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Moments in Time: Mary Gafner
Mary Gafner. To order this photo, click here. (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)

Moments in Time

Moments in Time is a weekly series featuring recollections of area residents. To suggest someone to feature in Moments in Time, please contact Mary Jane Grenzow, editor, at

When Mary Gafner is in her car and maybe needs some time away instead, she just takes a different route and pretends like she's going on that vacation.

It's just one of many ways in which Gafner is able to see the brighter side of any situation. It's no wonder she can always seem to find the beauty in the world that surrounds her.

The minister is the longest tenured pastor in Green County, and it isn't hard to see why - she's engaging, comforting and full of energy beyond her years.

She was born and raised in Monroe by what she calls amazing parents with amazing siblings.

"I'm one of those incredibly fortunate people who has lived a charmed life," she said. Her mother, always up for any adventure, would load up the family and travel as far as a tank of gas would get them. Gafner said she has wonderful memories of singing in the car on these car trips.

The family lived just outside of town. Their home had an outhouse and was on the Historic Register. Later, the family moved into town, she said.

Gafner's mother was an only child of a Methodist minister, and her grandfather was an adventurous man - instilling in them that they could see the history through the soles of their feet.

"We were always told we had to leave the world better than we found it," she said.

She was the oldest and has three siblings - people she sees often and loves dearly. The open-minded family was always having fun and engaging in conversation, a time she still thinks back on with fondness.

In school she was one of the first to try out the high-schoolers working in the CNA program when it was just getting started. She said she enjoyed nursing but always knew she would become a teacher, like her mother. She was very actively involved in Girl Scouts, and her mother led the troop. She was also a part of the Girls Athletic Association and the interpretive dance group.

The 1964 Monroe High School graduate attended the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, even attending some summer classes with her mother, and graduated from there in 1969.

"I always knew I was going to be a teacher," she said. "I love education. I still fight for education."

She was married her sophomore year in college to Urs, who was born in Switzerland and came to Monroe at age 10. As Urs finished his college degree in Platteville, Gafner taught fourth grade in Fennimore. She recalls her mother bringing them groceries to get through the hard times of having young children and little money. She worked nights at a nursing home in Platteville and would sleep when her children slept, having Urs take over on the weekends.

Urs had hoped to find a church where he could sing, and they found one in Platteville and became active in the Mother's Club and the nursery - all pieces of the puzzle that Gafner said brought her to where she is now.

"Several people helped us along the way," she said. "All along people have nudged us and seen different gifts in us."

Once Urs graduated, it was time for the couple to move. After much thought, the couple decided the best place to raise their family would be back to the farm.

Gafner said she wasn't a farm girl and wasn't sure she was cut out to be a farmer. Dairy farming was a different life than what she was used to and she needed to be committed. Periodically over the years, Gafner said, Urs would recognize her need to explore and they would take breaks, having people step in to milk for them while they could go on a quick vacation.

Gafner loved the farm, however, and the land. While raising her three sons, she substitute taught often.

"I fell in love with everybody's children," she said. "I loved substitute teaching."

It was while teaching that Gafner met her foster daughter: Evelyn has very much been part of the Gafner family since 1985.

The family was attending Zwingli United Church of Christ in Monticello. Gafner taught confirmation class and was the first woman president of the church there. She said she had amazing mentors, but none better than Erwin Pagel, who pulled her from her pew one day and told her there was a place for her at the church. She became his assistant.

"Erwin was my seminary education," she said with a laugh. She attended conferences weekly and Pagel often gave her free rein to do sermons and interviews, all under his guidance. She recalls feeling high praise at sermons he enjoyed and he taught her to share the most important words with others: "Thank you" and "I love you."

It seemed the perfect fit for Gafner - she was a little girl who played church instead of school and often wondered what it would be like to be a female pastor.

The UCC in Monticello made her realize she needed a different profession, and she realized that teaching was a great highway to preaching.

When Pagel retired, Gafner was the assistant to the pastor and had been taking theology and ministry classes off and on, with no intentions of ever taking over. In the early 1990s, the Lay Academy offered a class on theology, the Old and New Testament and pastoral care. The class even extended, and Gafner stayed on board. She found it fascinating and still serves on an advisory team for the school.

Gafner was filling in at the church when they asked if she would ever consider being their minister at The Washington Reformation United Church of Christ. She didn't think it was even a possibility - and it had never crossed her mind, but she went home humbled that day. A week later at an association meeting, she took the job.

"I said "if you think I can lead a church - I can,'" she said. The church had five pastors in 11 years but Gafner was committed from the start.

"It's been a great ride," she said. "It's been a challenge - but what a journey - what a walk. I think I was fully accepted at Washington and they had been through a lot. What they got was somebody who loves the policy of the UCC."

Pagel was also always teaching and challenging her, and before his death, he spiritually passed the torch to her. She said she'll always miss him as a mentor, and still reads through the things he's given her.

Gafner, who will turn 70 soon, said retirement is looming, but feels the church is in a good place for its future leadership. She loves talking about the programs, the youth and all they're doing, and teaching how faith intersects with life.

"The people there feed me with their willingness to try something new," she said.

She still loves hiking and the outdoors and explores new places with her children and family. Her husband, she said, is her biggest supporter.

Gafner has served on the United Way Board, Green Haven Board and the Allocations Committee for United Way.

But what she's most known for is starting the Green Cares Food Pantry in Monticello. She had a request for an area food pantry and then talked about it in a sermon. On the way out of church, five people stopped her to say they wanted to help.

"I was scared to death," she said of beginning the facility. But eventually, she said, she breathed deeply and knocked on doors in Monticello asking if anyone had a place for them to open the pantry.

"I had to stop being afraid," she said.

Soon, a pantry was created, and people built shelves, floors were waxed and volunteers were scheduled. It opened in August of 2009 and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and other days as needed, the facility opens to feed people.

"I have amazing people helping me," she said. "I'm just the president."

The group is always fund-raising to serve more than 200 families per month. Gafner has some more future goals as well that she hopes to make happen for the pantry.

Gafner is also a grandmother of 12 and loves to spend time with family and bake bread on Saturdays. She makes herself available for work often, because she loves it. Her job can be stressful at times, admittedly, but she said being out on the farm with Urs always allows her to breathe deep, walk through a pasture and pick raspberries.

Although she loves to quote Bible verses that reflect her life and things she loves, it's her own words that describe her openness and sense of comfort.

"How you live your life and how you love is your success," Gafner said. "I don't think it's necessary to preach it with your words. It's how you live it."