Each month, The Central Minnesota Catholic is highlighting one of the seven themes of Catholic social teaching with a feature story and other resources. This first story of the series focuses on the life and dignity of the human person.
One of Nick Thielen’s favorite things to do at church is to light a candle in the votive stand. After carefully choosing just the right one, he often fixes his gaze on the statue of Joseph or the one of Mary with Jesus. Other times, he bows his head and prays in silence.
When Nick, 20, attends Mass at Christ Our Light Parish in Princeton/Zimmerman, he usually sits in the back with his dad, Joe. Nick’s voice sometimes can be heard above the congregation during or after their responses.
“Nick can be very vocal when he is excited about something, and I was very worried about how much he might disrupt the Mass services and that others may not be very pleased,” Joe said. “Having a child with a traumatic brain injury, you are always trying and wanting them to become as involved in life as much as possible, and we are always happy when they show and vocalize their excitement with activities.”
Nick was just 9 years old when he suffered a severe traumatic brain injury in an automobile accident in 2009. Now a quadriplegic, Nick is permanently in a wheelchair. Although mostly nonverbal, he can communicate through sounds, facial expressions, hand signals and digital technology, which he controls by moving his head.
“Nick has a smile that shines bright, and when he is [smiling] you can’t help but just feel that happiness and joy inside yourself,” Joe said.
Where he really shines is through the Onward program with the Princeton school district, which helps students build life skills up to age 21.
“Nick loves being at school every day. He loves to be involved in anything that involves interacting with others,” Joe said.
Carolyn Burke, who works for the school district, is one of Nick’s caregivers and his “best friend,” according to Joe. The two met 11 years ago while Carolyn was working as Nick’s paraprofessional. She has been a para for 25 years.
“Carolyn developed a very close friendship in helping him with all aspects of his school days,” Joe said. “Working very closely with Nick, she was able to understand him and how to communicate with him much better than even we could. To this day, we continue to learn from [her] as to how much Nick keeps improving and what he is capable of doing.
“We were so fortunate to be able to have Carolyn working with Nick for all of his school years,” Joe added, “and you could tell that really helped Nick grow, knowing he had someone there at school that he could call his ‘best friend.’”
Since COVID, Carolyn has been able to continue to work with Nick at his home. Because Carolyn also works part time at Christ Our Light as part of the maintenance team, she often brings Nick along in a special lift van that accommodates his “set of wheels.”
“It’s really hard to put into words what it is like to work with Nick,” Carolyn said. “He is just so totally amazing. Nick has such a good sense of humor. His wonderful personality gives me so much joy.”
One of their favorite tasks is watering the plants. As they move throughout the church, part of their routine is to stop to light a candle together and pray the Hail Mary. “Nick loves to pray,” Carolyn said. “He will often sit in front of the statues, with his head bowed, and just pray. He also loves the Stations of the Cross, which I hope to pray with him soon.”
Carolyn, who has lived her whole life in Princeton, often asks Nick to pray for her. “I once heard a quote from Mr. Rogers about people who have special needs, ‘Anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God.’ And I believe that to be true. Nick has a very special connection with God, a very strong faith. He just loves God so much,” Carolyn said.
Carolyn and Nick’s relationship has grown into a beautiful one that extends beyond the two of them. Carolyn’s family, which includes her husband of 38 years, Tony, their four children, three daughters-in-law and five grandchildren, has “adopted” Nick into their hearts. Many of them send him pictures and video messages.
“When they tell me about their day’s activities, you see the excitement in Nick’s eyes and the sounds he makes of how much he wants to be able to tell, and you can see how he shares in those stories while Carolyn is telling them,” Joe said. “Carolyn is truly very gifted with how she connects, communicates, interacts, assists and cares.”
When Joe and Nick first started attending Mass together, Joe admitted he was a little nervous.
“It can be scary going to a new place and not knowing how do we get inside with a wheelchair, where do we sit, are others going to be upset with us being there? The church staff knew Nick and all said hi. It really helped. Every Mass, they are always making sure to come over and say hi to Nick, and you can tell he is so excited to be there where he knows them, too. He feels right at home when we are there for Saturday evening Mass,” Joe said.
“Nick and I needed faith back in our lives, and Christ Our Light has made us feel so welcome that we want to make sure we go as often as we can,” Joe said. “Others from the congregation have come over to say hi to Nick. One of the parishioners always stops on the way out … and says hi or tells Nick how great it was hearing his singing from the back of the church.”
Besides hanging out with Carolyn and friends at school and church, Nick also enjoys listening to music, especially Johnny Cash, and watching “Scooby Doo.” He also loves caring for his goats, cats and other animals on their small hobby farm.
“Nick was very active in 4-H working with his animals at a very young age,” Joe explained. “That is something that has continued in his life and has given him lots of joy and excitement after his injury. He loves animals and giving them attention. We were able to help Nick in his wheelchair, with the help of the Sherburne County 4-H, to compete and show goats, chickens, rabbits, swine, llama and even ride his own horse.”
Both Joe and Carolyn want people to know that although Nick may look a little different, he has the same thoughts and feelings as anyone else his age.
“I hope people will see how Nick and I interact with each other,” Carolyn said. “Hopefully, this will help them feel comfortable to joke and talk with Nick, too.”
Father Kevin Anderson, pastor of Christ Our Light, likes to give Nick “a hard time” when he sees him around the parish. He admires the way Carolyn and the rest of the staff, along with the entire parish community, have made Joe and Nick feel welcome.
“As a parish we try to be welcoming to everyone,” Father Kevin said. “But we are not meant to be an exception. This is how parishes are meant to be. If you walk into any church, you should feel accepted. Whether you look different, whether you act different, here around the table we are all in this together. How do you treat a person with special needs? You treat them like a person.”