Meet the Carmodys: A family on a mission

April 15, 2021
The Carmody family poses for a photo.

About eight years ago, the Carmody family was living the dream.

University of Detroit Mercy alumni Chris Carmody ’97 and Karen Carmody ’98 both had successful careers, a close-knit family with four children and were very active at their church.

But, still, they felt something was missing.

“In one way of looking at it, I had everything one would dream of,” Chris said. “I had a great job, nice house, two cars, four beautiful kids, but deep down inside I was still searching, still longing for something different. I had been looking for the answer by searching for another job to make more money, so that I could buy more stuff, and spend more time away from my wife and family at work. I did not find the answer there. I found the answer in the least-expected place.”

After much soul searching, the Carmodys decided to walk away from everything and become Catholic missionaries.

Before they became missionaries, Chris was the director for sales at an automotive supply company and Karen was an instructional designer.

“We never desired to be missionaries,” Karen said. “In fact, we had worked hard for almost 20 years to ‘build our own kingdom.’ ”

The Carmodys said they were inspired by David Platt’s book Radical, which encourages Christians to practice what they preach.

“Once we realized that Jesus was asking us to walk away from everything that we had worked so hard to build, there was no way to say ‘no,’ ” Karen said. “There was no way to fake ignorance. The question had been answered: Jesus wanted us to give up our lives to preach the Gospel and serve the poor.”

The Carmodys began the process of giving away their possessions, and in August 2015 they made a two-year commitment to Family Missions Company. They did four months of intensive training with the nonprofit and then they were off.

“We were commissioned by the bishop in Lafayette, La., as lay Catholic missionaries,” Karen said. “The following week we were sent to the Amazon jungle.”

The Carmodys’ first mission was in Peru, where they would spend three years, followed by three months in Mexico and 13 months in Kenya. They’re now in Puerto Rico.

Getting started

When the Carmody family arrived in Peru for their first mission, there were other missionary families in the area they could go to for advice, but for the most part, they were on their own.

“What the mission looked like was up to us,” Karen said. “There were suggestions, there’s things other families had done that they could recommend to us, but we really had a lot of autonomy and freedom to do what we felt God was calling us to do in that place.”

The Carmodys pose for a photo.The area was broken into several zones and the Carmodys worked their own zone. Karen said they began the mission by doing the things anyone who moved to a new area might do.

“It’s just a matter of getting the people to see that authenticity in us,” Karen said. “We don’t want anything from them. People are always suspicious—‘you must want something.’ There aren’t a lot of people wandering around selflessly giving all that they have just in the hopes that others will experience joy and love.”

The Carmodys baked cookies, hung out in public places or did other simple things with the goal of meeting people.

“After you get into those relationships, then people start to open up. Then the messiness of life starts to reveal itself and there is no shortage of opportunities,” Karen said. “We were in a dysfunctional little village in the middle of the Amazon jungle, where addiction runs rampant, infidelity runs rampant and it’s the cocaine capital of the world. We lived on a large river where there’s the trafficking of drugs and humans. Just a crazy place, so there’s a whole lot of opportunities to bring the love of Jesus into that place. And people see that a life lived through Christ is so much happier. Once they see that, it’s contagious and people become very curious. And therein starts the mission.”

The Carmodys feel they were able to touch thousands of lives in Peru—in the village they lived, in many of the surrounding villages and in remote places in the mountains.

“As I look back on our three years in the Amazon jungle, I see that we were like chaplains,” Karen said. “We did anything and everything possible to help people learn about and draw closer to Jesus. Several times a week we distributed food to families in dire circumstances. We led Bible studies and communion services.”

They bought medicine for people who couldn't afford it, and accompanied people to the hospital. Karen donated her blood so a woman could get necessary surgery. They buried some 50 people, prepared hundreds for Catholic sacraments and established programs that continue to run.

“We fell in love with the people in Peru,” she said. “We’ve fallen in love with the people in every place that we’ve been.”

No regrets

The Carmodys admit there are rough days, but they knew there would be when they chose this life.

Karen said she often thinks about a scripture that says, “Those that want to save their lives will lose them, and those that are willing to lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel will save themselves.”

The Carmody family works on a project“The whole time I was growing up and going to church, I would hear this, and what I heard when it was talking about losing your life was dying,” Karen said. “I thought of the martyrs, people who are literally giving their lives for the sake of the Gospel. Well, after we entered missions the hard truth hit me, that we had given up our lives. Given up our friends, our social circles and our hobbies. It’s not just Friday night at the symphony and nice bottle of wine at an expensive restaurant afterwards; it’s everything that you call your life.”

It caught them slightly off guard, she said. 

“Every once in a while, the reality hits me that our lives are no longer ours to call our own. Our lives are gone, just calling up that friend you’ve known for 20 years that knows everything about you and saying, ‘Hey, let’s meet up at this place and have a drink tonight.’ ”

The Carmodys still maintain contact with people back home as they can and share their experiences on their blog

“I don’t feel like hardly anybody in our family necessarily misses the comforts of life, but it’s still hard to always be a stranger,” Karen said. “There’s just a sadness and kind of an emptiness that sometimes comes with accepting that that’s part of the gig. We’ve said yes to a very lonely life. Sometimes that’s OK.”

As hard as it can be at times, the Carmodys feel every life they touch in their missions makes the sacrifices worth it.

“A lot of missionary organizations, their aim is to convert the masses,” Karen said. “Our mission is very different. Family Missions Company, as part of our training, they ask, ‘You’ve walked away from lucrative careers. You’ve walked away from all of your possessions. You’ve walked away from everything that you call life. You are going to this foreign land to spread the love of Jesus. Would you do all of that for one person?’ And although they posed it as somewhat of a rhetorical question, they were really trying to drive the point home that their philosophy is that every soul matters.”

Although it’s at times difficult for their children, they seem to enjoy it.

“I wouldn't exchange the life we have for anything,” said Katelyn, 17, the oldest Carmody child. “All of the experiences we've had have made me who I am, and for that I thank God. Being able to preach the Gospel with the example of our lives is something that I've really come to love.”

“Being a missionary has given me a lot of different experiences and it's definitely helped me grow in my faith,” said Michael, 11, the youngest Carmody. “Living in different parts of the world and meeting all different kinds of people has given me a bigger perspective on how life is all around the world. I know that this is what God wants for my family because there are always people to help us—people that He sends to make sure we're OK.”

Strong foundation

Karen and Chris met at Detroit Mercy and were married by Professor Gerald Cavanagh, S.J., not long after graduation. Chris was roommates with Detroit Mercy Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Matt Mio. The two were part of a group that helped write the Detroit Mercy fight song.

“They had a contest not long after the merger,” Chris said. “We put something together on a cassette tape—that tells you how long ago that was—that we recorded in our dorm room, and it ended up winning.”

Karen credits Detroit Mercy for helping her and other students learn more about service and giving back. Karen was in the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega and worked in Residence Life.

“There was a strong emphasis on the importance of serving and taking care of others,” Karen said. “Serving the poor, take care of the community we live in. When we were both there, there were always initiatives to go reach out to the community, whether that meant helping pick up garbage or singing Christmas carols.

“I affirm the staff at Detroit Mercy for the work they do to really instill in the students a sense of responsibility and a sense of community with the people you live around.”

What’s next

The Carmodys are currently in Puerto Rico because it was one of the few options they had during the COVID-19 pandemic. They arrived in August 2020 and said they will stay until they feel they are being called elsewhere.

“We are in the process of preparing a mobile evangelization vehicle which will allow us to preach the Gospel and serve the poor in the interior regions of the island where extreme poverty is the norm,” Karen said. “We look forward to all the Lord has planned for this next chapter of our missionary lives.”

The Carmodys plan on being Catholic missionaries for as long they can, but admit the path isn’t really up to them.

“Only God knows,” Chris said. “We feel this is what we’re going to be doing for the rest of our lives. But does anybody know if what they’re doing now is what they’re going to be the rest of their lives? Who knows? There is nothing more beautiful than journeying with someone and helping them to discover joy for themselves. Joy which is love, truth and peace.”

— By Dave Pemberton. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.

The Carmody family work on a project.