The big mission of a Catholic teen with Down syndrome

Kara Jackson Credit Tonia Borsellino CNA Kara Jackson at at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Northglenn, Colorado on July 1, 2016. | Tonia Borsellino/CNA.

On July 1, Kara Jackson crossed the 40th state off her list.

The 18-year-old helped serve Mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Northglenn, Colorado. Dressed in her own vestments and a big smile on her face, Jackson served with the same passion she began her journey with in 2013.

This all started because "God told me to," Kara told CNA. She said God came to her in a dream one night telling her to begin the quest of helping serve Mass in all 50 states.  

And it's a mission her mother questioned at first.

"I didn't think it was a good idea," Christina Jackson said, "It was a crazy idea." The thought of traveling to unknown areas, without financial support, and Kara's heath complications made her mother hesitant.

But Kara was persistent. Christina and her husband, Rick, took the idea to their local priests in Middletown, Ohio for their opinion. The late Msgr. Paul Metzger encouraged Kara because he too had traveled to every state celebrating Mass. Father John Civille, their pastor, told Kara he would be her personal chaplain in Alaska and Hawaii.

With their support, Kara's mother looked to the closest state, Indiana, to "test the waters." Kara, having a strong devotion to the Blessed Mother, suggested stopping at St. Mary Catholic Church in Richmond.

"I didn't think there was a St. Mary's," her mother said, but sure enough, "they have a St. Mary's."

The family said a prayer and sent a letter to the parish. That Friday at 3 p.m., the pastor of the parish called back welcoming Kara. The evening before Divine Mercy Sunday, she stood with Father Kevin Morris and served Mass in her second state.

Since then, Kara and her parents have traveled across the nation during school breaks and family vacations.

"God leads us where we're supposed to go," Christina said. The family never has a specific parish in mind to stop at. Sometimes they end up at a small Church in a strong protestant area or a parish that has more than 12,000 parishioners like Immaculate Heart of Mary in Colorado.

"We've seen it all," the family chuckled.

The family told stories of Churches with expansion plans and others where the pastor's dog also attended Mass. They recalled the time Kara served with Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, at her sixth state in Kentucky. They even said their journey impacted the life of a hotel clerk, bringing him back to God.  

"I don't think of ourselves has evangelists," Christina said, "but we really are evangelizing our faith."

The family considers each trip a pilgrimage. Kara prays for the priests and their parish before Mass begins. Regardless of where they travel, they said God is always with them.

Seeing the universal Church and all the godly encounters "gives me great hope and it has strengthened my faith," Christina said.

"We are a vibrant Church," she said, "We've survived over 2,000 years and we will still be here."

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A notebook filled with messages from every priest documents the entire journey. One priest wrote a message inviting Kara to serve Mass at his home parish in Ireland. She hopes to make the trip for her twenty-first birthday.

"It's emotional to see this," Christina said with tears in her eyes.

After struggling with infertility for many years, Christina became pregnant. When doctors told Christina and Rick their daughter had Down syndrome, they said she would never lift her head up or talk. They said the doctors even suggested, "adopting her out."

"We brought her home," Christina said.

It was Kara who wanted to take altar serving lessons when she was 9-years-old. Her parents said she was focused and attentive the entire time.

"She tells me, 'momma, all I want to be is a saint.'"

Dedicated to serving in different parishes across the U.S., Kara would watch daily Mass on EWTN to learn how to ring the bells. While traveling, she never got sick eating hosts with gluten though she has Celiac disease.

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The family will stop in six more states on this leg of their trip leaving only Arizona, New Mexico, Hawaii and Alaska. Though they would love to complete their journey in the Year of Mercy, they said they would finish "when the money comes in."

Starting in August, Kara will be attending the Project 101 Program for special needs students at Butler Tech University. The family said people have suggested their story be turned into a book or movie. Either way, Kara said she will become an actress and writer one day. 

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