The staff of Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri broke into applause upon hearing the news.
Sr. Kathleen Wegman of the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) would be their servant leader, if only for a while.
“It’s reassuring to know a solid bridge is in place,” said Dan Lester, who is stepping down as executive director of the local Catholic Charities affiliate on April 7.
“Sr. Kathleen brings a bounty of insight and experience into the role and will lead with great distinction,” he stated. “I have nothing but confidence that Catholic Charities is in the best of hands.”
Sr. Kathleen, a Jefferson City native who has been Catholic Charities’ senior director of mission integration since January 2022, will serve as the agency’s interim executive director while its board of directors carries out a national search for a new executive director.
“We are delighted and truly blessed to announce that Sr. Kathleen has accepted the role,” Mike Maag, president of the Catholic Charities Board of Directors, stated in a letter to board and staff members last week.
“As a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Sr. Kathleen has dedicated her life to working for social justice and advocating for those in need,” Mr. Maag stated. “Her passion for this work has led her to serve in a variety of leadership positions throughout her career.
“With her extensive background and a deep commitment to serving those in need, we are fortunate to have her guidance during this transitional period,” he stated.
Over the waves
“We have a very wonderful, competent, dedicated staff,” Sr. Kathleen said. “They’re good people. They’re good at what they do. They’re mission-driven, they’re focused, they have a heart for the poor.”
She told the staff that she feels confident accepting the invitation to serve as interim executive director because of them and what she knows they can do.
“We can do this together,” she stated. “While I don’t know the ins-and-outs of everyone’s work here, I am gratified to know that each staff member knows their clients well and carries out their work with deep care.”
She said Mr. Lester has grown Catholic Charities “beautifully.”
“I’m stepping into some big shoes,” she said.
She sees her time as interim executive director to be an opportunity for the entire organization to pause, breathe and listen while continuing to carry on the ministry.
“I find something very sacred about an interim, a time of transition like this,” she said. “It can provide an opportunity to assess what we are doing, how we are doing it, and what we need to do to tend to each other and be intentional about it.”
She likened the situation to everyone being on a ship together, heading toward a dock to pick up a new executive director.
“And all through the trip, there will continue to be big waves of need splashing up against us,” she said. “And we will continue to respond to those needs while spending time together and learning from each other.”
Catholic Charities (cccnmo.diojeffcity.org) is a nonprofit agency founded by the Jefferson City diocese in 2011 to provide compassionate social services to vulnerable people across the 38 counties of the diocese.
Last year, the agency provided services to more than 6,000 individuals across a variety of programs.
This includes services for refugees and immigrants, those with food insecurity, mental health needs, health activities and education, financial and housing counseling, and Hispanic community services.
Sr. Kathleen said it’s good “for a ministry that has grown very quickly over a very short time, to take a deep breath and patiently prepare for a new executive director.”
Toward strengthening unity
Sr. Kathleen believes her No. 1 role as interim director will be to listen.
“It will be essential to listen to the people involved in our ministries, and reflect back to them the challenges and opportunities that have surfaced in light of our mission, in light of who we are, who we are called to be and the ministries we are called to provide,” she said.
“This time of transition can provide an opportunity to strengthen what we have,” she stated, “to clarify our vision, to sharpen whatever needs to be sharpened for the services that are to be provided.
“Just to take a long, loving look at where we have come from, where we are now and what we want to make sure is in place when we welcome the next director,” she said.
She hopes to help strengthen unity and identity throughout the Catholic Charities organization.
“What I sense now is that we have many departments doing very good work,” she stated. “I hope we can grow in our sense of oneness, and welcome the strength that flows from that. Because we are all most united at the level of mission.”
Since 2020, Catholic Charities has purchased, renovated and expanded a building to serve as its new headquarters and hub of local services in Jefferson City, established a client-choice food pantry that’s open four days a week, and resettled hundreds of refugees and displaced persons from Afghanistan, Ukraine and other parts of the world.
Fullness of potential
Sr. Kathleen is a professed member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND), an international congregation of religious sisters.
“My vow of obedience means I respond to such requests in a dialogic and discerning manner with members of my congregation and congregational leadership,” she said.
After the Catholic Charities board invited her to serve as interim director, she went home to reflect on it.
“On my prayer table at home, I have a list of the names of all our staff, and every day, I pray for a different one of them,” she said. “That night, I lifted it up and held it in my hands and said, ‘We can do this together.’”
She discussed it with fellow SSNDs, then with her provincial leader and provincial counselors.
“They said, ‘Yes, we’re affirming this ministry and are in support of you saying yes,’” she said.
“Through every step of this discernment, I felt a personal sense of being called by God to this,” she said. “Every place I went with this, it seemed to be of God. It just felt right.”
Since entering religious life in 1967, Sr. Kathleen has served as a teacher, principal and diocesan elementary-school director in Missouri and Illinois and as provincial councilor and provincial leader of the SSNDs’ former St. Louis province.
She was a director of elementary schools for the St. Louis archdiocese from 1981-83; provincial councilor from 1983-91; and provincial leader from 1991-99.
She taught in Nepal for a semester in 2000, and taught English in an SSND Elementary School in Kyoto, Japan.
She has lived and spent time in various cultures in the United States and many other countries, including Honduras, Guatemala, Peru, Japan, Nepal, Sierra Leone and Italy.
She served as chancellor of the Jefferson City diocese and director of diocesan leadership services from 2007 to 2019, helping to establish the diocesan Catholic Charities affiliate in 2011 as a founding board member.
She later served as the diocese’s director of parish and charitable services, and then as senior director of mission integration for Catholic Charities, helping to orient the quickly growing and diversifying staff in the foundational principles of the Gospel and Catholic social teaching.
She noted that the role of interim director is a good fit for the SSND charism — its foundational gift from the Holy Spirit.
“Our mission as educators is to assist others in reaching the fullness of their potential,” she stated. “And that is what this is all about. We want to make sure that we have attained as much of that fullness as we can when the new director arrives.”
“Spirit of service”
“Sr. Kathleen is a trusted leader in our diocese and she has my full confidence as she begins her service as interim executive director,” said Bishop W. Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City.
“As we search for the next executive director, I thank her for her willingness to lead during this time and for continuing to demonstrate her strong spirit of service to those in need,” he said.
Sr. Kathleen asked for prayers throughout the transition.
“Please pray especially for our clients and all who benefit from this, the charitable arm of the Catholic Church, and for our staff as we negotiate the waves of this transition,” she said.