By SUZANNE KOZIATEK
Every year, the Herrin Chamber of Commerce honors an individual, chosen by the group’s president, for his or her contributions to the community.
As she prepared for her final awards as chamber president, Kelly Green was having some difficulty figuring out who to choose for the 2019 President’s Award. Turns out, all she had to do was look up from her keyboard.
Green, who plays the piano at Masses at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, gets to see the contributions of Monsignor Ken Schaefer up close, several times each weekend.
So when she was asked, “Is there someone you know of who’s made an impact?” the light bulb went off in her head.
“I said, ‘Oh, I know! Father Ken!” Green says.
She says he was the perfect choice for the award – not just for the service he provides to the parishioners at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, but for his impact on Herrin as a whole.
“There’s so much that he does in the community that nobody knows about.”
Msgr. Schaefer was presented with the award at Mass on Jan. 20; Green says it normally would have been presented to him at the Chamber’s Feb. 1 annual dinner, but she didn’t want to tire him too much as he is currently fighting cancer.
She says it was an emotional moment, as he hadn’t been told beforehand about the award.
“I’m happy to see him get recognized,” she says.
Msgr. Schaefer has been at Our Lady of Mount Carmel for nearly 24 years.
“It’s almost unheard of for a priest to be in the community that long,” Green says.
She credits him with having a vision for the church and school and seeing it through, saying he was instrumental in shepherding construction of the new building for Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic School. The $7.4 million dollar project was completed last year, creating a space for 277 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
The effects of that new school ripple out beyond the parish, Green says.
“Some people might think that only benefits the Catholics in the community,” she says. “But it’s really a selling point to local employers.
When they are recruiting doctors, for example, a lot of them want to know about private schools in the area, so it’s a recruitment tool that helps bring people to Herrin when they could choose to live somewhere else.”
But that’s just the start of his contributions, she says. Msgr. Schaefer has volunteered the church’s resources – its kitchen, its funds, its volunteers – to support community projects.
“The local fire department uses our kitchen to do fundraisers,” she says. “Volunteers use our kitchen to make the community Thanksgiving dinner, which is open to anyone who doesn’t have a place to go.”
Msgr. Schaefer provides volunteers and other assistance to the annual fundraiser for the House of Hope, a ministry sponsored by Herrin churches that feeds the hungry and provides other assistance to the less fortunate.
His spiritual leadership at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish is evident at every Mass, Green says.
“He always says something that’s poignant, or that feels like he’s talking directly to me,” she says. “He’s a true spiritual person.”
Green notes that when her mother was dying, Msgr. Schaefer visited her family daily, despite that fact that neither her mother nor her father was Catholic.
“Father Ken has enough to say grace over in our own parish, but he was there for us every day,” she says. “He gave me wonderful advice about how to help my father.”
Msgr. Schaefer continues to battle a rare form of blood cancer, but Green says he still is very active in parish life. She says the parishioners have worked together to try to ease some of his workload so that he can concentrate on his treatment.
“After he was diagnosed, we renovated the rectory to make it easier for him to get around, but also to make it easier for many of our parishioners to come visit him,” she says. “People are constantly helping him, making sure he gets meals, pitching in to do some of the tasks he’s been doing. We say to him, ‘Let us help you help our parish.’
“There are so many things he does in the background that we take for granted – he’s just made such an impact.”
But Green didn’t want the President’s Award to be seen as a response to Msgr. Schaefer’s illness.
“I didn’t want this to feel like a sympathy vote,” she says. “He’s earned this.
“When I was spreading the word about this award to people who don’t go to our church, they all said it was an awesome choice. They’d say, ‘I don’t go to church there, but I see the impact he makes in the community.’”