Widow pursues longtime dream of travel and mission work

Kathy Pierson

Kathy Pierson

Kathy Pierson started a new chapter when she was widowed at 51, reclaiming a teenage dream to travel abroad. Her open mind and Catholic faith guide her. Meanwhile, her devotion to family remains an anchor. “One of the loves of my life is my grandchildren,” said Pierson, 76, a member of St. Cecilia in St. Paul. A mother of three children and a grandmother of eight, she lives in Apple Valley.

Q) I hear you’re a swimmer.

A) I have a place on Loon Lake in Wisconsin where I do “destination swimming,” as I call it — swimming from one end of the lake to the other. I try to do it every day in the summer. I don’t like swimming in pools. You feel like you’re swimming circles in a fishbowl. In a lake, you’re swimming under the clouds and you can just go anywhere, and every once in a while, you’ll look and see where you are.

Q) Do you have a cabin there?

A) I just have a camper up there. My husband died our second year there, in 1997, so I never got to the point of building anything.

The nights are beautiful on Loon Lake. If it’s clear and the weather behaves, you can see all the stars. We can watch the moon come up. And if it’s warm enough to swim under the starlight, that’s amazing. You look up and think, “Now that’s the same moon that people can see everywhere! It gives you a sense of being a part of something greater.”

Q) How do you preserve your sense of wonder?

A) My father was very into nature and beauty, and he drove all five of us kids in the back of a station wagon to the mountains or the North Shore. He knew about all the rocks and the flowers and the birds. I was probably influenced by that. I make a point to be outside every single day. I don’t feel right if I don’t get outside.

Q) Where did your love of travel come from?

A) I was in high school when President Kennedy started the Peace Corps, and I remember thinking, “That’s something I’d like to do.” But I also always wanted to be a mother. I got married right out of college and put travel aside.

Q) Then you were unexpectedly widowed when your husband died from a stroke. Did you look at your life anew?

A) Yeah, I did. My youngest son had one year left of high school, so I didn’t do anything right away. I went on a pilgrimage with my church to the Holy Land, and I got really interested in the Arab culture. There’s something about that place — you know it’s sacred — and the ancientness of it. It was eye opening.

My job gave me a six-month leave of absence to go volunteer at a home for blind children on the West Bank. That changed my life.

It felt like I was going back to something I’d always had in the back of my mind, and I was finally able to do it. Long story short, I sold my house and put all my possessions in a 10 by 10 storage locker and went back there for almost two years. I worked at this miserable nursing home called The Shelter, for disabled people of all ages.

Q) What did you learn from that experience?

A) You learn, “My God, am I blessed!” I can’t believe how terribly those people have been treated. Your social justice hackles go up. But I’ll do what I can. So, I tried to touch them and speak to them and play games with them. I got a recreation program going.

Q) Then the pull of being a grandma brought you home.

A) My son sent me a video of my first grandchild, and I was crying. I returned and tried to find a job with refugees here. I got into teaching English to these older Somali guys. It was fun. For the past 15 years, I’ve been teaching and subbing and then going out of the country in the winter. The last two winters I worked at the border in El Paso — the Annunciation House, which was started by a group of Catholics interested in social justice. They rent this huge warehouse and set up cots and blankets from the Red Cross. The whole organization is entirely volunteer run. My job was to contact their sponsor, who’s already living in the U.S.

They were very grateful for the help. These immigrants are coming from very difficult situations, and they want to work and contribute and be a part of our society. They want to get out of the hold of poverty. They want a better life for their children.

Q) Do you admire their courage?

A) Yes! We’d see Haitian women with little, tiny babies — a baby who was born in Brazil. What the heck? How they got from Brazil to the border with a tiny baby? Many walked long, long distances. It’s dangerous. Those coyotes can be really bad people.

Q) Is your embrace of the immigrant influenced by your Catholic faith?

A) There is a strong social-justice tradition in the Catholic faith. It’s not up front like it should be, but it’s there.

I think the message of Jesus, who was a revolutionary, is: “You need to try to do something about the injustices in the world!”

I think I was born looking at the world and the people in it — and people different from myself — as being interesting, as people to be learned from, whereas some people have the instinct that anybody who is different is scary. Someone with a different color or language or religion is to be feared, kept away.

My instinct is just the opposite, and all the missionaries I’ve met and the old Maryknoll nuns believe, “No, they’re not to be feared. They’re interesting. They have something to teach you.”

Q) What allows you to be a lifelong learner?

A) Curiosity.

Q) How can Catholics do mission work right here in our archdiocese?

A) Pick a cause. Don’t spread yourself too thin. Come up with one issue you’re passionate about and find organizations that support it.

Q) What do you do for fun?

A) I enjoy cake decorating. When I’m decorating for somebody’s birthday, I try to make it really personal. I want it to make them feel special.

Q) What’s your go-to prayer?

A) The Bible verse that rules my life is: To whom much is given, much will be required. But I’m more into hymns that are prayers. I picked these out for my funeral: “Here I Am, Lord”; “Be Not Afraid” and “The Servant Song.” That’s me.

Q) What do you know for sure?

A) When you’re young, you think you know everything for sure. And the older you get, the more you realize that you really don’t know much for sure. What I’m pretty sure about is that people are basically good. That’s how I’ve always operated, when I travel and do mission work. Every once in a while, you get mugged in a taxi or taken advantage of. But I have to believe that, under it all, people are good.

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Category: Local News

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