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Women pastoral leaders at St. Joseph Parish for 28 years

By Mary Hazuka*

Every morning, a sister from Holy Names Convent does what many women of faith do on a typical Sunday morning. She attends Mass at 10 a.m. at St. Joseph Catholic Church at 1503 W. Dean Ave. in Spokane.

Sister Irene Knopes
Sister Irene Knopes

Holy Names Sister Irene Knopes, however, does not simply sit in one of the pews with the rest of the parish. Instead, she sits as a leader, as one of the few woman pastoral ministers in the Catholic Church.  In fact, she is the only woman pastoral minister in the Spokane Diocese today.

About 28 years ago, the diocese appointed three women as parish administrators, including Holy Names Sister Carol Lee at St. Joseph Parish.  In 1993, Holy Names Sister Ann Pizelo began serving in that role until Sr. Irene began in 2000.

Dominican Sr. Martina Abba, who served a year as associate parish administrator/social worker in Northport and Kettle Falls, was followed by Holy Names Sr. Carol Qualley, who served as pastor there from 1985 to 1991.

The first appointments were made in response to Vatican II and the search for emerging models of church.

“St. Joseph is the only parish that retained having a woman parish administrator,” said Sr. Irene, noting that she is paid the same as a priest, has a house and utilities covered.  The parish pays for a priest to come and say Mass.

“We’re all called to serve each other. There are many different levels of leadership and service that come with an entity as large as the Catholic Church,” Sr. Irene said.

What exactly does a pastoral minister do in the church and what sets Sr. Irene apart?

Pastoral care is the ministry of care and counseling provided for the members of the congregation and people of faith, according to Sr. Irene. Pastoral ministers are members of the parish staff who share the responsibilities of daily care of the faithful under the leadership of the pastor. She brings compassion through her life and ministry.

As a pastoral minister, she does everything a pastor would do except leading in the Sacraments.  She has been part of St. Joseph’s Parish community for 11 years.

According to Sr. Irene, there is no typical day in the life of a pastoral minister.

“For example, today I went to Second Harvest Food Bank for two hours from 8 to 10 a.m., driving a truck back to the West Central neighborhood,” she said.

She mostly spends time with her parishioners, being there as someone to listen and talk to.

Sr. Irene uses her reflections on the mission of Jesus Christ every day for inspiration as a leader in her community.

“I was just as important as the Pope today with the people I interacted with because I was there for them. As a pastoral minister, I lead them as someone who has lived their experience. They can relate. I was married, and my teens rebelled.”

Sr. Irene grew up in Southern Idaho as a tomboy. 

My father was a share-cropper when I was growing up. I remember playing with the Mexican children whose family worked with my father, and we grew up working together. I did not know the language, but I understood the cultural background,” Sr. Irene said.

That helps with the community Sr. Irene serves, where many of Spokane’s Hispanics live and worship. St. Joseph’s also offers a 1 p.m. Sunday Mass in Spanish. This helps her to better connect with her community.

Her family then moved to Central Idaho for her middle- through high-school years and she continued to work with her father in the hay fields, logging and working with the horses.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in business management at Lewis and Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho.

In 1964, Sr. Irene was married and began rearing her two children. She worked for the Potlatch Corporation. After more than 20 years of marriage, her husband died of a heart attack at the age of 45.

She remembers someone once telling her that losing her husband at her age was a terrible thing.

“I was too young to hang out with the senior crowd and too old to go to the bar scene with the single crowd,” Sr. Irene recalls, “No, I thought. If this happens it is the best time to happen.  We had raised our children together.  They were 19 and 21 years old.”

She saw instead that she had a great window of opportunity to change careers.

Sr. Irene yearned to study pastoral ministry at Gonzaga University and began to explore religious communities. 

“Why did I decide it? Where did it come from?” she asked.

She began work towards a master’s in pastoral ministry at Gonzaga University in 1998, but later used half the credits in 2008 to work towards and later earn a master of divinity degree.

She had a full schedule while working on her master’s degree part-time. She continued to work for Potlatch, leaving work at 3 p.m., driving to campus for a class at 5:30 p.m., and then driving to Zips for dinner to be home by 11 p.m.

“The classes were good for the brain and for the heart. Yes, it was intellectual learning about the Scripture and the church, but the course was also a special form of prayer and it left me feeling touched,” Sr. Irene said.

“When I finally felt peace with a religious community, I felt I was able to quit my other job,” Sr. Irene said.

She then joined the Sisters of the Holy Names and moved to Holy Names Convent, 2911 W. Ft. Wright Dr. 

Sr. Irene joined the Sisters of the Holy Names because the convent is involved in parish education ministries. There she gained the inspiration and motivation to assume the position at St. Joseph Parish.

“A sister at Holy Names Convent recommended me for the new job at St. Joseph’s Parish. I believe in being called forth by other people. I thought, well, if someone else thinks that I can and am good enough to do it, I must be,” she said.

Sr. Irene said that she is not after a title, but is simply living and working as Jesus worked.  Because St. Joseph’s has had three women as pastoral ministers over the few years, so it wasn’t a big change for the community.

“St. Joseph’s is a wonderful community and a big family,” said Sr. Irene.  “We share meals and support each other. The relationship we have is what is most important.”

She also works with the West Central Community Ministries, leaders of 10 congregations who meet monthly for spiritual support and to pool resources for people in need.

For information, call 328-4841 or email


*Mary Hazuka, a Gonzaga University communications student has been a summer intern with The Fig Tree.