Story and photographs by Julie Rossman

Rosemary Bilgrien’s professional life has been a journey that has taken turns she never imagined. After working for 30 years, mainly in the food service industry, she completely changed direction in her mid 40s and is now a successful massage therapist. Through it all, however, one thing has remained constant — a desire to help others.

She started working as a waitress in high school and worked mainly in the restaurant industry for about the next 30 years. She went from waitress to working at a drug store soda fountain. After some schooling in food and hospitality management, she became a catering manager at a Holiday Inn in central Wisconsin. Eventually, she worked her way up to food service director at the Federal Reserve Bank in downtown Minneapolis, where she was in charge of the cafeteria and the executive dining room.

“I was always in restaurant work of some type; I loved it,” Bilgrien said.

She also loved the people she worked with and managed. “I assisted employees in connecting with and helping each other ... it was more than putting out food.”

But the work began to take a toll. The long hours were very stressful — sometimes her day would start at 6 a.m. and wouldn’t end until 10 or 11 at night. And there were plenty of night and weekend hours. “It was great work, but I didn’t have a life,” she said.

As she got older she came to a realization. “Life is passing me by, and all I’m doing is working,” she said.

She became very stressed and had frequent headaches. Bilgrien started asking herself, “Is this how I want to spend the rest of my life?”

From that point, it still took her six months to make a “disconnection” and realize she could live a life without that work.

She was in her early 40s and was headed for many changes. She also met her current husband, Joe, during that time.

Bilgrien went on several job interviews; nothing clicked. She worked for a temporary agency for a year and a half, still no job. She finally worked a part-time sales job, but wasn’t fulfilled.

“I knew I wanted to do something to help people,” she said.

Bilgrien talked with her husband about her purpose and on his advice, looked to her faith for help. “I prayed and asked God for guidance,” she said.

Soon after, she got talking with someone during a Relay for Life walk she participated in. “She talked about massage school and that I could get a student loan, interest free,” Bilgrien said.

It clicked. Her husband was supportive and began to work a second job. Bilgrien headed off to massage therapy school. After six months, she opened a part-time business out of her home. She later rented a room from a local hairstylist and worked from there as well. For six more months, she worked during the day and went to school at night to finish her classes.

“Every time I went to school, I knew that was where I was meant to be,” she said.

Bilgrien learned through her schooling that the body, mind and spirit are all connected and she made it her own mission to work with clients in all areas to bring complete wholeness to the body.

Bilgrien had finished school and was working full time for just a few months when tragedy struck. She was on her way to do some volunteer massage therapy work when she was broadsided by a truck, totaling her car and injuring her.

Thankfully, she had no broken bones or other severe injuries. “It could have been worse,” she said, reflecting on the accident. She did have soft tissue damage to the entire left side of her body, which left her with a lot of pain and numbness. Standing or walking for any length of time was also painful.

Here she was, with a new business and no disability insurance, wondering how she would work. She was discouraged, even depressed, but made the decision to work through it.

Bilgrien worked with her doctors but also sought help from chiropractic care, healing touch and massage therapy and swimming. At first, she just worked a few hours at a time, being sure to take the time she needed for self-care.

“I didn’t ask ‘Why,’ but ‘how can I,’ ” Bilgrien said.

Doctors told her she would have to live with a 30 percent disability on her left side. Today, however, she is symptom free.

In retrospect, Bilgrien said the accident has been helpful to her. “I can truly relate to people’s pain and give them hope that they can heal,” she said. “I was there — emotionally, physically and spiritually.”

She also encourages others to follow their heart’s desire, as she did. “We all have the power within us to make a change,” she said.

“I love what I do so much,” Bilgrien said. “It’s fulfilling my passion and my dream.”

At age 64, her dream is not over. Two years ago, she reached a point in her life where she wanted to spend more time with her family. She had built up her massage therapy business to the point where she was booked out two to three months in advance; however, her husband had retired and her only son and his family lived in the Waterford area.

They decided to sell their house in Somerset, in northwestern Wisconsin, and move closer to family here in southeastern Wisconsin. “We decided to make these choices while we were still able,” she said. “I knew I could start a business anywhere.”

When she was looking for a place to open her business, she came upon an empty storefront on Rochester’s Main Street. She knew it was the right place for her, even before she went inside. It was a sign, left from the former business, that got her. It read “Angel Acres” and had been home to a gift shop. She signed a lease the next day.

“I love angels,” Bilgrien said, explaining how she has a collection of more than 100 angels in her home.

Heart and Hands, Professional Therapeutic Massage, has been open for just over a year and Bilgrien says business has increased each month.

“I am grateful and blessed,” she said.

“I work from my heart through my hands to bring healing to body, mind and spirit.”