Ordained Priest 2010 

Ordained Deacon 2009

Mary Kay Kusner

Board Certified Chaplain

MA in Pastoral Ministry

BS in Psychology and Religious Studies

Although born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1960, I lived most of my early years in Lancaster, Ohio, the third daughter of eight kids. Both my parents were traditional Catholics who raised us to be good practicing Catholics, hoping one of my brothers would become a priest. Becoming a nun would have been a plus, but I never felt that call. Instead, I married, had four children and became a chaplain. I attended Catholic schools for my entire education, including my Bachelor of Science degree from John Carroll University and my Master of Arts from Boston College in 1985.

I became a hospice volunteer while I was in college in 1979 as a result of my curiosity about the after-life and thus developed a passion for helping those at end-of-life. I was a big fan of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, so hospice work was a natural next step. Because I was intrigued by life after death, having read Raymond Moody’s book, Life After Life, my specialization became oncology and emergency medicine. Some patients thought I was a nun. Others called me “Father” assuming I was ordained. Only the Catholic patients really struggled with identifying me. Once, when I was pregnant, a Catholic woman said, “I didn’t know nuns could get pregnant!”

When we were undergraduates, I met Dave at John Carroll University, in a Christian Life Community group. Dave was talking about his time in Appalachia with the Glenmary Brothers and helping the poor. I spoke to him after the talk and then I asked if he’d tutor me for my Bio-Chemistry class and the rest is history. We married in 1983. We ended up in Iowa because Dave wanted to do a fellowship in Infectious Diseases and admired the doctor who was here at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics. He said he only needed to be here for 5 years to get tenured. And now we’ve been here since 1993!

Becoming a chaplain enabled me to combine psychology and theology in a very direct way, since I had already been working with those who were dying and their families. The process and training for being certified as a chaplain is rigorous. It requires four units of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). One unit is 400 hours of both clinical work (seeing patients) and taking classes with fellow chaplain residents. Taking calls during the night, preparing services with homilies, writing verbatims, (word-for-word visits of what you said and what the patient said) and doing lots of reflection about oneself, (e.g., “Why didn’t I want to be with that patient? Oh, he reminded me of my grandpa who was unkind and who died when I was young.”), were all part of the process.

This was well before we knew what emotional intelligence was, but that’s what we were learning, to become very much aware of our own inner workings and thereby to develop the art of compassion. Once the four units are completed, typically in a year’s time, you then apply for certification. It is an arduous process of writing to address compliances, (the number of compliances has grown to over 30), and gathering and submitting many of your papers. If your application is accepted, you then go before a certification committee who grills you and decides if you are worthy of certification. Once certified, you are then required to do continuing education hours to maintain certification. Chaplaincy gave me the opportunity to minister to others without being ordained.

Serving as the palliative care chaplain for University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics since 2005, my focus was on end-of-life care. I assisted those facing serious illness and death, specializing in children’s grief, and resiliency promotion for staff. During the 2020 pandemic, I continued to work part-time as an essential worker at the hospital. I received Advanced Certification in Palliative Care and Hospice, in 2021. Now, I’m retired and have become certified as a Death Doula. See my website: www.deatheducationcenter.com

A liberal Catholic in adulthood, thanks to my Jesuit professors, I attended the Call to Action annual conferences. It was there in 2007 that I heard RCWP’s Bishop,Patricia Fresen, speak. At the end of her talk, she invited those of us who felt a call to be ordained to come forward. I found myself standing up and, in tears, receiving the blessing of those around me. It was a pivotal moment. Being a chaplain for so long, I had quieted my call to priesthood. I never believed I could be ordained. But when I heard Patricia speak about her experience, I sensed that call deep within, just waiting for the invitation to be realized.

I was fearful and excited when I applied to RCWP in 2007. I knew my parents did not approve but, having worked with a spiritual director, I felt I had done the necessary discernment and that my call was true. There was no turning back. When I was accepted, I was thrilled. I learned that I was accepted at the reception that followed an ordination which I attended. I remember doing a hug/dance with the program coordinator, Alice Iaquinta, when I was told. Patricia Fresen was still doing all the ordinations in the United States as there were no US bishops or regions yet either; it was so moving to witness the ordination. I was ordained a deacon in 2009 in Minneapolis, Minnesota and a priest in 2010 in Iowa City, IA, at First Christian Church. AMEN!

My family of origin was very much against my ordination. Both my parents told me that they couldn’t support me in this call to ordination and that I should simply “be patient.” Most of my siblings were angry and felt I was “hurting” mom and dad. Only later would they learn to appreciate the seriousness of my decision. Over the years, I have always maintained a relationship with my parents, knowing that they simply cannot change what they’ve believed all their lives. We do not talk about my being a priest or my pastoring a church. None of my extended family attended my ordination, which was painful for me. My spouse and four children, however, not only attended but were part of the liturgy. Living in Iowa, so far from my family of origin in Ohio has helped. I have felt the love and support of my friends in Iowa who are like family to me. It was a small faith community that really called me to be ordained for them. They said, “We need you.”

Another difficult loss resulting from my ordination was full excommunication by the local bishop. I decided to meet with him before my ordination to the diaconate in 2009. It was a strange meeting where he chose to remain silent except to say his official statement, that the church would welcome me back if I simply denounced my call to priesthood and refrained from ordination. After that meeting, he wrote a two-page letter to all the endorsing and certifying bodies for chaplaincy, something that I felt was particularly cruel. Thus, I had to get re-endorsed by the Federation for Christian Ministers and re-certified by the Association for Professional Chaplains instead of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains.

Now pastor to the community that called me, our Full Circle Catholic Church in Iowa City, Iowa has met since 2010, to celebrate mass and to work together on local social justice projects. As much as we have tried to grow this church community, we remain a small core group of about fifteen to twenty dedicated believers. We have collaborated ecumenically with a liberal Episcopalian church called New Song where we rent space. Together, we have shared in Easter Triduum services. We usually meet every Sunday at 4:00 pm but we did move to holding Zoom liturgies for the duration of the pandemic, celebrating a full mass on the second and fourth Sundays of each month, and on the first and third Sundays, a Liturgy of the Word, which allows for more check-in and community building. We continue to meet on Zoom for all our liturgies.

With our three sons now grown and living across the country, I live with my husband, Dave and daughter Anna, who has special needs and teaches others about inclusion in her own way. I love to read, garden and laugh and have recently learned to crochet. I make prayer shawls for my patients and loved ones.

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