Story and photos by Dave Eck
One morning last November a former student knocked on Sr. Karen Elliott’s office door at Mercy College of Northwest Ohio with a simple request: forgiveness. He had stopped coming to school two years earlier and failed his classes. He felt that he hadn’t given her his best, let her down and wanted to apologize. They prayed and he asked her to keep in touch.
Those are the moments that drive Sister Karen to keep teaching and connecting with her students.
“It’s the inspiration of being involved in people’s lives,” Sr. Karen said. “I think people are inspiring and that’s what I get out of teaching these students. They are amazing people and I feel blessed to be associated with them.”
A Dayton native, Sister Karen has been chairperson and associate professor of religious studies at Mercy College in Toledo since 2004. She previously served as director of religious education at Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish in Shelby, Ohio, and as coordinator of youth ministry at St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Findlay, Ohio. She also taught junior high at St. Michael.
Still, teaching, particularly at the college level, is her love and gift. For her, though, it’s more than theory. When developing an assignment she seeks to take empirical data and make it a lived reality.
In her Death, Dying and Bereavement class, for example, Sister Karen requires students to create a living will by phycially finding the document, getting it notarized and actually talking with the person with whom they are working. The exercise gives them an understanding of what it’s like to walk with the sick and dying.
“I want to take it to a clinical experience,” she said. “How do you understand your patient because you’ve been through this process?”
Sister Karen brings a human component and a passion for student growth to her classes, explained Karen Turpening, who is studying health care administration. Sister Karen advocates for her students and wants them grow into strong, ethical and faith-filled people.
“I have grown so much from what she has taught me and what she stands for. In the health care profession we need instructors like that to really tell us and to value what we’re doing today because it’s going to impact tomorrow,” Turpening said. “When I get into my profession, I’ll know that I was well-taught to know and exactly how I’m supposed to care for others.”
Deneen Parker, a military veteran and student in the nursing program, explained that when she started school she was “rough around the edges,” but Sister Karen has encouraged her to advocate for everyone. Sister Karen also creates a comfortable classroom environment.
“If I’m having a bad day she just seems to know the perfect message,” Parker said. “She can cite the perfect Bible passage. She can tell us right where to go because she just seems to know what message we need religiously. I just love that.”
Blake Hart, a nursing student, said Sister Karen makes sure her students understand by using in-class discussions and relating it to personal experience.
“She puts her students ahead of herself all the time,” Hart said. “She’s very generous. She takes time to listen to us, our issues, even if it’s not concerning the class.”
The passion she brings into her classroom reflects the Precious Blood Sisters’ charism of being a life-giving reconciling presence.
“Passion is about being life-giving,” Sister Karen said. “When I ever get to the point where I no longer have enthusiasm for what I do, that’s when it’s time to quit because then you quit being life-giving. I want to always bring the enthusiasm that I have and love of God to the classroom.”
Prayer is a key part of her classes. She prays before tests and students seek her out individually for prayer. She prays for them to do well, not for themselves, but for the sake of their future patients. She prays that students will take the information from class and assimilate it into their lives. She saves notes and emails that students write thanking her for praying with them. On evaluations, students thank her for praying in class.
“To know that prayer really matters, that’s one of our major (Precious Blood) charisms,” she said. That’s what Mother Brunner did, the praying hands. It’s real. Prayer really matters to these people and it matters today. They come and ask me to pray with them so it means something. That’s what I get out of it. I get inspiration. It’s life-giving for me and then I’m life-giving for them.”
She doesn’t want her students to be brilliant theologians, but she wants them to know more about themselves and their relationship with God when they finish her courses.
“It brings me great joy to be able to use the intellect to give people a framework for religion and then use their hearts to get them to understand that it’s more than just words on a page. It’s just such a joy to see someone moved,” Sister Karen said. “It’s to see that you make a difference in people’s lives. I’ve brought God into their lives and brought God in such a way that they can connect. I think too often religious people are so judgmental that we turn people off to God.”
Sister Karen’s passion for education was nurtured by her parents, who sacrificed to send their four children to Catholic school. When her mom was dying she learned a new word and used it in a sentence, Sister Karen recalled, getting emotional. Her father, a truck driver and later secretary/treasurer of the Teamsters’ Union, was a deep thinker who cared about people.
“My parents had a tremendous impact on me,” Sister Karen said. “It was that whole sense of education and how important that is. They always just encouraged us.”
Her parents also helped form her compassion for others. They taught her to never forget the needy. Today, if Sister Karen sees a person on a highway exit ramp asking for help, she’ll often give a dollar. If it’s the same person, she’ll give a dollar every day.
That philosophy, which she learned from her father, is that if someone takes advantage of her charity and goodwill it’s on their conscience, but if she doesn’t help it’s on her’s. She’s also well-known for speaking her mind when she sees an injustice.
“I will speak out for people, even when I know it’s going to cause me a problem,” she explained. “That’s what Jesus did. I think there are things that if they don’t outrage you, there is something wrong with your soul.”
Sister of Charity Barbara Davis said Sister Karen’s real niche is teaching college. A natural teacher, Sister Karen is very caring, open, and honest, but tough because she wants her students to grow, Sister Barbara said.
“For many of our students,” Sister Karen is maybe the first women religious they’ve ever met” said Sister Barbara, who has known Sister Karen for 30 years and has lived with her for 20. “She brings such integrity to what she does. The students see that what Sister Karen says, she does.”
For a teacher, success can be measured in grades, test performance and other assessment. For Sister Karen, success is listening to students and colleagues speak of the role she plays in their lives. It’s helping them grow into who God made them to be. It’s a student going out of his way to seek forgiveness. It’s forming connections and making them better people.
“It’s reaching them,” she said. “Its’ seeing them believe in themselves because I’ve seen them sitting in tears and helping them overcome failure. It’s lifting people back up when they’ve fallen down and helping to mend a broken spirit.”