HARTFORD – Kara Jackson, a 16-year-old altar server from Middletown, Ohio, has served at Masses in 18 states. She is on a quest to serve at eucharistic liturgies in all 50 states and recently served at a morning Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral in Hartford.
Her endeavor is a journey of faith and love that began last year. Kara 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 Kurtz of Louisville, Ky. “[She was] born with Down syndrome and with a special love for God and all people.”
She served with Archbishop Kurtz and Father Michael Tobin at the Church of the Annunciation in Shelbyville, Ky. It was the sixth state on Kara’s journey.
Archbishop Kurtz, whose late brother George had Down syndrome, described Kara as “clearly an expert server” in a blog post last September. The archbishop, who is now president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, “Kara’s beautiful personality and unique gifts reinforced our church’s teachings about the dignity of every human being.”
Other people who have witnessed Kara’s altar service have written words of gratitude, love and respect for Kara 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.”
They also have thanked her for being part of their Mass celebration.
“When you serve at Mass, you feel you are closer to God,” said Kara, who was 9 years old when she completed training and became an altar server for Holy Trinity and St. John churches, which make up the Holy Family Parish in her hometown.
Kara believes that God told her to embark on the endeavor of serving at Masses in every state. Her mother Christina was skeptical when Kara told her parents what she wanted to do.
“I took her to talk with our parish priests about the idea,” said Mrs. Jackson.
Msgr. Paul Metzger, who knew 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, himself had celebrated Masses in all 50 states.
Kara also spoke with their current pastor, Father John Civille, who echoed Msgr. Metzger’s sentiments, said Mrs. Jackson.
Mrs. Jackson said she was still doubtful, but she and her husband Rick decided to help their daughter achieve her objective and contacted a parish in Indiana, their neighboring state.
“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,” said Mrs. Jackson. “I wondered how long it would take for a response.”
Two days later, Father Kevin Morris, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Richmond, Ind., called to arrange for Kara to go to his 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 familiarize herself with procedures that vary among parishes and to quietly reflect on and pray for 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; and in Vermont, she served with a priest who spends his spare time climbing nearby mountains. In Rhode Island, she served at the church in which President John and Jacqueline Kennedy were married.
Everywhere she has been, she has been encouraged and overwhelmingly supported by priests, deacons and parishioners.
Kara’s mother no longer doubts Kara’s aspiration. She and her husband liken their support of Kara’s objective 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 Mrs. Jackson that observing Kara as an altar server at Mass gave her the encouragement she needed to volunteer to become a lector, which was something she had wanted to do for many years.
Kara’s parents are also proud of the way their daughter easily connects and engages with parishioners of all ages and especially with elderly people. Worshipers at St. Anne’s Shrine in the serene lakeside setting of Isle La Monte, Vt., 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,” said Mrs. Jackson. “You never know who you will touch or connect with.”
Kara has 32 states to go on her journey. She’s back at school now but will continue during long weekends and school vacations.