DYCKESVILLE — When Kathy Cornette tentatively agreed to teach religious education at St. Louis Parish nearly 40 years ago, she had no idea she’d someday run the program. Run it she did, as a paid employee for 34 years, while raising five children.
Cornette retires this month as director of religious education so she can spend more time with her grandchildren and husband, Lee. The parish held a farewell Mass for her on June 3, where she also received a Good and Faithful Servant Leadership Award from ProCLAYM (Professional Catechetical Leaders and Youth Ministers). Her last day of work will be June 30.
During those 34 years, Cornette served on numerous boards and committees representing religious education within the parish and elsewhere in the diocese, and managed to make time to receive her certification in religious education through the Diocesan Commissioned Ministry Program (now Emmaus) and eventually to earn a bachelor’s degree in theology from Silver Lake College in Manitowoc.
“It took me eight years to get that degree, but I kept at it,” she said. Cornette had a very young family when she first agreed to dip her toe in those education waters.
“But my faith is so important to me. I didn’t think I could teach. One of the most familiar lines you hear when trying to recruit catechists is, ‘I don’t know enough about my faith to do that.’ That’s what I told my pastor then, and he said, ‘No, you can do this. I’ll help you.’”
Those were the days when “help” meant being handed a book, but Cornette plunged into the ministry anyway.
“That (book) wasn’t a lot of help, but I come from a family that takes their faith very seriously, and as I began to have my own children, it became more and more critical for me to pass on the faith. So I thought, ‘Yes, I can do this.’”
Cornette has worked under four bishops, two pastors, two pastoral leaders and two sacramental ministers. She served twice on the ProCLAYM board and served three years on the board of the Wisconsin Directors of Religious Education Foundation (WDREF). She also served on boards for Ministers Assisting Partners and the Green Bay Association of Religious Education.
Serving on those boards was all extra, though. What was important to her heart was helping parents pass their faith on to their children, and to help others who were in the same line of work. Cornette started the Area Wide Catechist In-Services, based at St. Louis Parish but with an invitation extended to all area parishes. Speakers from the diocese came to provide educational opportunities, ongoing formation and to help catechists achieve certification.
In 2008, Cornette was instrumental in starting a youth ministry program which has grown to include youth Masses and many types of service projects for all grades.
“We had something for grades one through 12, and I’m very proud of that,” Cornette said. “The students learned that the faith has to be lived.”
In 2017, the parish’s religious education program, which has 15-20 volunteers, was accredited by the diocese, the third parish to do so.
Over the years, the most challenging were those times when a classmate died by suicide or accident.
“We had to provide a prayer service or something to give them an opportunity to grieve and to know that their Church understands, even though they may not be part of our parish or a part of our program,” Cornette said.
She was able to identify with the students’ pain because Cornette’s own 15-year-old son committed suicide in 1990, something she said they never saw coming.
“After that, I had a much better understanding of the struggles that young people are carrying, and the need for us to be open-ended in asking questions. Ask them about their day, their life. I learned they aren’t necessarily sharing the burdens that they’re carrying.”
At first, Cornette questioned how she could help other people’s kids if she wasn’t able to help her own son. “As time went on, I realized God has a plan for me here, and obviously I needed to stay in ministry for a reason,” she said.
She eventually developed programs to open up the subject of suicide with the students, a subject that is often still taboo among people.
“People think if you mention suicide, you’re putting the idea in their heads, but that is not the case,” she said. Other parishes who knew her story sometimes called her to speak to their students, too.
Cornette said that with the religious education director position comes responsibility, and she knew she had to care for her own spiritual needs before she could care for others. For many years, she prayed regularly with a group of people, attended retreats when possible, and also spends time in daily personal prayer.
“When I was working, I tried to spend 10-15 minutes in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and at home I use my Bible and a prayer calendar with our young people’s names on it. My husband and I use the Black Book during Lent, and, of course, I pray the rosary,” said Cornette.