Susan Kowalski graduated from Sacred Heart in 2022 with a Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies (MAPS). If anyone had told Kowalski ten years ago that seminary studies would be in her future, she never would have believed it. But looking back, she can see the Holy Spirit was sowing the seeds all along.
Kowalski currently serves as the Pastoral Associate and Director of Engagement at St. Joseph Parish in Lake Orion.
While working as a project manager at Ford Motor Company, Kowalski was immersed in parish life at St. Irenaeus Catholic Church in Rochester Hills. Around the time she retired from Ford, she attended an event with a talk by Dynamic Catholic founder Matthew Kelly in which he challenged attendees, “If you died today and went to heaven and God asked, ‘Have you read my book,’ what would you say?’” She had read the Bible but never studied it in a serious way.
Kowalski had been praying for clarity about where God might be calling her in her retirement, and she took Kelly’s challenge as a response to her prayers. She enrolled in a four-year Bible study through the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan. From the beginning, she could feel God speaking to her through his word.
“I came to have what I call my ‘mature faith.’ I came to understand that this is truly God’s living word. Once I realized this, I knew I had to share it with other people,” she said.
Kowalski was on fire to share the Good News. She enrolled in her parish’s Alpha evangelization program and then served as a leader. She brought the Christ Life program to St. Irenaeus and then signed up for “Called & Gifted” to uncover her spiritual gifts.
In her final year of the four-year Bible study, Franciscan priest Father Alex Kratz, OFM, came to the parish to speak about evangelization. Father Kratz asked her if she had ever thought about taking classes at Sacred Heart.
“I thought the seminary was only for men wanting to be priests, not for lay people,” said Kowalski. “I also thought I was too old to go back for another degree, and I still had kids at home. How would I handle all of that?”
Her husband, Paul, encouraged her to explore the idea. She decided to take a prerequisite class in the winter semester of 2017, knowing she could stop taking additional classes any time if it wasn’t working out. Since two of her three daughters were still living at home and attending high school, they could all do homework together.
Kowalski took one or two classes at a time, pausing for one semester in 2016 when she was asked to be a member of Synod 16. Her experience at the synod validated her desire to evangelize.
“Having been at the synod, I’m so inspired to continue the work of the New Evangelization and support the things that came out of it. To know what was discussed and see the fruits of “Unleash the Gospel” come through inspires me to continue the work at my parish,” Kowalski said.
Kowalski chose to pursue the MAPS degree because of its concentration in evangelization. She wanted to avail herself of the opportunity to learn about the subject from internationally known professors such as Dr. Ralph Martin.
“Before I knew it, it was April of 2022, and I had a MAPS degree! I thought, ‘How did this happen?’” Kowalski said. “Once I started taking classes, I loved it. Some classes were challenging so that’s not to say it was easy, and my family and I had to make sacrifices, but God was there to support me.”
While a student at Sacred Heart, Kowalski cherished being in class with other like-minded students who wanted to learn about the Church and deepen their understanding of the Bible and Church teachings.
“So much of my life was spent in the secular, corporate world,” said Kowalski. “To be with this group of people in my classes was awe-inspiring and humbling. I really enjoyed the camaraderie and the bond with others as [we] moved through the same classes together.”
She also appreciated learning alongside both laypeople and seminarians. As they shared stories from their lives in class, Kowalski could see the value of the seminarians hearing about the struggles and joys of family and married life, while she listened to the seminarians’ testimonies.
“The seminarians would be so interested to hear from those of us who were in parish life—what was it like from a lay ministry perspective or as a lay parishioner. And we would get their perspective. That really gave each side a balanced and important perspective,” said Kowalski.
On her graduation day in April 2022, many of her seminary classmates were cheering her on from the balcony at the graduation. She was surprised to see them there, and the moment brought her to tears. Archbishop Allen Vigneron commented on her “fan club” as she received her diploma. And when the seminarians were ordained earlier this year, she was in the crowd clapping just as loudly for them as they had for her.
“You can’t describe it. It’s such a beautiful support system because you all go through it together,” Kowalski said.
Now as a graduate of Sacred Heart, Kowalski appreciates her ministry role at St. Joseph more than ever. Bringing people into the Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, helping parishioners complete their sacraments, overseeing those who bring Communion to the homebound, and providing countless opportunities to grow in faith at St. Joseph bring her joy.
“Sacred Heart gave me the foundational knowledge and the confidence and skills to do the job,” said Kowalski. “And in my former classmates, I have a wonderful network of people throughout the archdiocese I can reach out to any time to ask how they’re handling something at their parish or get feedback. They’re always there for me. We’re all trying to achieve the same goal: to help people to encounter the Lord and to know him and love him.”
Kowalski and her husband are making plans for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with Father Kratz next spring to celebrate her graduation.