In the last months of her life, Karen Dorsey often clutched a small cross.
A gift from a family friend, the smooth wooden cross made of olive wood from the Holy Land became a source of comfort to Karen as she was slipping away from this life due to cancer. But as family and friends have described, the cross was a way for her to unite her sufferings to Jesus — and ultimately find comfort and hope in the Resurrection, which we celebrate throughout Easter.
Following her death in May of 2018, Karen’s family and friends, started a project in hopes of bringing that same comfort to others in need of prayer. Karen’s Cross was started as a means to promote the power of prayer and through that, the bonds of a faith community.
Family and friends as well as parishioners at St. Clement of Rome Parish in Des Peres have distributed more than 600 palm crosses, along with a small card featuring Karen’s story, a prayer and a song. Many of them have been given to patients at Mercy Hospital St. Louis, where Karen was a patient at the David C. Pratt Cancer Center. Other recipients have included people with illnesses, although the family said they are for anyone in need of prayer.
“Karen’s Cross intends to promote the palm cross as a source of comfort, peace and perhaps, strength to those people who would appreciate the tangible experience that the cross offers,” according to the project’s website, karenscross.com, which includes a section for prayer requests. “It is hoped that the cross will become a reminder to pray for others, knowing that others are praying for them. The cross is and will always be a symbol of Jesus, our faith, and God’s boundless love for us.”
Mike Hopkins, a longtime friend of the Dorseys, received a palm cross shortly after Karen’s funeral Mass. It’s become a source of comfort for him as he was recently diagnosed with cancer and undergone chemotherapy. “It’s a symbol of hope,” said Hopkins, a parishioner of St. Francis Borgia in Washington. “She lived her life with the idea that she was doing her best to take care of her health, and her faith was such a big part of her life. She lives on through all of these crosses.”
Karen Dorsey was a familiar face to many in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. She was a librarian and resource teacher at the former Prep North Seminary and taught math at the former Prep South Seminary. She later was the coordinator of religious education at St. Jerome in Bellefontaine Neighbors and St. Cletus in St. Charles. After retirement, she was a Parish School of Religion catechist at her parish, St. Clement of Rome.
Dorsey was diagnosed with breast cancer in the mid-1990’s. She recovered, but then in 2004, the cancer was back, this time in her bladder, which then metastasized. Doctors gave her six to 18 months to live. Her family encouraged her to stop teaching PSR and volunteer tutoring, but she continued on — for 14 years.
Her daughters Maggie O’Shaughnessy and Anne Marie Chapman said faith had a prominent role at home growing up. They said they believe that faith strengthened their mother in her suffering. “She definitely saw the value of suffering,” O’Shaughnessy said. “She said, ‘I can take it and offer it for people who need (prayers) more than me.’”
The last few months of her life were spent at home in hospice care. Friends, neighbors and family would often visit, praying the Rosary outside in the Dorseys’ Mary grotto. Her daughters shared stories of having a May crowning and children praying outside her window, once she no longer had the strength to come outside.
A neighbor once said, “The veil is so thin,” O’Shaughnessy recalled. “At first, I was like, what are you talking about? But it hit me one day when I looked and I thought, ‘this is Heaven.’ It was a chance to see these glimpses.”
Stories of hope, comfort
The crosses bring comfort not just to those who are suffering, but their families as well, said Msgr. Michael Butler, St. Clement pastor, who has given them when visiting parishioners. He shared several stories, including a man with Alzheimer’s disease who held the cross in his hand as he died. On another hospital visit, he gave one to a woman who had a heart attack; she, too, held it in her hand as she died in the hospital.
“It’s a reminder to us all that unless we deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him — what a disciple is about — we cannot enter into the kingdom of Heaven,” Msgr. Butler said. “It touches the deepest part of our heart and soul, especially when we are suffering and we realize we don’t do this alone. Christ did it before us, Christ is with us, and there’s also the promise beyond the cross of that of the resurrection. It’s important to our faith.”
St. Clement parishioner Mary Alice Helmsing, who has brought communion to parishioners for several years, said people have told her that the cross gives them the feeling that “God is right there with you. It’s amazing how comforting it’s been — to see it working in action is beyond belief.”
Deacon Ken Potzman, director of pastoral care services at Mercy Hospital, said that the crosses and their prayers have great meaning to patients who receive them. It’s also a reminder of being part of a larger community of faith, he added.
“During difficult times, I often see the patient clutching the cross,” Deacon Potzman noted. “Even when they are unable to pray, they hold onto the cross, which brings them a sense of peace and comfort.”
(The crosses touch) the deepest part of our heart and soul, especially when we are suffering and we realize we don’t do this alone. Christ did it before us, Christ is with us, and there’s also the promise beyond the cross of that of the resurrection. it’s important to our faith.