MILWAUKEE — On a gloomy spring day at Marquette University, a crowd gathers around the St. Joan of Arc Chapel.

The chapel — an impressive medieval structure brought over from France — has just undergone a major restoration, and members of the campus community are coming together to celebrate. 

But in the gardens, a smaller group is commemorating one particular life that is now part of the chapel’s story: Christina Curtis, a former Marquette student who passed away soon after graduating in 2020. 

As part of the restoration project, Christina’s family dedicated two benches and one tree on the chapel grounds in her honor. Her loved ones gathered to bless the new additions, laying roses on the benches and sprinkling holy water on the young tree.

Christina Curtis in 2018, on one of the benches now dedicated to her. (Sydney Czyzon/Marquette Wire)

Christina, who received a double lung transplant while studying at Marquette, used to sit on those same benches to catch her breath while walking across campus, said her father, Michael Curtis. Now, her name will live on in the heart of Marquette’s campus.

“She deserved more than the 23 years that she had. But we accept God’s plan for her,” Michael Curtis said. “Life is short. And you should cherish every moment of every day you have.”

* * *

There are many ways to describe Christina Curtis, her family shared.

She was an “old soul” who was wise beyond her years. She loved chocolate cake, dogs and the movie “Frozen.” She was devoted to her Catholic faith, and was a dedicated student who excelled in school.

Christina with her parents. (Michael Curtis)

“To be honest, I don’t think there are too many awards that she did not get recognized for,” her father said. 

She was passionate about many other things on top of her classes, her parents said — from competitive dancing to playing the flute. If anything sparked an interest, Christina was always willing to throw herself into it, her mother, Theresa Curtis said.

And from a young age, her parents said, Christina was someone who cared for people. She took a real interest in others, her father said: If you said your day was going well, she’d ask, “Why? What’s making it so good?”

“She was always there,” Michael Curtis said. “Always there when you needed her. Always there for her friends.”

That spirit of caring led her to an interest in the medical field. At Marquette, her original plan was to study to become a physician assistant — something that would also allow her to have a work-life balance and a family of her own, Michael Curtis said.

But soon enough, she had to turn her attention to her own health. 

Christina and her brother, Matthew. (Michael Curtis)

While in college, Christina was diagnosed with a severe lung disease. Her doctors recommended a full lung transplant, and she was sent to the top of the transplant list in Illinois.

“She was in serious, critical condition,” Michael Curtis said. “Her lung capacity was at 16%.”

Finally, the Curtises got the call: The hospital had donor lungs available for Christina’s transplant. She went into surgery — and came out with a different set of lungs.

* * *

When Christina got her new lungs, she still had to deal with health challenges. But she and her family knew the importance of the donor’s gift.

“Every day was special for her after her transplant,” Theresa Curtis said.

After taking a year off to recover, she returned to Marquette to finish her degree — with a few changes.

As a transplant recipient, Christina had to take medication to suppress her immune system so her body wouldn’t reject the new lungs, Michael Curtis explained.

That meant she also had to wear a mask around campus to protect her health. Though it could be challenging for her to stick out from other students, the mask would eventually become kind of a “badge of honor,” her father said.

“She wore a mask before it was chic,” her father said. 

Christina’s transplant also threw a wrench in her plans to become a physician assistant. Because of her suppressed immune system, her doctors said she wouldn’t be able to work in a hospital setting while keeping herself safe.

The news was heartbreaking for Christina, her mother said. But she came up with another way to serve: She decided to study psychology, with the goal of helping counsel families of terminally ill kids.

“She had such a passion, because she knew what it was like to be sick,” Theresa Curtis said.

Christina after graduating in 2020. (Michael Curtis)

Through it all, Christina always looked for a silver lining, Michael Curtis said. She continued to do well in school and got back into dancing. Her senior year, she went to every men’s basketball game at Marquette, often cheering on the team with her brother, Matthew. 

And on the 19th of every month, Christina and her loved ones would mark her “lungiversary,” her mother said. They would  commemorate the months since her transplant, like holding a special dinner (though what Christina really cared about was the dessert). 

One year after her transplant, after working up her strength, she decided to go on a bike ride by herself.

“I look back at where I was a year ago. I never thought I’d be feeling as good as I am now,” Christina told the Marquette Wire in 2018. “When you’re that sick, you don’t think you’ll ever get better.”

* * *

Christina graduated from Marquette in 2020, with the world in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though she never got to walk across the stage and accept her degree, her family held their own celebrations — marking the occasion by eating cake and taking pictures of her in her cap and gown.

Soon after, though, Christina’s health started taking a turn for the worse. 

Over the summer, she got a severe lung infection that put her into sepsis, Michael Curtis said. Her body started to reject the lungs she’d received, and some of her other organs started to fail as well. 

The honorary street sign in the Curtises' neighborhood. (Michael Curtis)

Eventually, on July 21, 2020, she passed away at the age of 23.

“It’s such a loss for us,” Michael Curtis said. “But our Catholic faith tells us that we live our eternal life, and that God needed her.”

Christina’s parents said they still think of their daughter constantly. Her memory is all around — in her beloved rescue dog, Daisy, who helped calm her when she couldn’t sleep; in the family home, where her pictures and awards still hang on the walls; in the lessons of patience and gratitude that she shared with her loved ones.

Her family is working to share Christina’ memory with others, too. At their home in Morton Grove, Illinois, they came together with their neighbors to give the street the honorary name “Christina Court.”

Because Marquette was so important to Christina, the family wanted to find a way to honor her on campus, Michael Curtis said. When they learned about the chapel restoration, they decided that being part of the project would be a meaningful way to honor Christina’s faith.

Now, visitors to the chapel may come across the tree planted in Christina’s honor. It’s still small right now, but represents “a sign of new birth” that will keep growing for many years to come, Michael Curtis said.

And for those who need a place to pray, meditate or just sit for a moment, two of the benches with Christina’s name on them offer a place of rest. 

While letting Christina go hasn’t been easy, it’s these acts — of remembering all she accomplished in her short 23 years — that are helping her family move forward.

“That’s what continues to help us heal, is by her legacy and the things that we were lucky to have,” Michael Curtis said. “Our hearts grow remembering and going over all the things she did. But it still leaves a little bit of a break.”

Loved ones gather to dedicate Christina's bench. (Maddie Burakoff/Spectrum News 1)