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Paragould couple retires after 40 years in ministry

The Usserys helped with faith formation and music ministry

Published: May 9, 2024   
Karen and Roland Ussery, parishioners of St. Mary Church in Paragould, have taught religious education and played the organ for 40 years. Now, the two are taking a step back to spend time with family. (Courtesy Roland Ussery)

Roland and Karen Ussery are a shining example of parishioners who work constantly to better their parish community.

After 40 years of volunteering and helping at St. Mary Church in Paragould in various ways, the two are ready to spend more time with family, including three children Kara, Bradley and Stephen, and three grandsons. 

There isn’t much that the Usserys don’t do. Karen has been the director of religious education for more than 35 years. Karen got involved when the Ussery’s daughter started religious education in 1984. 

“Unfortunately, back when our children were young, our Catholic school did not have any scholarships, so we were unable to afford to send them here, and they didn’t have after-school care,” Karen said. “So when my daughter started (religious education at St. Mary Church in Paragould), I decided that I was going to volunteer and be involved in the program.’”

Karen began volunteering when her daughter, Kara, was 5 years old. Today, Kara is 45. 

“At first, I started out just as a (religious education) teacher,” Karen said. “Then the lady that was the (director of religious education), her daughter graduated from high school, and she decided not to do it anymore … so I got a call from our priest … And I was asked to take over as (director of religious education). I agreed to do it.”

But Karen wasn’t the only one involved. As Roland joined Karen for classes, he began to get more involved as well, bringing refreshments and materials as needed for the classes. 

“Later on, I became a teacher too,” Roland said. “It’s helped us grow in our faith because you … need to make sure that what you’re teaching is in line with what the Catholic Church’s teachings are.”

Roland, a convert, also started playing the organ for St. Mary Church. 

“We didn’t have an organist at the time,” Roland said. “... I played a little bit of piano and organ in my previous church. … I came on the parish council in 1991, and was on the parish council up until 2020.”

Roland also served on the parish finance committee and was the committee’s representative to the parish council for 30 years. 

“It was a way to be involved. We watched the church grow,” Roland said. “We’re behind the scenes people. In everything I do, I can’t take credit.”

Roland likened his role to being an umpire in a baseball game.
“If you go to a baseball game, you want to watch the ballplayers and see the game,” Roland said. “Even if you don’t notice the umpires, they’ve done their job. As an organist, if I facilitate the people’s worship, and that’s what they came for, and that’s what they accomplished, then I’ve done my job.”

The Usserys aren’t looking for praise or recognition. They’re just happy to play a part in their parish’s livelihood. 

“You can throw a plaque in the casket with me,” Roland said, emphasizing that he isn’t interested in awards. “I can’t take a plaque with me in the afterlife. And that’s not what I do it for. You don’t do it for the recognition. … We don’t just look for accolades. … There are many people in our parish that do the same thing … and have been for what, 25 or so years?”

Karen said working to help the parish requires teamwork. But that doesn’t mean there are no challenges. 

“It does get frustrating sometimes,” Karen said, explaining that sometimes their workloads at the parish become heavier than usual. “Sometimes Roland will tell me, ‘I’ve played five Masses this weekend. I’m earning brownie points in heaven.’ I say, ‘No you’re not, because you bragged to me about it,’” Karen said with a laugh.

Roland said you have to have thick skin to be an active volunteer in your parish. 

“You’ve got to be able to withstand criticism,” Roland said. “You’ll hear people say, ‘Well, that’s not the way I would have done it’ not realizing that you’re the one that did it. But they just casually mention to you that they wouldn’t have done it that way.”

Additionally, when you’re as involved as the Usserys are, you going to have scheduling conflicts. 

“We try not to miss the important things in our family, but sometimes there are funerals or weekend events, and I’ll go play for Mass,” Roland said.

This is also frustrating, the Usserys said, because not all Catholics prioritize church like they have. 

“It’s a whole different world now,” Karen said. “Sports play a very important part in people’s lives, and sometimes religion gets put a little bit lower down on the priority list. We have no parents that are involved in the (religious education) program. That was frustrating to me, because I’m like, ‘Do they not realize how important this is?’ Sports aren’t going to get your kid into heaven. Their faith is … and you need to step up.”

It occurred to the Usserys that, as they grow older, it’s time for “a fresh pair of eyes” to take over many of the projects they work on and give them a new perspective. Additionally, the Usserys want to enjoy more time with their grandchildren before they grow up.  

“The grandkids are a big part of it. Whenever they get up into their new lives when they’re older, we’ll probably start picking things back up,” Roland said. “But when you’re 65, you realize, ‘Well, I’ve never traveled.’ I don’t know if we’ve even been to other churches in the last 40 years. We’d just like to see some things. And we can’t do that if we happen to be here every Saturday night playing the organ and every Wednesday teaching class. We still have our health, and we’d like to do a few things.”

Parishioner Brad Smithee said the Usserys are a great example for other parishioners and Catholics to follow. 

“You would just have to see how they live their lives and live their faith, because they’ve been so devoted,” Smithee said. “They’re just folks that are very committed and they truly live their lives through their faith and their faith through their lives.”

Roland is quick to reassure while he and Karen plan to ease off the gas in August, they won’t disappear from parish life. 

“The fact of the matter is we’re not absolutely just calling it quits,” Roland said. “We’re paring down our schedules considerably because we have grandkids … we’re still going to be around church, and we’re still going to be doing things.”

The Usserys said for whoever comes next, the ministry is not a chore, but an opportunity. 

“Somebody else might get the same blessings that we got for doing it,” Roland said. “I guess one of the reasons we don’t like awards and things is because we get so much satisfaction personally. That’s all we want. … It improves our faith life. We see students that we have taught grow up and start their own families, and they’re bringing those children to church and they’re involved in the Church. It’s very rewarding to see your work bear that much fruit.”

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