Sister Kathleen Stack, CSJ, laughs often when recalling her years as a missionary. She always wanted to be a missionary, and despite her parents’ initial objections, it came true in 1957 when, at the age of 31, she began serving in Japan.
Sister Kathleen attended a language school in Kyoto, then she lived in a suburb of Tokyo where her community was building a school. The staff included Sisters of St. Joseph from all the U.S. provinces. The school convent wasn’t built yet when she arrived, so they lived in the school.
Sister Kathleen was assigned to teach a year in Hawaii when she heard about the need for missionaries in Japan. As a high school student, she had asked her parents if she could enter the Maryknoll Sisters, a missionary community, but they didn’t want her serving in far-away lands. Later, she decided to enter the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, thinking she’d never get to be a missionary.
She was chosen to go to Japan because of the need for a music teacher, which was her specialty. Her junior high students entered a country-wide contest and won first place, singing “The Sound of Music” in English. She taught music for seven years before working with novices. She was told of a program in Tokyo in an area with deep poverty that needed help. “I said, ‘I want to go there, tell me where it is,’” she said.
The poverty was much deeper than she’d seen, even that of poor areas of Alabama she served in, she said. “I was able to work with the poorest of the poor,” said Sister Kathleen, now 95 and a resident of Nazareth Living Center in south St. Louis County.
With an organization in Japan called the Friendship Volunteers, Sister Kathleen helped raise money to help the Protestant minister who ran the program construct a new building to replace a small structure with dirt floors. Contributions came from St. Louisans after Sister Kathleen and the minister visited to spread the word about the mission of the program. She was especially impressed by archdiocesan seminarians who emptied their pockets to contribute.
“To me it was an ideal way for the world to see all these different religions come together, young people and older people, to do whatever they could for this mission,” she said.
Missionaries “don’t need a lot of money because they don’t have fancy places, just enough to get along. They also need spiritual support,” Sister Kathleen said.
Though she taught music and later English to housewives and businessmen, “religion came in automatically just as who you are,” she said. Several baptisms resulted at the School Sisters of Notre Dame school and at the Friendship Volunteers program for the poor.
One of her tasks in Japan occurred when the bishop of Tokyo recommended her as an interpreter for negotiations between Korea and Japan. She didn’t expect pay, but was given $50, and she joked, “I think I’m going to take this up as a job.”
She returned to Japan for the 60th anniversary of the school founded by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. She enjoyed the Japanese people. The School Sisters of Notre Dame who are natives of Japan “taught me plenty,” Sister Kathleen said, “how to say the right things.”
She made friends with a worker building the school who was interested in Catholicism. He dropped something, and used what he called a gentle swear word. She used it once, and another sister who was a Japanese native was appalled, telling her the word wasn’t to be used. “I found out later that it meant something like ‘oh, heck’ or something like that. But women in Japan do not use words even like heck. Isn’t that something? But I use it now once in a while when I drop something or something happens like that,” she said, followed by her infectious laugh.
Sister Kathleen, baptized Frances, was born in Kansas City, Missouri. She entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in 1945. She earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Fontbonne College in 1958 and a master’s degree in social welfare from Sophia University in Tokyo in 1976. She also studied at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California, in 1984.
Sister Kathleen began teaching in 1948 at St. Mary Magdalen and Our Lady of the Presentation Grade Schools in St. Louis. In the 1950s, she taught and played music for parishes and their grade schools outside the archdiocese.
In 1985, after her years in Japan and a few short assignments, Sister Kathleen joined a few other CSJs in rural Pine Apple, Alabama, where poverty is widespread. She served at the Pine Apple Community Center as director of an adult care program and as a community care enabler. Sister Kathleen studied art (painting) with a local, well-known artist and after retiring in 2000, she enjoyed painting.