On Sundays, they typically fill more than one pew. At restaurants, they require multiple tables. They frequently travel in 15-passenger vans and often buy breakfast cereal in bulk.

They are large Catholic families — and they stand as a refreshing witness to the joy of having many children in a culture that takes great pains to discourage the conception of new life.

These families declare courageously, if wordlessly, that life is a priceless gift from God.

Jim and Donna Murphy of Cincinnati exemplify the joy of raising a large family. Married for 18 years, the Murphys have been blessed with 10 children: seven on earth and three in heaven. Donna holds degrees in physical therapy, but her greatest credentials are her children — Jacob, Maria, Vincent, Joseph, Megan, Isabella and Sean.

And don’t forget the three who were lost in miscarriage, Raphael Kelly, Michael Angela and Gabriel Robert.

Every night, as the family kneels in Jim and Donna’s room for prayer, they mention all their children, including the three already in heaven. “My number-one goal is to get our family to heaven,” Donna says. “I tell my children that this is the basis that I try to use to make all my decisions.”

That’s why Donna’s home-school routine includes prayers, Mass readings and studies of apologetics and Scripture.

The daily routine also includes Dad’s return from work. “One of my greatest joys is when I walk in the door,” says Jim. “Three or four kids will run to greet me. It is a daily reminder of why I go to work and why I am needed at home.”

The children, in turn, always offer something back to their parents.

“The wisdom of children helps us keep our perspective,” says Donna. According to Jim, being a parent of a large family “has made me a more giving and selfless person. It has humbled me and helped me realize that I am not in control of everything. I have come to realize that my marriage and family are my path to holiness.”

Fifty miles north, in Dayton, Ohio, Vince and Detsy Sacksteder also testify to the happiness of having many children. They have 11, spanning in age from 35 to 14, as well as two more who died in the first weeks of pregnancy, Isaac and Timothy. According to Detsy, a proud homemaker, “My joy has been the gift of being a co-creator with God, to experience life being knit together in my womb, to be given the gift of letting an immortal soul be enclosed in my body.”

Except for Vincent IV, a professor in India, and Ann who is away at college, all the other Sacksteders — Rachel, Mary, Bernadette, Sarah, Jacob, Joanna, Liz, Jess, and Paul — live at home or nearby.

“The greatest joy of a large family is the relationships,” says Vince. “Pairs of them or groups of three will talk for hours, laughing hysterically every few minutes, and groups of four or more are an instant party.”

While Detsy always loved babies, she now appreciates the rewards of having children who are mostly grown. “Rather than grieving the loss of my childbearing years, I rejoice in the gift of my older children and the life of grace they have chosen,” she says.

Detsy and Vince don’t take all the credit for this happy, flourishing family, however. “Even if we lack some of the tools for the job, God makes things come out right when we are doing the job out of love for him,” Vince says. “Each child is a step of faith, with confidence in God’s love and wisdom, and confidence in his provision.”

“We are like the farmer,” Detsy adds. “We sow the seed, but it is God, through his gifts, his blessing, who gives life and growth. We just reap the harvest.”

Few could understand this equation better than Norman and Rosemary Loehr, who raised their 11 children on a dairy farm in Mount Calvary, Wis. Rosemary gave birth to her sons and daughters over the course of four decades, with her oldest, Pat, being born in 1959 and her youngest, Kris, arriving in 1980. Joan, Marlene, Linda, Tom, Dan, Karen, Bob, Joe and Mark all spanned the intervening years.

For Rosemary, 40 years of pregnancies, childbearing, and/or childrearing were filled with the exuberance of seeing her children interact with and benefit from each other.

She and Norman also enjoyed watching their children’s many sporting events and musical functions, as well as supporting their countless 4H projects over the years.

These activities were only part of the family routine, which also included many different chores. These daily duties on the farm helped the Loehrs in raising their family. “Growing up on a farm offered many opportunities for the kids to have responsibilities at a very young age,” says Rosemary. “Each was given specific jobs to do.”

They had a threefold philosophy of parenting. According to Norman, “Our idea was to work together, pray together and play together.”

Their Children’s Children

Now, as many of their children raise families of their own, Norman and Rosemary love watching their grandchildren grow up. Grandma and Grandpa Loehr are never lacking for company; all the grandchildren live within an hour of the farm, some as close as a five-minute walk through the fields.

The grandchildren love to come over to feed the calves, to help Grandma decorate cookies or to play cards at the dining room table.

The delight and love radiating within the Loehr home is the fruit of years of prayer and trust in God. Norman and Rosemary had a simple approach to raising their family.

“As Catholics, we used the guidelines of our faith,” says Rosemary. “We always tried to set a good example and live our faith.”            

Through their openness to conceive, bear and nurture new life many times over, these three couples defend the nobility of the family in the face of cultural opposition.

Of course, heroic families come in other shapes and sizes too: the birth parents who choose adoption for their child, the loving parents whose situation only permits a small family, the adoptive parents who welcome children into their family, the parents who endure the agony of miscarriage, the spiritual mothers and fathers who transform the cross of infertility into the gift of nurturing and supporting those around them.

All of these families are helping to promote authentic respect for human dignity. Their Christ-like love, forged through courageous sacrifices and selfless generosity, is helping to lay the foundation for a culture of life and a civilization of love.

Gina Giambrone writes from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.