Jo Kaczmarek lounges in her sunroom inside her family home in Glens Falls. Beloved by many, and the founder of the Family Faith Formation Program at St. Mary’s in Glens Falls, Kaczmarek is retiring this year at 91. (Emily Benson photos)
Jo Kaczmarek lounges in her sunroom inside her family home in Glens Falls. Beloved by many, and the founder of the Family Faith Formation Program at St. Mary’s in Glens Falls, Kaczmarek is retiring this year at 91. (Emily Benson photos)
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The teapot shouts from across the kitchen and Jo Kaczmarek heads over. She grabs mugs from the cabinet, passing by framed photos of her and her family. Shots from past vacations or holidays together at her home in Glens Falls.

I offer to help but she shoos me away. No Italian grandmother will accept help in the kitchen and Kaczmarek is no exception. She motions for me to join her in the back sunroom, aglow with soft morning light. I grab my paper and pen, eager to ask about her years of work as a catechist and faith formation coordinator at St. Mary’s Church in Glens Falls, yet throughout our talk I find myself chatting about my own work and family, my upcoming holiday plans and time spent in Albany.

This is not a unique experience: everyone who encounters Kaczmarek is met with this same kindness, one of gentle, inquisitive questions and devoted listening. It’s one of the reasons she is the proclaimed “Saint Jo” — as some of her friends call her — of St. Mary’s Church, where she has founded and run the Family Faith Formation Program since 1991. 

Her years at the parish have left a mark on hundreds of children and families, but now, at the age of 91, Kaczmarek knew it was time to step into retirement.

“It’s just been nice to be able to leave while I’m still having a good time and enjoying what I’m doing,” she said. But for the church, losing Kaczmarek is a hard goodbye. 

“She’s a marvel, we love her,” said Father Scott VanDerveer, pastor at St. Mary’s. “One of my favorite people in the world is Maya Angelou, and I have always felt, since I arrived last year as the pastor at St. Mary’s, is that the things I love about Maya Angelou are the things I love about Jo Kaczmarek: she is filled with grace and integrity, and she makes you feel like you are the most important person who ever lived when she listens to you.”

On June 5, the parish held a surprise goodbye party for their beloved catechist. Family and friends of Kaczmarek attended the celebration after Pentecost Mass, including two of her seven children, where Kaczmarek was given a blessing from her church and presented with a Lifetime Achievement award. 

“It was beautiful, they pulled out all the stops,” Kaczmarek said. “It was just incredible.”

FAITH FROM THE START
Born in West Buffalo, Kaczmarek grew up in an Italian-Catholic neighborhood with her Sicilian parents. “Everyone I knew was Italian; I thought Jesus was Italian!” she laughed. “Every afternoon you could smell spaghetti sauce all over the neighborhood.”

Kaczmarek’s first-generation immigrant parents brought their strong Catholic faith over from Europe. One of her fondest memories as a little girl was walking to Mass hand-in-hand between her mother and father.

“It’s a wonder that stuck with me,” she recalled. “Just being with both parents and feeling very secure.”

She attended the University of Buffalo where she studied teaching. During a Christmas break her freshman year, a friend convinced her to attend a holiday party where she would meet her future husband, Conrad. Fitting enough, Kaczmarek likes to joke that she got him for Christmas.

The two married in 1954 while Kaczmarek was teaching in the North Tonawanda School District, just outside of Buffalo. She taught at the school for two years, during which her students were happy to throw her an engagement party in her first year and a baby shower in her second. 

The family later moved to New Jersey for a stint before Conrad took a job in Glens Falls. In 1967, Kaczmarek and her family moved to Queensbury, buying the first house in what is now a bustling neighborhood. The family joined Our Lady of Assumption Parish where Kaczmarek worked as director of Religious Education. In the 1980s, Kaczmarek left faith formation to teach second grade at St. Mary’s-St. Alphonsus School.

“For 10 years, it was my dream job,” she recalled. “Everybody loves you in second grade, and it was some of the happiest years that I can remember.” Kaczmarek’s own kids were still attending SMSA at the time. One of her oldest, Joi Kaczmarek, recalled running over to her mom’s classroom for snack money or helping set up her room for the year.

FAITH AND FAMILY
In 1991, St. Mary’s faith formation program was in serious need of revamping and Kaczmarek was approached to help coordinate a redesign. She had the idea to create a family program, one where adults and kids can both participate.

The result is a legacy that Kaczmarek leaves behind in her retirement: a bi-weekly faith formation class that’s attended by students and their parents and loved by the dozens of families who attend each year.

Debbie Sliva, catechist in the Family Faith Formation Program, has worked with Kaczmarek for almost 20 years. Kaczmarek took the time to know each of the families in the program, she said, and would pray for their needs. “She made everyone feel special,” Silva said. 

Kaczmarek and her team of catechists meet with families at the SMSA Great Hall and start off with a prayer and meditation. She makes family binders for adults and kids to go over materials at home or to reference if they have questions. Students break off into classrooms with their catcheists while Kaczmarek stays behind with the adults. They discuss everything from upcoming readings at Mass, to the sacraments, beatitudes and questions on the Gospel.

Having parents there is “a real value, and I think that’s the secret,” she said. “It is easier if it’s a family value and it’s something you grow up with, it just sticks with you.”

“This shows the kids that parents care enough to go too,” Sliva said. “The kids have been in school all day but I think having the support of their mother or father, or both, shows that (faith) is a family thing.”

Even outside of her program, Kaczmarek is always there to help. “All summer long, when we’re not in session, I get phone calls,” she said. People call about marriage problems, questions about their kids, or just someone to talk to. One woman in her program calls Kaczmarek her guardian angel because she always gets a call from Kaczmarek right when she needs it. 

“I have no idea where it comes from,” Kaczmarek said. “I just know when she comes to mind — or when anyone comes to mind — I should do something about it.” 

“I think the thing people like about my mom is that she’s always willing to help,” Joi Kaczmarek said. “A lot of people would just come to her and talk … she’s always been a fairly wise person. And she doesn’t just give a lot of advice, she really listens.”

Kaczmarek doesn’t plan on leaving St. Mary’s fully; she knows she’ll find ways to volunteer and be involved in the church. She’s excited to have time to relax, see her family and meditate in prayer, but for anyone in need, she’s always a phone call away. 

“I have been so blessed,” she said. “These people have been so faithful and it’s just been really, really good. It’s been a good journey, no doubt about it.”