Sr. Karen Hawkins has learned to listen to Providence and accept that life’s circumstances can lead her in unexpected ways. Her road to religious life was not typical.
She lived in Hell’s Kitchen, a gritty New York City neighborhood, struggling to raise a teenage son as a single mother while juggling a career as a financial consultant and dealing with an alcohol addiction.
Her sense of peace and acceptance only came after 25 years of recovery and listening to the persistent call to religious life.
The path to the Sisters of Providence appeared only after she began exploring a vocation with a different order. They recognized the difficulties she had faced in her life and recommended she move out of New York, where the order lived in a Hell’s Kitchen tenement, to a different environment. It would be more helpful, they reasoned, to continue her discernment “somewhere beautiful.”
She began volunteering at Sojourner Place, a ministry for women facing homelessness or other risk factors, sponsored by the Sisters of Providence in Seattle.
Leaving her job to move out to Seattle and divesting herself of most of her material goods, as the other order required, she found a freedom that she did not anticipate. For a time, she felt becoming a professed religious might spoil that freedom.
“I thought that having my needs all met by being part of an order might separate me from the people on the margins,” she explained.
Sr. Karen became a Providence Associate because she thought it might strike a nice balance. But the call remained and she gradually came to realize that life as a vowed religious had a different kind of voluntary poverty.
“You live with a poverty of time because your time is not your own,” Sr. Karen explained. “One of the exciting parts of religious life for me was never knowing where you would go. Once you enter, you learn to work, pray and live in common which gives you a real balanced life.”
Her journey, said Sr. Karen, gave her an empathy for the people in her ministries.
“Having a child also added to my ability to help mothers who are struggling,” she said. “My religious life is now paramount, but my life experiences stayed with me and were useful in the ministries I have worked in over the last 25 years.”
After vows, she became a Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA) and worked at Elder Place in Oregon where she was privileged to serve people of many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Many of the other CNAs were minorities and were surprised to see that Sr. Karen was often treated the same way as they were by some of the elderly patients. It heartened them to know that the sometime challenging interactions with elderly patients were not because of their ethnicity.
From there Sr. Karen on to the University of Providence (formerly College of Great Falls) and finished her bachelor’s degree in human services. She became a licensed addiction counselor, working with Native Americans, mothers, people who were incarcerated and others.
“Such work is a real challenge to being an accepting person because the recidivism rate is so high with many patients,” she said. “This is a real societal problem. In particular, the inter-generational wounds of Native Americans add to their challenges. The debt of addiction is so deep with many of these people that there are no easy solutions.
“Often times, patients have parents who were also addicted. It is hard to recover if you never learned basic life skills. It helped me to know that God is walking with them and loving them throughout the recovery process even though it might be very difficult for them.”
Sr. Karen went on to earn a master’s from Seattle University in transformative spirituality and eventually joined the formation team. She worked for two years in campus ministry back in Great Falls, Montana, and in between, volunteered for relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and at the southern U.S. border.
She also spent six months in El Salvador and said it was like “being a two-year old again because you don’t know the language at first nor the norms of operating in a different country.”
It was a time once again to sit back and learn what Providence had in store for her.
Today, Sr. Karen spends her time driving the Sisters from St. Joseph Residence to medical appointments and relishes her time praying together with the other Sisters most evenings.
“It’s not about what you accomplish,” she said. “It’s about how you love.
“I hope people do not look at religious life as a sacrifice,” Sr. Karen reflected. “It might be a challenge at times but it is comforting to know that God is with you, working with the people you are ministering to and giving you and them the graces to work through life.”