Mission scholar Heather Pariera Kimmerling, the Director of Religious Education (DRE) of St. Nicholas Catholic Church in North Pole, Alaska, graduated summa cum laude with an MA degree in Theology in May. Heather has wanted to earn a Theology degree since she began working in ministry. “I felt super unqualified because of the lack of this particular background. It seemed like I was working with people who had at least studied it a bit,” she says.
Heather earned two BAs, in Spanish and International Studies, and an MA in Teaching, at Willamette University. “I would have pursued a Theology degree sooner, but I am still paying off my student loans, and I had no interest in adding to my student debt,” she says. “The Mission scholarship offered to me was the turning point that made this dream a reality.”
“I have been blessed with the spiritual gift of faith, which I believe has allowed me to frequently know things that I have never formally studied,” she adds. “However, my studies at CDU have provided me with information and details that allow me to understand and explain things at a deeper level than I would have been able to otherwise.”
Heather has worked at St. Nicholas parish since 2015, which she describes as “very tight knit, welcoming, and family-friendly.” There are lots of families and children, and with the parish located between an Army and Air Force base, there is lots of parish turnover. “The Holy Spirit is very alive and present within the community,” she says.
Heather and her husband moved to Alaska from Oregon in 2013. “The cold here isn't as bad as it might seem,” she says. “It's a dry cold. I will take –20 degrees here any day to 30 degrees in NW Oregon.” Religious education classes are only cancelled if the temperature hits –40 degrees, or if the roads are icy due to freezing rain, she explains.
Yet, life in Alaska does come with challenges. “Educational opportunities in Alaska are severely limited, and those with a Catholic emphasis do not exist within the state. Having the opportunity for quality, Catholic, online education was a godsend,” Heather says, though internet access was a problem initially. When she began her studies, Heather did not have home internet and had to work out of the library or other public spaces with a connection. “Internet access is severely limited in the state; satellite internet is expensive and unreliable as the satellites aren't this far north,” Heather says.
“When COVID hit and everything shut down, things became a lot more difficult for me because I no longer could go to the library or internet cafes to do schoolwork,” she says. She finally got internet at her home in November of 2020.
“I also experienced a bunch of health issues while pursuing this degree, the result of spiritual warfare,” Heather explains. “CDU was very helpful, understanding, and cooperative through all of it. I am still supremely grateful for all of the staff's prayers. Nevertheless, despite all of the hardships that I endured, CDU was available to provide me with this great opportunity from which I have emerged successful.”
Like her parents, who taught baptism preparation, sang in choirs, and served as catechists, Heather has always been involved in some form of service to the Church. “During high school, my mom provided music for the Saturday evening Mass, and I sang with her,” she says. While in college, Heather was active in the Newman ministry. Then she taught high school Spanish for two years and worked as a parish secretary at her local church. She was active in a young adult group, helping to coordinate the activities, and she led the youth and young adult choir.
Between college and her return to parish work, Heather faced a few life challenges, including a divorce and a job loss due to downsizing. Her mom invited her to a non-denominational Bible study of Genesis in 2006, and she began attending. In September 2008, her home parish—St. Anthony’s in Forest Grove, Oregon—started advertising for a religious education position that was part Young Adult Ministry and part Pre-K – 6th grade.
“I decided to apply as my job search had yielded a few possibilities that had fallen through,” she says. “To be honest, I was applying predominantly for the Young Adult component and was unsure as to what I would do about the elementary school side. Remember, my teaching degree was for high school, and it’s a completely different approach to teaching.”
At the time, her Bible study was covering the life of Moses. “The pastor called me into his office to tell me that they wanted to interview me but that the position had changed to strictly Pre-K – 6th grade for the Anglo and Hispanic communities upon doing the exit interview with the former employee,” Heather says. “I was honest with him and said that I would need to think, pray, and reflect on it.”
Reflecting on all of the questions Moses had for God when he told him to go back to Egypt and speak to the Pharaoh about letting his people go, she realized her feelings of “Why me? There’s got to be someone more qualified, and I don’t think I want to do this” were similar to those he had experienced. The phrase “God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called” also began populating her thoughts. Feeling called, Heather took the position. She coordinated the Religious Education program for Pre-K through 6th grade students in the Anglo and Hispanic communities until her move to Alaska.
“I started my first day as a DRE firmly believing, as I still do, that had I not been participating in the Bible study, my heart would not have been in the state it needed to be for me to be able to say ‘yes’ to God's call. For this reason, I am a major proponent of not just reading God's Word, but actually studying it so that one applies it to his or her own life,” Heather says.
She enjoys sharing her faith with others in her role as a DRE. “The more I have come to learn about the Church, what she teaches, and God's revelation, the more spectacular and the more in love with the Church I fall,” Heather says. “The interconnectedness of everything to God's great love and mercy for us is so profound that there is no way anyone can honestly claim that He does not exist.”
Her biggest challenges at work often stem from the lack of formation of the parents. “The world/society we live in has succumbed so whole-heartedly to religious relativism—which I see as a form of the heresy gnosticism—and its effects on the members of the Church, particularly parents,” Heather says. “They don't realize that relativism allows them to deify themselves because, in being able to say they can choose for themselves what the best way is to worship, God must be wrong, and if He is wrong, then He cannot be God, and they themselves must be, for only gods know all.”
“In working with them during the preparation of their children for First Communion, I strive to help them see the truth of God's revelation, the importance of the sacraments, the significance of the Mass, and how the Eucharist is the very heart of who we are as Catholics. It always saddens me when the parents clearly just don't get it,” Heather says. “I pray for them and that their hearts may be unhardened. However, this sadness does find a great deal of comfort in knowing that those I teach in RCIA all choose to become Catholic out of their desire to receive Jesus in the Eucharist.”
“My husband, who is unbaptized, is very proud and supportive of me,” Heather adds. “I am currently praying about how God would like me to use the degree and pursuing a few possibilities. I still like participating in the non-denominational Bible Study—it spiritually feeds me, even though I have to take some things with a few grains of salt, although I took a hiatus while pursuing the degree. I look forward to jumping back in this Fall to share my newly acquired understanding of God's revelation with our Protestant brothers and sisters.”