By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – Sister Karen Owens, a Sister of St. Joseph who was recently named director of the Cardinal Bevilacqua Community Center in Kensington’s Visitation B.V.M. Parish, brings youthful enthusiasm to her challenging new ministry.

Come to think of it, religious life in itself is a challenging new ministry for Sister Karen – she made her first vows this year.

Born in Staten Island, N.Y., one of the seven children of Colleen and Thomas Owens, she attended Catholic school up to the second grade, and that was the extent of her formal Catholic education. The family moved to Florida in an area where there were no Catholic schools, she explained.

Almost by chance she ended up in Philadelphia.

“I was looking for a college in a northeastern city and Temple University found me,” she said. “I’d never seen Philadelphia, but I fell in love with the city and have been here ever since.”

While an undergraduate majoring in American Studies she nurtured her Catholic faith through Temple’s Newman Club, which she found was “a very vibrant place.” At Temple she also first met Sister Helen Victor Mitsch, S.S.J., who would later have an influence on her vocation.

After receiving her degree in 2002, she continued on to graduate school for her master’s degree in political science, meanwhile working with Princeton Review, overseeing a tutoring program for young people as they honed their academic skills. She also did volunteer work in union organizing of hotel and restaurant employees.

This fit in very well with her natural bent toward social justice issues, as did the influence of the parish she joined – Old St. Joseph’s in the Society Hill section of the city, which has a vibrant young adult ministry as well as a whole menu of outreach programs.

By 2006 when she joined the staff of St. John’s Hospice she was seriously considering a religious vocation.

She wanted to give her life to social justice but grounded in spirituality and Christ, she explained. As she pondered her future she consulted Sister Helen Victor, who suggested she might consider the Sisters of St. Joseph.

The St. Joseph Sisters are probably best known by Philadelphians as a classroom teachers, but since the Second Vatican Council have in a large measure returned to their original charism, which had a strong social justice component.

“I admired their frontier spirit, it speaks to their early days in this country,” Sister Karen said. She entered a candidacy program in December 2005, became a novice in January 2008 and made her first vows this February.

Her current assignment to Visitation B.V.M. Parish is almost tailor-made for her. Its Kensington neighborhood is multicultural with a high level of poverty and the parish works diligently to alleviate it. A major piece of this outreach is the Cardinal Bevilacqua Community Center which was turned over to the parish by Catholic Social Services in July. Sister Karen is now the director.

It’s a big job for a very young sister, but “I’m not doing it alone,” she said. “The Visitation staff is very supportive and the sisters in the community are too.”

Most important, spiritual sustenance comes from daily Mass at Visitation Church, communal prayer and spiritual direction, as well as the 45 minutes or so she tries to set aside for private meditation. “I pray to God and offer Him this project,” she said.

As for advice to others who might be considering religious life, she turns to the advice given to her. “Get involved in service,” Sister Karen said. And “really spend time in prayer with Jesus.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.