Sister Carol Karwoski

Sister Carol KarwoskiBrother Sun and Sister Moon.   Franco Zeffirelli’s life of Saint Franics (1972). I saw this film at least 12 times.  Romanticized…for sure!  Still, I fell in love with the man, and my Great Pursuit: the name I wanted was to be Franciscan!  1974…I received the TAU! An ancient symbol for human relationships supported by God, the official emblem of the School Sisters of St. Francis, the mark of one signed by the Lord…consecrated, commissioned and committed.

St. Ben’s, downtown Milwaukee.  Seven years standing outdoors in the meal line greeting 500+ guests. Every single Friday night. Mental illness, poverty, drugs, and hard living. My parents shuddered for me and my safety!  I never gave it a thought.  Then restlessness overtook me…time to move.

Iowa, next.  10 years at Miriam House, the homeless shelter. Again, mental illness, poverty, hard living. Saturday mornings alone stocking the food pantry. Paula enters. She is young, and more than crazy, and she smells really bad! A leper. I just wanted to feed the hungry.  I think, please, take your box of food and go…you are crazy, and you smell a lot! Oh no! Paula puts her box down, wraps her arms around me in a bear hug, and will not let go! Whoa, what is this? Suddenly, there is no smell. I was hugging Paula, too. No…I was hugging the Christ!  We were friends!

A few months later, Paula was beaten to death in the camps along the Mississippi River. I pleaded, I pestered, and I annoyed my boss, “Our Shelter is not adequate. It is not fit for human beings!” I begged for years, “The guests sleep on the floor, on tables and under tables…please!” Francis heard, “Rebuild my church.”  So, why not “Rebuild this shelter?” Finally, the new shelter became a reality.  Again, it was time to move.

Another shelter. Even more challenging: a domestic violence shelter.  Again, mental illness, poverty, and hard living, but also violence. There were black eyes, broken bones, and suicides, but also new beginnings!

All non-profits need money. The Franciscan in me wanted to beg for this money. I was allowed in the lobby of the local Hy-Vee grocery store. I stood next to a large placard of a woman with a doozy of a black eye. On that same card table was a big jar that said, “Please Help.”  I stood there for five days from 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. I did not sit. I greeted everyone that passed through, over 600 persons a day for the five days. Many passed me by. Old ladies would stop and put in a dollar. Mothers gave their children money for the jar.  I really was a Franciscan beggar!

I did this stint for ten years!  Charla and I would spill the jar out onto the dining room table each evening. Guess what? After a decade, those coins, dollars, and a sprinkle of fives and tens added up to a whole lot of money—a whopping sum of over $50,000!

Time to move, again. Time to do part-time work.  The work above was a privilege. Every day clutching the TAU. But it wore me out and wore me down. Like Solanus Casey, the simple, Capuchin friar, I was drawn to simple but useful.

Unexpectedly, I was hired at a grade-school kitchen, of all places! I can’t cook and I don’t even like cooking! I do like food, though. No problem: I was given the task of dishwasher! Dirty school trays, hundreds of them. Greasy pots and pans. But no stress, no mental illness, no poverty or drugs or violence. Only noisy, joyful kids and my version of Franciscan Solanus Casey simplicity.

You cannot do the Journey and the Dream alone.  Not if you wear a TAU. I am very blessed to share over 30 years of my 50 jubilee years with a like-minded wearer of the TAU.  Francis said, “Take with you faithful companions…” Sister Charla Bulko and I walked this gospel call together.  Dealing with mental illness, poverty, drugs, and violence, one can go mad, or slip or doubt. Annie, my precious Golden Retriever (and the other Goldens before her) offer a laugh, balance, and a whole lot of joy and a playful slant on my golden years!

Fifty Years!  A blessing and so much gratitude to the School Sisters of St. Francis for offering the TAU!

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