Throughout her life, Karen Cook has held many jobs; high school English teacher, stay-at-home mother, Youth Minister, and most recently, Director of Evangelization. She was raised Catholic and attended twelve years of Catholic education before leaving for college. During that time her parents regularly hosted priests and nuns for dinner, her father was a Lector at their parish, and “Faith was such a part of our lives.”
And then Karen left for college and drifted away from the church explaining that is what kids in the 1970s did. Having a similar background, I can attest it is not just kids of the 70s that left the church when they reached university. I had exactly the same experience at Ohio University in the early 1990s, leaving the church myself. Karen was away for almost ten years until she had “an adult conversion.” She was actually researching the Catholic faith for a friend and found herself needing to find out why our shared faith had so many of the answers she was seeking. What resulted was a “happy surprise and conversion” where she “fell in love with Jesus.” As Karen describes it, “I studied myself back into the Catholic church.”
With her background in teaching high school students, Karen accepted a part-time Youth Minister position at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. She said she was already vigorously evangelizing the parish and it seemed a natural progression given her background with kids that age. The average tenure for a Youth Minister is 18 months and Karen maintained that job for 18 – 20 years. In retrospect she admits to how hard that job is and how thankful she is to other Youth Ministers. The most challenging aspect is the constant turnover, “You only have those kids for four years” and then they disappear. Karen very much wanted to see the fruits of her labor, but that often was not possible in youth ministry as the high schoolers left for college and careers.
In her current position, Karen is responsible for Adult Faith Formation at Our Lady with Alpha, Baptism Formation, and RCIA being major components of that job. She also coordinates with the multitude of small groups at the parish ensuring the “leaders have what they need.” As she phrases it, Karen is “Evangelizing the baptized” and very much wants us to be a vibrant parish. Equally important she wants to belong to a vibrant parish community. Doing so allows Karen to accompany our parishioners along their personal faith journeys regardless of where they are on that journey. Having been raised Catholic, left the church, and then returned to it gives her unique insight into all stages of those journeys.
Karen’s greatest joy is participating in the Mass, “I could pinch myself that we are hearing the actual words of Jesus.” Even though many are not able to be physically present during the Mass, she wants everyone to know they are part of our parish community and every time they watch a live stream or view a recorded Mass, they are praying the Mass with us. Karen also looks forward to the time when we can all be united physically in that celebration as a united parish community. She is particularly happy that technology has allowed our currently dispersed community to maintain their relationships with Jesus and His Church.
There is a new initiative beginning in the diocese titled “Real Presence, Real Future” that Karen is excited about. Obviously as Catholics we believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist; His body, blood, soul, and divinity. Karen hopes this initiative will reinforce that belief and also look into the post-pandemic world to reinforce our parochial communities.
Our parish has certainly weathered tumultuous times over the past two years and Karen has been humbled and impressed by our community’s laity. She provides countless examples of “living saints” among the congregation and perhaps only slightly humorously adds, “I want to be them when I grow up.” She very much desires to serve that congregation and help to build the Kingdom of God with them. Karen further explains that she loves being part of the Our Lady of Perpetual Help community and has “received so much more from them than I can ever give to them.”
I can personally attest to Karen’s love for her parish community. I cannot recall a single Sunday or weekday Mass that I have attended when she was present and afterwards, she is in deep conversation with a parishioner who approached her. Often it is not a single parishioner, but a queue of them and Karen knows each of them by name and usually has some inclination of what they are going through or need or simply want to talk about. Whenever I need to talk to her it seems I am always at the end of that queue.
It seems odd to speak about Karen and a “side hustle” as she phrases it, but outside of her role at the parish she has recently begun reselling niche items. Mostly these are antique and vintage merchandise and apparently chairs have been particularly hot items lately. Karen also dotes on her grandchildren, tries to exercise regularly, and puts up with annoying meetings with me with incredible grace.
Out of all my interviews to date Karen’s was the most difficult to arrange. This is not because she is difficult to contact or meet with, but because she was constantly telling me, “You need to talk to” this person or that person. She constantly downplays her own role in our parish and instead wants to focus on what others in our faith community are doing. In fact, as I was finishing with her, Karen wanted to make certain I interviewed a litany of other people.
“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…’” (Mt 28:16 – 19)
Karen has dedicated her life to making those disciples.
By Eric Brooks