HARTFORD, Conn. — Kara Jackson, a 16-year-old altar server from Holy Family Parish in Middletown, Ohio, is on a quest to serve at Mass in all 50 states.
So far she has served at liturgies in 18 states after recently serving at a morning Mass at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford.
Kara’s endeavor is a journey of faith that began in 2013. She has traveled with her family to serve at Masses in states as far west as Nevada, as far south as Georgia and as far east as Maine.
Some people might say that beyond her engaging blue eyes, silky blonde hair and easy, joy-filled smile, God gave Kara something extra that makes her and her venture both extraordinary and heartwarming.
“Kara is special,” said Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “(She was) born with Down syndrome and with a special love for God and all people.”
Kara has served at Mass with Archbishop Kurtz and Father Michael Tobin at the Church of the Annunciation in Shelbyville, midway between Louisville and Lexington. Kentucky was the sixth state on her journey.
Archbishop Kurtz, whose late brother George had Down syndrome, described Kara as “clearly an expert server” in a blog last September. “Kara’s beautiful personality and unique gifts reinforced our church’s teachings about the dignity of every human being,” he said.
Other people witnessing Kara’s devotion have written words of gratitude, love and respect in a journal she keeps to record her travels and the people she meets. Priests and parishioners describe her as “having different abilities” or as being a “true example of God’s love among us.”
“When you serve at Mass, you feel you are closer to God,” said Kara, who was 9 years old when she completed training to be an altar server.
She believes God told her to embark on the endeavor. Her mother, Christina Jackson, admitted being a bit skeptical when Kara told her parents what she wanted to do.
“I took her to talk with our parish priests about the idea,” Christina said.
Msgr. Paul Metzger, who had known Kara for most of her life, encouraged her. He told her that it was a good idea and that it could be done. His support was not surprising. The late Msgr. Metzger, who was a priest for 70 years, had celebrated Masses in all 50 states.
Kara also spoke with Father John Civille, the current pastor, who echoed Msgr. Metzger’s sentiments, Christina said.
Still doubtful, Christina and her husband, Rick, decided to help their daughter achieve her goal and contacted a parish not far away in Indiana.
“We wrote a letter,” she said. “I didn’t know what to say or whether I should tell them she has Down syndrome. (Even though) it shouldn’t make a difference, I put it in anyway. I didn’t want to get there and surprise anyone.
“Kara and I drove to the post office and together we said a prayer before Kara dropped the letter into the mailbox,” Christina said. “I wondered how long it would take for a response.”
Two days later, Father Kevin Morris, pastor of St. Mary Church in Richmond, Indiana, called to arrange for Kara to visit the parish. A few weeks later, on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday, Kara served at Mass with Father Morris. She arrived early, as she typically does, to become familiar with procedures that vary among parishes and to quietly reflect on and pray for the priests and parishioners of the church.
It was the first of many inspiring and unique experiences Kara has had on her journey.
She served with a priest in Utah who always brings his dog, Otis, to Mass. In Vermont, she served with a priest who spends his spare time climbing nearby mountains. In Rhode Island, she served at the church where President John and Jacqueline Kennedy were married.
Wherever she has been Kara has been encouraged and supported by priests, deacons and parishioners.
Kara’s mother no longer doubts her daughter’s aspiration. Christina and Rick liken their support of Kara’s desire to that of parents who invest time and financial resources to travel with their children for athletic, academic or artistic events. They are proud of the inspiration Kara has provided for people she has met.
Following a Mass in Pittsburgh, at a parish where there are no youth altar servers, a woman told Christina that seeing Kara serving at Mass gave her the encouragement she needed to volunteer to become a lector, something she had wanted to do for many years.
Kara’s parents also are proud of the way their daughter easily connects and engages with parishioners of all ages, especially elderly people. Worshippers at St. Anne Shrine in the serene lakeside setting of Isle La Monte, Vermont, hugged Kara, thanked her for serving and engaged in conversations about her experiences.
“It was not our goal to inspire others, although we may have,” Christina said. “You never know who you will touch or connect with.”
Kara has 32 states to go on her journey. She’s back in school now but will continue during long weekends and school vacations.
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Sumsky writes for The Catholic Transcript, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Conn.