Karen Smaczniak announced her retirement in February of 2021 after thirty years with St. Mary’s as the Director of Family Faith.
It was 1988 when she started working here at St. Mary’s while she was a mom at home with her two young children, a three year old and one year old. Looking for something to do part time outside of the house, and holding a college degree in speech pathology and audiology, led her to a position at St. Mary’s teaching her Catholic faith to high school students. Monsignor Vincent J. Becker, Pastor of St. Mary’s at that time, asked Karen to then be a family faith liaison along with a high school student from our program to the newly formed Parish Council at St. Mary Swormville.
In 1991, Karen was asked to become the Sacrament Coordinator in preparing children for 1st Reconciliation and 1st Eucharist, along with coordinating the younger grade levels for St. Mary’s. She remembers starting in this position and feeling that the program wasn’t quite supporting children and parents in the formation of their faith.
Sacraments were instructed in a classroom setting at this time by grade. Karen recognized that this type of faith formation of young children many times didn’t meet them were they were on their faith journey. Older children who may have needed to prepare for a Sacrament would then need to be in a classroom setting with younger children being instructed. She remembers also feeling that Sacrament preparation left the “FAMILY” out of the equation in the faith formation of their children.
This prompted her to rethink and propose a new way of teaching our faith to our youth starting with Sacrament preparation– getting the instruction out of the hands of faith formation teachers and into the hands of parents! As this would have been something very progressive for that time, the Parochial Vicar of St. Mary’s Rev. Robert Gebhard, asked her to present the concept to Parish Council. He asked her for a full theological reflection to be presented along with the concept.
This new concept of Sacrament preparation, started the following year after her presentation, in 1992, and has stayed in this teaching format ever since! This model has since led to the current faith formation program where parents are the primary faith teachers, giving children and families the options to meet children where they are on their faith journey and has proved over time to be a very successful program.
At first, the new program format was met with resistance because teaching faith was always something that the Church was responsible for. Parents did not feel equipped or confident to teach their children about their faith. So the program needed as well to focus on teaching knowledge and the skill set to parents to be successful.
We asked Karen a few questions always about her long career at St. Mary’s:
What are you most proud of in your many accomplishments here?
“In 30 years, I am most proud of being able to help parents feel empowered in their faith so they can pass their faith onto their children. We give them the skill set, the tools, the resources, and we help them with their role as parents in teaching their children. This ultimately helps families take ownership of teaching faith, and it builds up the strength of the family household in Christ.”
What will your biggest memory be after all these years?
“In 30 years, I have had the pleasure of working with so many people in so many different roles in building up the faith of our youth and the family. I’ve worked with catechists, parents, children of all ages, 4 pastors, and the program was able to bear fruit despite some challenges along the way. I took my job seriously, because I am a mom, and I felt that strong connection to families.” She has kept this bible verse on her computer screen for many years:
If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength that God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To Him be glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.
The St. Mary’s Faith Formation Department has grown and has had so much success with this format that Karen created, that they now use this program in other parishes in and outside of Buffalo. Due to its unique program design, St. Mary’s and these sister parishes were able to continue their faith formation programs throughout the Covid shutdowns. Many parishes still utilize the older classroom teaching method and have not been able to meet nor instruct children in their faith during this time.
Dear Karen, from all of us here at St. Mary’s, we are deeply grateful to you for all that you have done to bring our children and our families to knowing and loving Christ. We wish you all the best of joy, health, and peace as you retire and now spend time with your family and grandchildren! His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.” Matthew 25:21.