Families get into ‘character’ to develop virtues


By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

Developing virtues and setting goals as a family can help create a stronger presence of God in the home. That is the philosophy behind Families of Character, a program that Catholic couples in the Iowa City area are engaged in.
Dave and Pam Ockenfels, members of St. Joseph Parish in Wellman, first heard of the program through a priest friend from another diocese. He introduced Dave and Pam to Families of Character founder Steve Markel last year. “After talking to Steve the thing that really struck us,” Pam said, “was despite the fact that Steve Markel and his wife Nancy sent their children to Catholic schools, four out of five of his children had left the church. He discussed his concerns with a priest, which caused him to come to the realization that he had formed his children intellectually in the faith, but had not instructed them in virtues.”

families of character 10-1-15 2 colorThe Ockenfels worked to set up several Families of Character groups in the Iowa City/Kalona area. Currently, four to six couples are involved in each small group. “There are many facets of the course that attracted us,” Pam said. “There is an opportunity for couples to strengthen their marriage. Couples build a small community within their church by building relationships with other couples within their group. Families work together to develop their mission statement so they all are working toward the same goal and each member of the family has an opportunity to learn about virtues (a good habit done out of love of God and others) and grow in those virtues. It’s simple and practical.”

The groups meet once a month. At the first gathering they learn about developing a family mission statement. By the end of the month, each family has developed their own family mission statement. In subsequent months, parents take an assessment on the virtue of the month, which they and their children will work on during the month. The assessment allows them to recognize where improvements can be made by each family member. Julie Kabat, who helps lead the St. Wenceslaus-Iowa City group along with husband Chris, said the questionnaire “always brings a surprise! You sometimes assume you are stronger in a virtue than you turn out to be and as you assess yourself you realize, ‘I really need to work on this!’”


Developing virtues such as generosity, orderliness, patience, cheerfulness, tolerance and modesty can lead to authentic joy, happiness and unity, Pam said. Participants see their relationships and communication improve at all levels.

Kabat says the study and practice of virtues has helped their entire family — which includes children ranging from 4 years old to high-schoolers — work better as a unit.

Sheryl Schwager and her husband, Tim, are empty-nesters and have seen their relationship grow through their involvement in the St. Patrick-Iowa City group. “It has been beneficial for us to learn about the virtues, discover where we need to improve and strive to practice them in our daily lives. … Our children are grown and out of the home, but we immediately recognized the benefit of this program in guiding our adult children and also assisting families in our parish.”

Pam believes the program can be a tool to help parents raise faith-filled children who will become active adult Catholics, especially if they begin the program when their children are young. “If parents want their children to be part of the faith, they need to live the faith and set an example for their children.”

Learn more Oct. 8

Persons interested in learning more about Families of Character — which is not associated with the diocesan Strong Catholic Families program — can attend an Oct. 8 presentation by Steve Markel at St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City. The event begins at 7 p.m. “He’s going to talk about the program as well as answer questions and encourage families,” Julie Kabat said.

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