HARTLAND, Wis. — Advent is a season of hope, waiting for the promised Messiah.

For the Meier family of Hartland, Wis., that spirit of faith and hope was put to the test one rainy Eastern European day last June when their tour bus careened down a hill, leaving a busload of pilgrims with injuries — and leaving Andy Meier close to death.

According to Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan and others who have followed the story closely, the Meiers have so far passed that test.

Last Spring, Andy and Elizabeth Meier thought that a summer Marian pilgrimage would help them put God first in their life.

“God wasn’t No. 1 in my life, work was,” said Andy, 53, president of Hydro-Flo Products Inc. in Brookfield, Wis. “God was No. 5 or 6, and we wanted to turn those numbers around. It was just supposed to be me and my wife, but through prayer and adoration, we thought we could renew ourselves as a family, so we took the children along. I was looking for a ‘vacation with God.’”

Andy and Elizabeth just didn’t know how “Putting God first” would happen.

With their children Sam, 14, Madeline, 12, and Frankie, 5, they flew with a group of more than 30 pilgrims from Wisconsin to Sarajevo, Bosnia, full of expectations for the grace that would come from the visit to the famous Marian shrine.

But Andy and Elizabeth never got there. In fact, Andy almost never made it home alive.

On June 11, the bus the pilgrims were aboard struck a jack-knifed tractor-trailer and slid down a 40-foot ravine and into a river.

Andy said he saw they were going to hit the tractor trailer, and to protect his son Frankie, who was sitting next to Father Rick Wendell — associate pastor of Holy Angels parish in West Bend, Wis., and the group’s spiritual adviser — he hurried over and tried to push Frankie to the floor. When the bus careened down the ravine and hit the embankment, Andy went head first through a window.

“It was pouring rain, and there was a smell of diesel fuel all around us,” said Kevin O’Brien of Pewaukee, Wis. The former pro football player and his pregnant wife, Leslie, were part of the tour. After assisting his bleeding wife out of the wreckage, O’Brien, who was unhurt, looked to help other injured passengers.

“I saw Father Rick in the front down in his seat, and his arm was trapped by Andy, whose head was outside the window in a pile of mud,” he recalled. “Father got him up and opened an air passage for him, and another guy and I carried him out.”

With multiple lacerations, broken ribs, a fractured skull and a damaged spinal cord, Andy wasn’t expected to make it through the night. His devoted wife then mobilized the prayer army.

“Elizabeth was very strong throughout the whole ordeal,” O’Brien said. “She was really able to compose herself and handle the pressure of the situation. I saw God’s grace working in her.”

Once Elizabeth notified them of the crisis, friends and family back home started praying Rosaries and devoting holy hours for Andy, as well as for Elizabeth and the children, who sustained minor injuries in the crash.

Another friend started a website (prayforandy.com), where Elizabeth could relay periodic updates and people could post prayers for the Meiers. People from across the United States who didn’t even know each other dialed into a conference call to pray together the Chaplet of Divine Mercy for the Meiers, who encourage people to pray for Andy’s continued healing.

Andy, who entered the Catholic Church in 2000, remembered saying to Elizabeth while in the hospital, “I don’t want to be an inspiration. I don’t want to be ‘the chosen one,’ But Elizabeth and I agreed that if this helps people turn to Christ, if this helps release some of the souls in purgatory, we are going to offer this for that. That was the very first thing we said to each other.”

Elizabeth said she specifically prayed for the intercession of St. Rita, Venerable Solanus Casey, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Pope John Paul II and Father John Hardon.

Doctors in Sarajevo eventually stabilized Andy’s wounds. Elizabeth never left his side. A little more than a week later, he was flown to Froedtert Memorial Hospital in Milwaukee, where doctors were able to better assess his injuries, especially the damage to his spine. Surgeries followed to replace the rods stabilizing his spine and to reconstruct his fractured skull.

Andy was — and continues to be — paralyzed from the chest down. He was released in August from the hospital in Milwaukee. The Meiers recently returned from the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which specializes in treating people with spinal injuries.

Elizabeth reported that Andy has some movement in his legs and his major muscle groups are starting to respond, but the nerves haven’t, yet. The ever-upbeat couple continues to take each new challenge as they always do, head-on.

Witness to Faith

Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan has helped minister to the family.

“They were a witness to the Catholic faith even before the accident happened,” Archbishop Dolan said. “To paraphrase the Gospel, the house of their marriage, the house of their family, was built firmly and solidly on rock.

“When this tragedy came, they were ready for it, because they placed their life in the hands of divine Providence, and whatever comes, they’re going to try to bear it,” the archbishop continued. “And, Lord knows they’ve done it.”

Throughout Andy’s recovery and adjustment to his debilitating injury — a time filled with often intense physical pain, puzzling infections and many questions — Andy and Elizabeth say they’ve noticed positive fruit that his suffering has achieved. They continue to receive letters and postcards from people they don’t know whose faith has been strengthened because of their positive example. The people of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee have rallied around them to offer support, as well.

“People who I didn’t think were prayerful would pray all night,” Andy said. “Men have told me that they didn’t have any direction in their prayer life or their religious life, and for whatever reason, this injury has brought them back. I can’t tell you how many people have said that to me — maybe 30 or 40 guys.”

Six months later, still unable to walk on his own (but making progress) and periodically racked by muscle spasms by a body still trying to heal itself, Andy admitted that he struggles to remain his usual outgoing, ready-with-a-joke self.

“I’ve never been angry at God about this,” Andy said. “Who else can we turn to but the Lord?” he said. “God has sent me so much hope, through prayer, through people coming into my life on days where I felt less hopeful. Because of the prayers from literally thousands all over the world, God saved my life. He has another purpose for me.”

Elizabeth agreed.

“We know we have so much more to be thankful for,” she said. “Even though there’s all this suffering, we’re closer as a husband and wife. We’re closer to Jesus; we’re closer to his Blessed Mother. Andy being alive right now is truly a miracle.”

Archbishop Dolan said it’s the Meiers’ realistic approach to redemptive suffering that has gotten them through.

“They have an utter honesty about this, and they don’t deny the rough times,” he said. “They kind of know about what Thomas á Kempis wrote in his The Imitation of Christ that the Lord visits his elect in two ways: in consolation and desolation. And they’re grateful for both. They acknowledge both. And that’s a witness to us as well.”