After a ‘trip and a song,’ area couple began three-decade journey of ministry to Church

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By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff

WESTPORT, Mass. — When you’ve filled your life’s calling with various volunteer positions, it can be hard to keep track of all you’ve done, so one can forgive Jeannine and Ken Pacheco for jumping around while trying to recall their more than 30 years of bearing witness to their Catholic faith. But one thing they can agree on ­— their desire to express their devotion and being part of a number of Catholic ministries in the Fall River Diocese that began right after they married more than 30 years ago.

But their foray into volunteerism didn’t come from a childhood filled with youth ministries and devotions — it began quite simply with a trip and a song.

“We went to the Cape with a bunch of couples and I kept saying what a beautiful voice Ken has, and then he got up to sing with a band. I kept pressuring him that we had to get back to church and God, and Ken’s singing is what really got him back,” said Jeannine. “That is what truly got us going back to church.”

“That weekend we went to the Cape, someone said you should go to church,” recalled Ken. “We could use you. I didn’t have the initiative, I needed something to push me to get me going,” and so Ken set about learning the songs, and began to sing at Mass; “I got the great feeling singing at the altar. They were songs that appealed to me and I couldn’t believe I was getting these people to feel good, just using my singing.”

Going on a retreat was also part of the couple’s faith journey, a retreat that Ken said he was adamantly opposed to going: “That’s wasn’t for me; I’m not hugging guys,” said Ken of the weekend retreat, “but she insisted that I go and I told her that I was going just for her and it was our awakening. By the time I left that weekend, I was hugging chairs. I was hugging everything. I was a new man.”

That retreat was held 30 years ago, and since then the couple has created a personal laundry list of faith-filled volunteer duties in the diocese, including at their parish, Our Lady of Grace in Westport. From teaching Faith Formation classes for more than 20 years to being part of the Couples Club that helped raise money for the parish, Ken and Jeannine freely admit they know they’ve done a lot but wouldn’t have it any other way. 

It was during those first few years of Marriage — a second Marriage for both — that then-parochial vicar of Our Lady of Grace, took notice of the busy couple and recommended they should look into becoming part of the Marriage Prep ministry. In order to be part of the team, the couple redid their vows to have their Marriage blessed in a Catholic Church, and 30 years later being part of the Marriage Prep has become one of their fondest ministries.

They began doing Marriage Prep at Our Lady of Grace, said Ken, and “we fell right into it. We came into a good team and we liked the people we were with, and it seemed like it was a good fit. We gradually grew and went on with it in Somerset at St. Thomas More, and met with a new team there, and grew from there.”

What makes them work well as a couple is their openness, said Jeannine, especially when sharing private stories regarding abuse, either substance or physical; “We do a lot of personal sharing,” she said. “Many, many years ago, there was a little problem with amphetamines. Ken came from an alcoholic family.”  

Though it’s hard to share her life with strangers, Jeannine said the couple gets “very good feedback.”

“We can do it [the talk] because we’ve been there,” added Ken. “We don’t want people to put that on the back burner, especially when you’re starting out in life. We’re talking about it because we’ve been there, done that.”

The couple was also part of the Residents Encounter Christ prison ministry when it was first conceived more than 20 years ago. As one of the first teams to be part of REC, Ken admitted having some trepidation to being around prisoners, but he said the 10 years they put into REC was an “eye-opening” experience and that the prisoners and team members were great people.

Upon meeting prisoners for the first time or during retreats, everyone is given a hug, and Ken recalled a prisoner’s reaction to being physically touched; “I am very hug conscious, and we would greet them as they came in, and one guy started crying,” he said. “I asked him why he was crying, and he told me, ‘Every one of you guys gave me a hug and I haven’t had a hug in 10 years. I never had that kind of life, this is wonderful.’”

Jeannine recalled relating a story of how her ex-husband would beat her, and when she looked up, she saw one of the prisoners crying; “When I got done, he told me he used to beat his wife, and when he saw me up there, he realized what it was like on the other side,” she said.

After 10 years of REC, the couple said they felt “burnt-out” and the couple replaced REC with teaching Faith Formation classes. Jeannine taught for 20 years, while Ken taught for 27, only recently giving up teaching the Confirmation students at Our Lady of Grace Parish.

“That was challenging. I think the longer I taught, the more experience I got, and I tried to keep on the same level as them,” said Ken, adding that not only did the students learn from him but he learned from the students. “We taught each other. I really enjoyed it.”

Still feeling the call of “wanting to give,” Ken joined the St. Vincent de Paul Society a couple of years ago. The couple has also run Bingo at their parish, and Jeannine has been an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, though at her current position as activities director at Whaler’s Cove in New Bedford, an assisted living facility, the priests who come by help distribute Communion, though she said she’s given ashes to the residents there.

And Ken also puts his voice on display for the residents, helping volunteer his time alongside his wife; “He’s very involved with the residents,” said Jeannine of her husband who is now semi-retired.

After putting 20 years into the Marriage Prep ministry, the couple took on a leadership role, but now 30 years later, the couple admits that it’s time for them to step aside for new leadership, though they said they would make themselves available if needed. 

Jeannine joked that it may seem they tell way too much about their lives, adding that Ken often tells her “you’re too open,” she said, laughing, “but that comes from being on teams for retreats.”

The years of balancing between work and volunteering may seem like a lot for some couples, but “it was our activity; it was our thing to do,” said Ken. “Some people want to go for walks and they enjoy that; we want to go and do things [for the Church].”

Even as they were talking, Jeannine mentioned that years ago they had been part of the Divorced and Separated support group in the diocese, and asked if the group was still around and who was in charge. She looked at Ken and said, “That’s something I wouldn’t mind doing.”

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