Religious education director makes evangelization her year-round mission
By Jessica Langdon
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — In 32 years as a priest, Father Pat Murphy, CS, has never encountered anyone like Susan Buck.
“To her, there’s no such thing as a lost sheep,” said Father Pat, archdiocesan animator for Hispanic ministry.
Buck, the longtime director of religious education at St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kan., keeps a close watch over her whole flock, even on bustling Wednesday evenings when nearly 250 kids — plus their teachers and parents — pour into the school to learn the faith and prepare for the sacraments.
“When I see her on Wednesday nights and the classes are getting started, to have everybody come together for a prayer, to me looks like utter chaos,” said Father Pat with a laugh.
But with Buck and her team in charge, it runs like a well-oiled machine.
“She’s like the maestro of the orchestra,” he said.
Father Pat only met the religious educator this past spring when St. Patrick launched a regular Spanish Mass — and in the process signed up dozens of additional families for religious education.
But just a few months of working with Buck has demonstrated the something special she brings to the table.
“She’s just so focused on her ministry there and making sure kids get catechesis,” said Father Pat. “Just being open — accepting them where they are,” he said, makes all the difference
Buck happily tends to the parish’s ever-evolving needs, even as she shoulders another round-the-clock vocation at home: caring for her husband Russell, who has had 10 strokes since 2008.
“My whole world revolves around my family and my job,” said Buck.
She doesn’t view teaching the faith to 244 children — ranging in age from kindergartners to eighth-graders — as anything less than what God has asked her to do.
“When they receive holy Communion for the first time, I see the joy in their heart. I see the parents’ faces light up, and I know that it’s all worth it then,” Buck said. “There’s always something about a sacrament. When you watch that child get baptized, you know you’ve done what the Holy Spirit’s asked you to do.”
‘Somebody needed somebody’
Buck grew up in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood, where neighbors helped neighbors.
After graduating from Blessed Sacrament Grade School in Kansas City, Kan., she attended Bishop Ward High School.
And although Russell didn’t go to the same school — he didn’t become Catholic until later — the two got to know each other through neighborhood friends.
Susan and Russell eventually married, and welcomed a son, Rusty, and two daughters, Lisa and Sharon.
The couple’s participation through St. Patrick, their parish, in a Marriage Encounter event sparked Buck’s first encounter with the religious education program in 1978.
When a member of the group — the parish’s DRE — mentioned needing a first-grade catechist, Buck volunteered.
“And just like that, I started,” she said. “And it was fun. I stayed with it.”
It soon became a family affair when Russell and a family friend started teaching. Lisa volunteered as an aide in high school and later taught as an adult.
Buck’s youngest daughter, Sharon Davenport, remembers sitting as a child in the back of her mom’s classroom.
Today, Davenport teaches her own class of kindergartners in the program.
When the previous DRE left the position in the mid-1990s, she immediately thought of Buck to take the reins.
Buck, coincidentally, had turned in her notice at a hearing aid company the very day that then-pastor Father Tony Blaufuss called to ask if she was interested.
Buck had planned to work for her husband, a truck mechanic, at his garage.
But Russell encouraged her to go for it. She could handle both, he said.
“The Holy Spirit just put me where I needed to be because somebody needed somebody — and it just worked out,” she said.
St. Patrick pastor Msgr. Michael Mullen believes this has been a match made in heaven.
“She enlists other people to help her and gives them good direction,” he said, adding that she has developed a wonderful staff of catechists and is “gifted at placing them” with the right ages.
Msgr. Mullen always finds classes engaged in good topics and sometimes jumps into the conversation.
He is always inspired by the two Masses each year with leadership from students in the religious education program.
‘Those children are very important to me’
Msgr. Mullen knows well that families don’t always join a parish according to the school-year calendar.
“When a parent steps forward and expresses interest, that’s the time to respond,” he said.
And Buck does that naturally.
“Her theory is: If kids haven’t been to catechism in a while, that’s OK — we’ll do catch-up classes,” said Father Pat.
Buck folds new arrivals into the program no matter what time of year they arrive.
“To me, if I came to a church and I said, ‘OK, these are my children,’ and somebody says, ‘Well, you know it’s February — you need to wait until September,’ I would say, ‘How important are my children to you?’” Buck said.
“Those children are very important to me,” she said, “and to God.”
They’re so important she’ll go out of her way to make sure they know Jesus’ love.
“I don’t believe in God and I don’t want this,” a student once told Buck. So they struck a deal: The student would come in once a week and complain for half an hour, but the second half-hour belonged to Buck.
At the end of their sessions, the student told a different story: “I do want to be confirmed and I do believe in God.”
Buck hopes students will remember this as a positive place, and she reminds her catechists that you never know when something you say might stick with a child for a lifetime.
But the learning is never one-way.
“A good catechist has to learn as well as teach,” said Buck.
That’s why she was one of the first to sign up for a School of Faith course as part of the “Faith: Love It. Learn It. Live It.” initiative.
‘She really evangelizes’
“I think any student can see that what Mrs. Buck is saying, she’s living,” said Msgr. Mullen.
Her marriage is a witness to her faith.
When they said, “I do,” it was for life, said Buck. And over the years, they have had the chance to honor that promise “in sickness and in health.”
Despite those challenges, said Msgr. Mullen, “they have a wonderful marriage.”
The couple cherished years of good health, and especially enjoyed camping. Russell took his grandsons hunting and fishing and would lend a hand on his wife’s busiest nights at church.
When his health declined, he struggled with his new limitations, and it was very hard at first.
But both adjusted to the change, moving to a smaller home and revisiting plans they’d made for retirement.
It’s simply what you do, though, Buck insists.
“Within the vocation of marriage, you have sacramental grace,” she said. “I believe that grace kicks in all the time, and that sacramental grace is what helped us to go through what we’ve been through — to never be angry, and to always be there for each other and do the next step and the next step, whatever it is.”
They treasure moments together at their mobile home in Missouri, on their deck overlooking the woods, or even just watching TV.
“He made the comment about a year ago that we’re closer than we’ve ever been,” said Buck.
She has started taking part in a new support group at the parish for caregivers and takes comfort in the knowledge that she’s never alone.
She’s surrounded by family and friends, she said, who let her laugh — or cry on their shoulders — wonderful co-workers, and catechists who can seamlessly step in if she is called away on a Wednesday night to the hospital.
But that has happened only a couple of times. The majority of Russell’s major rehabilitation has taken place during the summers — timing she credits to the Holy Spirit.
When she began working with a growing number of Hispanic families, Buck knew right where to turn for inspiration.
As the first pope, St. Peter was charged with bringing together people of different cultures and languages to build one universal church, she said.
“He’s answering my prayers,” she said. “I have a picture I keep by my desk of him to remind me that I fall in the water and Jesus has to help me up, too.”
Even with plenty going on at St. Patrick, Buck immediately offered to be a resource to the Cathedral of St. Peter when it expanded its Hispanic ministries this year.
“There’s always room at the inn in terms of Susan,” said Father Pat.
“I just wish we had more people who only did their part like Susan does her part,” he added. “She really evangelizes.”