.
 
José’s Catholic faith has infused in him the joy of the Lord that’s evident through his earnest smile and his adoring interaction with the 200 students, preschool through grade 8, at St. Stephen whom he knows by name.
 
At home, José and his wife of 27 years, Ivonne, have made it a priority to ensure their six children receive the benefits of a Catholic education, too.
 
Five of their children – Alejandra, Mauricio, Javier, Fernando and Gabriela – are graduates of West Catholic High School, while their youngest, Luz de Maria, is a senior at Catholic Central High School. Alejandra and Javier graduated from Aquinas College.
 
“For us, faith formation is important,” says José, 56, who has learned through the years to speak English as assuredly as he does Spanish. “It’s vital they know how to take their lives in the straight way. We are not a perfect family. We have issues. Our formation enables us to stay strong for my family.”
 
Sipping coffee on a recent Saturday afternoon, José explains in a rapid-fire cadence that he wouldn’t put a price on his children knowing the truth about God, made possible because of the Catholic education that makes the Lord’s truths obvious to his children.
 
“I am so proud for that wonderful education they have received,” says José. “They are close to God and know the truth. God never fails you. He never leaves you. He helps you when you are in trouble. My wife and I have taught a wonderful way for the kids to trust God and affirm God and love God and the mother of God, Mary. These things I trust and I feel.”
 
José traces the source of his faith to the way his father and mother raised him, which included learning to faithfully pray the rosary. To this day, he continues to hold in his heart the mysteries of salvation, giving thanks and praise to God for them.
 
José worked as a building manager for the Supreme Court of his homeland of Guatemala before coming to the United States. He decided to emigrate in 2003, during an election year that caused conflict in Guatemala and would likely have led to the loss of his job.
 
José initially came to the United States on March 23, 2003, without his family, arriving in Chicago. He went from wearing a suit and tie in Guatemala’s highest court to working in a slaughterhouse, where manual labor and sharp tools in a fast-paced work environment were demanded. “It was terrible for me,” José recalls.
 
A friend who lived in Grand Rapids encouraged José to move here, where he was introduced to Father Dennis Morrow, pastor of SS. Peter and Paul Parish on the northwest side. Father Morrow, to José’s delight, speaks fluent Spanish.
 
“I felt so blessed,” says José. “I showed him my passports and cards from the bishop of Guatemala
and from the Supreme Court and it was wonderful. I started to volunteer at the church.”
 
In February 2004, José learned of a job opening at St. Stephen, where Father Paul Milanowski, now retired, had served as pastor. Today, José proudly points to a sign on his office door that declares he
is maintenance supervisor.
 
“Father Paul really touched my heart,” says José, whose children attended the school. “It’s a beautiful
community. All the parishioners open their hearts and help me in many ways.”
 
Parishioners from both SS. Peter and Paul and St. Stephen embraced José and his family. Parishioners at
SS. Peter and Paul organized a dinner to raise funds to help pay for the family’s airfare from Guatemala when they joined him on Feb. 28, 2004.
 
St. Stephen parishioners donated a 2001 sport-utility vehicle to accommodate José’s family.
 
“I first had a Datsun that I bought in Chicago,” says José. “I prayed because I only have a small car for my
family. I was able to bring my family in a Suburban. That’s because, one day, Father Paul told me he did
something. He put in St. Stephen’s bulletin the need for a Suburban for a big family. This was amazing. It
changed my life.”
 
“He’s a deeply religious man willing to help anybody and everybody,” says Father Paul of José. “He and his wife are very devout.”
 
That devotion is expressed every Tuesday when José and Ivonne spend a Holy Hour in eucharistic  adoration at SS. Peter and Paul.
 
“We are thankful for the things God gave us in this country,” says José. “We pray for our kids to go on the straight way and pray for our family, a niece in Guatemala, and my mom and dad, who have passed away.”
 
At St. Stephen, José starts his workday before 6 a.m. by vacuuming the classrooms, emptying trashcans
and cleaning the more than 20 bathroom stalls. Then comes his favorite part of the morning routine
– greeting the students.
 
At lunchtime, José walks from table to table, where he might snatch a student’s banana, apple or minuscule grape and, using his pocketknife, carve the fruit into two halves that resemble teeth. He entertains the students by making their food talk like little puppets.
 
The joke always engenders a laugh and smiles and succeeds in convincing the students to eat the fruit, which is José’s goal all along.
 
Over the years, the students have helped José to learn to speak English. With determination, he expanded his English vocabulary by learning five new words each day. He is grateful for the students, and it shows in the simplest ways – whether it’s giving them high fives, or just helping to open their packets of ketchup.
 
“These kids have pure souls and they’re sincere,” says José. “They’re never fake. They’re original. I love
to smile. I love the people. It’s wonderful to interact with the kids. I’m a kid at heart.”
 
His positive attitude is contagious, says Principal Thomas. “He works hard at the school and the parish, and also relates to the kids, whether it’s with an encouraging word or the way he juggles the milk cartons during the lunch period,” she says. “I see him at church just showing his love for God and his family, and living that by example. He’s a really happy guy.”
 
José affirms that his happiness is rooted in what he has learned about what it means to live for God. “I no
longer tell God how big my problems are,” says José. “Now I tell my problems how big my God is.”