Foundress of urban outreach to women passes baton

Keeler Women’s Center director Sister Bridget Dickason (right) gives a speech of gratitude for the accomplishments of the center’s foundress and outgoing director Sister Carol Ann Petersen during an open house in the latter’s honor. Leaven photo by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Keeler Women’s Center director Sister Bridget Dickason (right) gives a speech of gratitude for the accomplishments of the center’s foundress and outgoing director Sister Carol Ann Petersen during an open house in the latter’s honor. Leaven photo by Jill Ragar Esfeld

by Jill Ragar Esfeld

jill.esfeld@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Sister Carol Ann Petersen, foundress of the Keeler Women’s Center here, has a simple philosophy.

“We don’t all have to do everything,” she said. “If we can work with each other, partner with each other, we can reach more people.”

That, combined with Benedictine hospitality, is the rock-solid foundation on which she built the Keeler Center, with its mission of empowering women through education, advocacy and spiritual development.

Recently, when an open house was held in honor of Sister Carol Ann, it was apparent her formula had worked.

The center’s halls were overflowing with more than 200 visitors from all walks of life, filled with gratitude for this welcoming place where God works miracles.

Sister Carol Ann founded the Keeler Women’s Center in 2003 at the request of the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica, Atchison.

“I’ve always had the support of my community and the Sisters,” she said. “And I think you can do so many things when you have supportive people that really care.”

She brought to Keeler a firm belief in the power of education, having served 32 years as a teacher and elementary school principal, followed by nine years as associate superintendent of schools.

“There’s nothing more important than educating people to help them move out of poverty and to help them have fuller lives,” she said.

The open house was a celebration of Sister Carol Ann’s contributions to the center as well as a fond farewell as she takes her formula for success to another venue.

She is the new director of the Sophia Spirituality Center in Atchison, another ministry of the Benedictine Sisters.

Sister Bridget Dickason is the Keeler Center’s new director, coming to the position with five years experience as assistant director.

“When Bridget came to Keeler,” said Sister Carol Ann, “it was always with the intent of taking over at some point.

“We just didn’t think it would be so soon.”

And so the open house was a combination of laughter and tears as Sister Bridget bid farewell to her mentor and friend.

“We’re so used to her being here,” she said. “She’s such a strong leader.

“It just touched my heart that this is it.”

It was difficult on both ends.

“I just love Keeler,” said Sister Carol Ann. “I love the women who come and our volunteers. It has been just a wonderful ministry for me.

“I found it very personally fulfilling.”

Sister Carol Ann is most proud of her many volunteers, who are the backbone of Keeler’s success.

“Every time a volunteer comes,” she said, “they come wanting to take part in our ministry.”

And volunteers are quick to tell you they love being part of the calm, beautiful atmosphere that permeates the Keeler Women’s Center.

“They feel the spirit,” said Sister Bridget. “God’s moving in it.”

Sister Carol Ann hopes to take a bit of that spirit with her to Sophia Center.

“I especially want to continue the good works that are going on here,” she said of her new position. “And then one of my goals is to increase the volunteers.”

She hopes that with more volunteers the Sophia Center programming can be made available to more people.

“I’m hoping we can increase the number of offerings, especially for the rural parishes and young people,” she said.

Sister Carol Ann also hopes to network with local agencies.

“We were so successful at Keeler partnering with lots of agencies,” she said. “So, I’m hoping to reach out to some of the churches and agencies that we might be able to partner with and help meet the needs of the [Atchison] community.”

And she plans to tap into the talents of Benedictine oblates.

“Many of them are very talented and professional,” she said. “I’m hoping to find ways to utilize those gifts to enhance the offerings that we have at Sophia.”

Whatever happens in the future will have a component of prayer and spirituality.               “God is with us,” said Sister Carol Ann. “We need to reflect on that; we need to be aware of it.”

Sister Bridget agreed. With a strong background in theology and spiritual direction, she hopes to make that more of an influence at Keeler.

“Not that Carol Ann wasn’t very spiritual,” she said. “But there will probably be more of that as part of the programming because that’s just who I am.”

Sister Bridget will have the help of two new assistant directors — Sister Patricia Seipel and Brenda Mortell.

“They balance my gifts, or the lack thereof,” she said. “Sister Patricia is a Benedictine and is a great support.

“Brenda’s been on our board and she speaks Spanish, so hopefully she will be able to expand programs in Spanish.”

Sister Bridget is excited about the future of Keeler Women’s Center. When people ask if she’s overwhelmed by her new duties, she has a pat answer.

“I say, it’s not difficult to drive a train that’s already going,” she said. “I’ve just got to keep it on the tracks. I’ve got to keep feeding it fuel.

“We just hope that people will continue to come here and feel the presence of Christ and God’s love and mercy.”

Sister Carol Ann leaves behind a legacy of lives touched by her efforts, and a community bound to continue that legacy.

“We’ll do Sister Carol Ann proud,” said Sister Bridget.

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