You could say Kat Cotton has a knack for being in the wrong place at the right time.
An aspiring lawyer, Kat shouldn’t have been doing her pre-law internship at a Catholic maternity home.
She shouldn’t have been leading a prayer group of young moms, looking for spiritual guidance.
She shouldn’t even have been alive after a near-drowning when she was 11 months old.
And following an upbringing in which God was at best an afterthought, Kat certainly shouldn’t have been on fire for the Catholic faith.
Yet there she was this Easter, standing before the faithful at St. Anastasia Parish in Troy, a fully initiated member of the Roman Catholic Church.
“Seeing my journey now, I see it was all directly navigated by God,” says Kat, 24. “It’s hard to sum up in words: being proud of the one true faith, proud to be part of an organization that has so many sub-ministries that look out for people. Being proud of knowing the teachings of the Church — knowing what’s right, what’s real. No one can get you down if you truly believe.”
Mistake? Maybe not
Kat’s unlikely journey to the faith began with a mistake, a clerical mix-up that changed her life.
As a criminal justice major at Oakland University, Kat was seeking a senior-year internship. Aiming to go to law school — and living on a tight budget — Kat was thrilled when she found a law firm that would offer her a paid internship. But soon her delight turned to disappointment when her advisor told her the law firm wasn’t on the list of approved internships.
“She pulled out this giant book and said, ‘You can only pick from this book, and all of these spots are taken,’” Kat recalls. “I was devastated, because she said if I interned at that law firm, I would have to quit my current job and intern somewhere else to fill my requirement. I wanted law school so bad. … My advisor said, ‘There is a place I can place you. It’s called Mary’s Mantle.’”
Kat was confused. Mary’s Mantle isn’t a law firm, a probation court or even a legal service. It’s a Catholic apostolate in the Archdiocese of Detroit that houses homeless expectant women transitioning into motherhood, then assists them through an aftercare program so they can take proper care of themselves and their babies.
Bewildered, Kat was timid in her interview with Monica Bihar-Natzke, then the aftercare program coordinator for Mary’s Mantle. But upon learning of the organization’s mission, Kat hit it off with Monica and went to work as her assistant, driving all over Metro Detroit to do everything she could to assist mothers in need.
“My internship advisor was reading the stuff I was doing and saying the stories were crazy, what I was doing on home visits,” Kat says. “I was helping mothers fill out supporting documents to qualify for aid, writing and updating files and client case notes. And I was frustrated, thinking, ‘Does anyone see that I’m not qualified to do this?’ But after a while, I realized this is what I needed. I saw a lot of parallels to my life and my mom’s life.”
Inspired by her childhood
Born in Toledo, Ohio, Kat was the third of four children raised by a single mother. Her younger brother died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and her mother worked nights. Money was tight, and religion wasn’t a priority for the family.
“My mom cleaned office buildings in the evening, busted her butt to make sure we had what we needed,” Kat says. “Unfortunately, there was a lot of unsupervised time growing up.”
Her mom and dad were never married, and Kat’s father became paralyzed in a motorcycle accident when Kat was 4. He lived in a nursing home in Ohio and couldn’t be active in Kat’s life.
When Kat was 12, her family moved with her mom’s boyfriend to Glennie, a small town in north central Michigan. But stability was never present in the home.
Having watched her mother struggle day to day and witnessed her siblings go through life’s trials with seemingly with no one there for them, Kat wanted to be someone who could help families like hers. She found her calling in the law.
A change in direction
Kat graduated from Oakland and began working 60 hours a week between a job as a legal assistant at a law firm and her work at Mary’s Mantle. One day, Monica invited Kat to lunch with a proposition. Monica intended to leave Mary’s Mantle, and she wanted Kat to take over her role.
That would mean leaving the law firm where she was working. And that would mean delaying her dream of going to law school. But Kat knew where she was needed.
“I went to the attorney I was working for, stood by his doorway and said, ‘I have something to tell you, but I don’t know how to say it,’” Kat recounts.
“Spit it out,” the lawyer told her.
“‘You know where I intern? They want me to take on this expanded role,’” Kat remembers telling the attorney. “This guy — he’s normally rigid — just smiles and says, ‘This is great. I think you’ll make a great attorney, but it’s important for you to be around the people you are serving.’”
And just like that, the aspiring law student who’d come to Mary’s Mantle by accident was now in charge of helping mothers in need plan household budgets and navigate social services. Kat was also in charge of leading morning prayer.
“It’s at the kitchen table, where we have a spiritual morning meeting,” Kat says. “There was no formal training for this, but all of a sudden, the girls are looking up to me to lead them in prayer. And I don’t know how to pray. And here I am thinking, Here are these girls who don’t understand what I’m saying because I don’t understand it. I need to study up.”
Faith in the background
Catholicism had been in the background of Kat’s life. Her sister’s father’s family was Catholic, and seeing her sister being raised in the faith had sparked Kat’s interest in God. But Kat says religion had been forced upon her mother, who wrote off God after the death of her baby son.
Kat was 3 when her brother died, and sherecalls an elderly man telling her that it would be OK, that her brother was all right and was with God.
When Kat shared the story with her mother, her mom said there had been no such man. But Kat insists there was, chalking up her vision to being a guardian angel who was there to console a little girl when the world seemed to be falling down around her.
Kat had her own near-death experience after almost drowning in a bathtub when she was 11 months old. She was taken to the ICU at Toledo Hospital, where she was resuscitated after having no heartbeat and no pulse.
Her mother called her a “miracle baby,” but even after the dramatic event, religion and God were never a priority in Kat or her family’s lives.
During her childhood in Ohio, Kat had the opportunity to attend St. Joseph School in nearby Erie, Mich., after her family entered a lottery sponsored by the Diocese of Toledo to pay the tuition for students who didn’t have financial means. Kat’s mother seized the chance to get her daughter out of a public-school system she considered inadequate.
At St. Joseph, Kat learned about Jesus and Mary and wanted to receive the sacraments, but the parish said no, citing her mother’s unwillingness to go to RCIA. It was a huge disappointment to Kat, who felt rejected by the Church.
The turning point
The Church came back into the picture for Kat through a dedicated Mary’s Mantle volunteer, Renee Kole. A parishioner at St. Anastasia, Renee kept inviting Kat to the 5 p.m. Saturday Mass at her parish, but Kat always politely declined.
But during a “home Mass” at Mary’s Mantle, St. Anastasia pastor Father Steve Wertanen preached about the love people have for their pets, which spoke to the animal lover in Kat.
Kat remembers: “I’d been to Mass before, but this is right in front of me, because the room is so small, close quarters, and he was explaining how he loved his dog but then said, ‘If you could only imagine the love you have for your pet, your children, then maybe you could understand a fraction of what God feels for us.’ For me, it felt like he was talking directly to me. There was just a wow moment — whoever this guy is, I want to hear more.”
After a few more weeks of encouragement from Renee and Father Steve, Kat and her boyfriend, Spenser, went to Mass at St. Anastasia. That’s when Spenser made a discovery.
“A funny thing happened at Communion time,” Kat says. “I’m still at prayer when Spenser comes back, and he whispers, ‘Why didn’t you go for Communion?’ And I go, ‘Because I’m not Catholic,’ and he goes, ‘What?!’ He’s thinking, Here is this girl taking me to church to see if I’m Catholic — what is going on? So, leaving the church, he’s holding my hand and my chest is just beaming with love. He reaches out and says, ‘Thank you for coming to Mass. You don’t know what that means to me.’ And I go, ‘You don’t know what it means to me to go to Mass with you.’”
Kat explained her situation to Spenser and expressed a desire to join RCIA. Kat took to the classes the way she does everything — fully invested — with Renee as her sponsor and Spenser as a supporter. He dubbed Kat “the most Catholic person who isn’t Catholic” when introducing her to his friends.
A new beginning
Kat’s time in RCIA was part of a transformative year. As she learned more about the faith, she left her position at Mary’s Mantle to work for the Oakland County Road Commission and prepare to take the LSAT to continue her pursuit of a law career.
Her newfound love for the Church has given Kat an unshakable confidence for the challenges ahead.
“My purpose is not to get rich,” Kat says of becoming a lawyer. “If I get rich along the way, great, because money helps. But it is your faith that will carry you through anything. School isn’t going to be a cakewalk for me; working while going to school isn’t going to be a cakewalk for me; being a Catholic isn’t going to be a cakewalk for me. But those are things I can offer up to God in prayer, finding strength in a God who I know loves me.”
At first glance, entering the Church might seem like the conclusion of a twisty, unpredictable and unlikely journey for Kat, from an upbringing she describes as “a little crazy” to a clerical mistake that had her completing her college internship at “some religious organization.”
But in fact, Kat is just starting a new chapter of her story, one she’s inspired to write because she knows God is with her and always has been, even if she wasn’t aware of it at the time.
“Through all of those challenges I faced, it was my faith that kept me going, even if I didn’t know it,” Kat says. “You could say, yeah, it was a mistake how I ended up at Mary’s Mantle. It was a mistake how I ended up where I am. But now I know it was God’s plan. He was with me every step of the way.”