Rev. Martin Bui was a newly ordained priest at St. Joachim Catholic Church when he first met Kathy Lewis and Beatriz Soto.
It was 2011 and, at the time, Bui was acclimating to his new spiritual home in Costa Mesa. Lewis was a former religious education teacher overseeing parish operations, while Soto, an immigrant
from Mexico City who had a successful career in business administration before joining the parish, worked the front desk.
The two women had a profund impact on the new priest.
“Kathy and Beatriz are women of deep faith,” he said. “They made me feel at home and very comfortable.”
Bui discovered that Lewis and Soto were vital to daily life at St. Joachim, taking the initiative and doing whatever work was required – even if it fell outside their job descriptions. One day they
were preparing liturgies and cleaning vestments, and the next, greeting visitors, maintaining baptismal records, even sweeping floors.
“They did what needed to be done,” Bui said.
Lewis even took care of Monk, a chihuahua belonging to the parish’s pastor.
“She would feed and walk the dog,” Bui said. “It was clear her heart was there with the parish.”
Together, Lewis and Soto served St. Joachim for a combined 81 years, overseeing many of the day-to-day-operations while providing essential support to clergy as they ministered to the diverse and close-knit Catholic community. The two women recently retired from their roles, leaving a vibrant legacy of hard work, dedicated service and giving back — often to those who needed it most.
Lewis and Soto prioritized caring for the sick, grieving and impoverished.
“Their kindness and compassion touched me very deeply,” he said.
While Bui was serving as parochial vicar at St. Joachim, an unhoused man, Bob, often knocked on the door of the parish front office, asking for food.
“Whenever we had extra food, Beatriz and Kathy would remember Bob, giving him lunch or dinner,” Bui said.
“It’s extremely important for parishes to have people like Kathy and Beatriz,” he added.
Although their work may sometimes go without recognition and accolades, dedicated lay staff like Lewis and Soto are important support pillars of parishes, priests and pastors.
Lewis and Soto were often there to offer help and words of encouragement when it was needed most.
“They would gently remind me of the importance of my work and ministry,” Bui said. “They helped me grow immensely.”
Kathy Lewis had just started a new role leading the bereavement ministry at St. Joachim when she received a phone call asking for help planning a funeral. A family was mourning the loss of their child, a little girl. Overcome with grief, the father was angry, distant and unwilling to participate in the funeral planning.
“He was terribly hurt,” Lewis said. “He didn’t understand why God had taken a second child from him.”
Lewis visited the family at their home and took a seat at the dining room table. She waited patiently as the father vented his anger.
“Before I knew it, he was sitting at the table across from me,” Lewis said. “I knew we had common ground.
When she returned to the home a second time on the day of the girl’s funeral, the father opened the front door, greeting Lewis with a hug.
“There’s a joy you get in being able to walk with a family during the most difficult time of their life,” Lewis said. “It was an honor to be with them.”
For Lewis, comforting the afflicted and helping those in need was a hallmark of her work at St. Joachim. It was a calling she discovered early in life.
She spent her childhood in upstate New York, where she attended Mass each Sunday with her parents — Frank, a cameraman for NBC News, and Arlene, a devoted mother who wasn’t baptized until later in her life but always understood the beauty of faith. And it was on those Sunday mornings, sitting next to her parents in a pew at St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown Buffalo, when Lewis began to sense the presence of God.
“There was something about being there in the sanctuary that was very special,” Lewis said.
Her faith grew strong. When Lewis was 11, she battled a severe case of strep throat. Her temperature soared to 104 degrees. Her worried parents summoned the doctor to their house. Still, the infection persisted.
Her parents took her to Mass on the Feast Day of St. Blaise — the fourth century bishop who once saved the life of a boy choking on a fish bone — for the Blessing of the Throats, held each February 3. After being blessed by the priest, Lewis returned home — and soon started feeling better. She quickly recovered.
“I never had strep throat or throat problems after that,” Lewis said. “I had been cured.”
A year later the call became too loud to ignore. While visiting Bishop Gibbons High School in North Tonawanda, New York, with her parents and two brothers, Frank Jr. and Patrick, Lewis felt the
presence of God.
“From the moment we entered the school, I knew I wanted to be there,” she said. “Nothing was going to stop me.”
Lewis wanted to share her faith with others. She later enrolled in the school and formed a close relationship with a nun who nurtured her interest in religious education.
Lewis began teaching religious education courses at her local parish when she was 16. Her interest in teaching others the beauty of the Catholic faith quickly turned into a passion.
“I wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids,” she said. “I knew teaching would be there with me forever.”
When she was a high school senior, her family moved 40 miles away to Holland, New York. Shortly after arriving, she began a religious education program at her new local parish. Her program
soon began to flourish. She saw her passion for teaching others as a gift from God.
Everyone of us as baptized Catholics has been given a calling,” she said. “It’s up to us to recognize that calling.”
When she was 25, she moved to Southern California with her husband Ken, eventually settling in Costa Mesa. In the summer of 1977, while reading a bulletin after Mass at St. Joachim, she
saw an ad asking for volunteer catechists to teach fourth grade religious education classes. It would be her first role at the parish where she’d spend the next four decades.
After a few years teaching, Lewis was promoted to secretary for religious education and, later, wedding coordinator. In 1989, she was hired on full-time as Director of Religious Education.
“My role at the parish evolved,” she said. “I tend to get bored easily, so I didn’t want to do just faith formation.”
Because she served several important roles at the parish, Lewis became a trusted advisor to priests.
“She was a stable presence at St. Joachim, both as a lay volunteer and, later, as an employee,” said Rev. Mike Hanifin, pastor at St. Joachim, who first met Lewis there in 1978 when he was a youth
Lewis discovered her love of liturgy through her work at the parish. She led liturgical planning for major feast days, including Holy Week, Easter and Christmas.
“The more I did it, the more I loved it,” she said. “I asked the Lord to work me hard and he opened doors that were wonderful.”
After Rev. Hanifin was ordained in 1987, Kathy helped him plan the liturgy for his first Mass.
“Whatever needed to be done at the parish, she would take care of it,” he said.
Later, her focus turned to helping those most in need. Overseeing the parish’s bereavement ministry, she helped families struggling with grief plan funerals for their loved ones.
“My focus went to pastoral care,” she said. “Working with families and people who were dying brought me closer to God.”
She knows grief well. Her father,
Frank, died when she was 18.
“I was never afraid of death,” she said. “I just felt it was a pathway to God.” Her 26-year-old daughter, Beth Anne, passed away in 2009 – an event that deepened her connection to her faith and
her own family.
“Nothing could have prepared me for it,” Lewis said. “I couldn’t have gone where I went spiritually without the death of my child. God lifts you up — he’ll get you through anything.”
In October, the day after her daughter died, Lewis remembered opening her Bible and reading Isaiah 43.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you
When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,
Nor shall the flame scorch you.
For Lewis, Beth Anne’s death began a period of spiritual renewal and personal growth.
“I received huge gifts for having gone through that pain,” said Lewis, who has two other daughters, Anne and Kristina. “My husband and I became closer to each other. Our marriage and commitment to each other grew immensely because we were suffering together.”
“People told me they watched how I went through my daughter’s death and were inspired,” Lewis added. “She is with me today.”
After her daughter’s death, Lewis returned to work at St. Joachim with renewed focus and purpose. She recently retired in July after 44 years of serving the parish.
“Nothing is impossible with God,” Lewis said. “There’s nothing in this world that you can’t get through without the Lord with you.”
She recently celebrated her 51st wedding anniversary with her husband, Ken. They plan to spend more time together.
“My work has been very time consuming and taken a lot of my time away from him,” she said. “We want to enjoy our time together.
Still, she remains connected to the parish she loves. She’s helping plan the parish’s 75th anniversary celebration next year and serves as a eucharistic minister and lector.
“She’s still involved and committed to the parish,” Hanifin said. “She’s just a phone call away.”
Lewis said that although she may be officially retired, her heart remains with St. Joachim and its Catholic community.
“I want to be in God’s presence, and when I’m working with people, I’m in the presence of God,” she said. “Just because you retire, it doesn’t mean your work is done. You never retire from God until you meet him face-to-face.”
Beatriz Soto left her home in Mexico City for an unknown future in the U.S. when she was 19 years old. She planned to stay briefly to learn English, then return to her parents and three younger
God had a different plan.
“I’ve always been adventurous,” she said. “I figured I’d only go for three months — but those three months went very fast.”
After making her way to Los Angeles, she quickly started working and began settling into her new home. And after a successful decades-long career in administration, she went to work at
St. Joachim, where she recently retired after 38 years serving the parish. Much of that time was spent behind the front desk where, as parish secretary and manager, she greeted visitors, assisted those in need and oversaw many administrative duties, including record keeping.
“The Church has been very good to me,” Soto said. “Being a part of St. Joachim was a wonderful experience I will always cherish.”
The foundation for a strong work ethic and deep faith was set when she was young. Soto vividly remembers her childhood in Mexico City — good schools where she learned English, classical music concerts where she kindled a love of Mozart, Sunday afternoons
roaming museums and relaxing in Chapultepec Park with her family.
“My parents were wonderful,” she said. “They believed in education.”
Soto attended an all-girls Catholic high school, even though her parents were agnostic. Her mother understood the value of a faith-based education and the importance of spirituality in her
“My family wasn’t religious,” she said. “But my mom made sure we went to church, even though she wouldn’t go herself. Both my parents were very wonderful people, kind and devoted to us beyond measure. They were entirely dedicated to our family.”
After finishing high school in Mexico, Soto worked at a company that did business with an American firm based in Watts that manufactured electric motors. After meeting one of the firm’s
representatives in Mexico, she decided to visit the U.S. — making the journey alone by train, first to El Paso, Texas, and then to Los Angeles. She arrived at Union Station on a dark January night.
“I was supposed to visit to improve my English, but I ended up staying,” she said. “In those days it was easy to get a permanent visa — all you needed was a birth certificate and pay a small fee.”
She found a place to live near Griffith Park and learned the city’s sprawling public transportation system. A day after her arrival, she reported for duty at U.S. Electrical Motors on Slauson Avenue. Since she knew little English, Soto worked in the company’s print room, handling engineering drawings and tucked away from other workers.
“I told them my English is limited and I asked for a job in an area where I didn’t have to talk a lot,” she said.
But she made friends fast and performed her job well. After a year, she was promoted to help oversee exports and international shipping. With a love of math, she began to develop a talent
or business strategy and financial management.
“I love to deal with numbers and money — growing up I always had a peso or two,” she said. “It was a matter of livelihood.”
After 17 years, she left the company to work for the firm’s chairman of the board, Thomas G. Myers, who had started exporting motors across the globe from his office in Newport Beach.
As his new business boomed, she worked behind the scenes, overseeing every aspect of administration — from recording keeping and accounting to sales and investing.
“I learned how to buy and sell stocks and bonds, pay bills and do taxes,” she said. “It turned out to be really exciting and really busy.”
They became like family, taking
weekend trips to Catalina and travelling together across California. After 10 years of working together, Myers passed away after battling pancreatic cancer.
“He treated me like his daughter,” Soto said. “When he died it was like I lost my father all over again.”
But his death signaled the start of a new adventure for Soto, who never married or had children.
“I believe everything we do is guided by God’s will,” she said. “We have to be grateful for whatever God decides for
us. There’s a reason for everything.”
While attending Mass six months later at St. Joachim, the pastor announced a job opening for a parish secretary. Soto took the opportunity, and her role expanded into administration and management, including maintaining the parish’s wedding, confirmation and baptismal records. She built a reputation of reliability and professionalism for her initiative, attention to detail and focused work.
“I thoroughly enjoyed working there, whether it was mopping the floor or working with accounting books,” she said. “I’ve always believed the effort should be the same, no matter the job — always do the best you can.”
Like Lewis, Soto became a trusted assistant and advisor to St. Joachim’s priests and pastors. Rev. Hanifin met Soto in 1982, when she was first hired and he was serving as youth minister.
After he left to attend seminary, Soto would call him with the latest news from the parish.
“She was an anchor for me at St. Joachim while I was in seminary,” he said. “She always went the extra mile and was always very organized.”
When he returned, Soto help him learn Spanish — an important skill for a priest at a largely Hispanic parish.
“Her help was invaluable,” Hanifin said. “She was always very good to me. I always appreciated her warmth and concern.”
Outside of her assigned job duties at the parish, Soto volunteered with the parish’s cancer ministry and created a seasonal schedule for the anointing for the sick.
“She has a great compassion for people, especially those with cancer,” Hanifin said.
Soto’s years of experience in the professional world were a great asset for the parish, said Rev. Bui, who worked alongside Soto when he was a priest at St. Joachim.
“Whatever we asked of her, she knew the answers,” Bui said. “She is very kind, professional and organized.”
Today, Soto is 87 and enjoys an active life near the ocean in Newport Beach, living in the same house she’s called home for 43 years. She spends her spare time visiting with friends, attending concerts and traveling.
“I like new adventures,” she said. She watches what she eats, exercises regularly and reads often — among her favorite books is “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez.
“It talks about life as a cycle — we are born, we grow and we die,” she said. “But someone will always follow. His prose is beautifully written.”
She gives back to St. Joachim and
continues to volunteer with the cancer ministry. She also supports Mercy House, the Orange County non-profit providing homeless services started by former St. Joachim pastor, Fr. Jerome T. Karcher.
And her faith remains strong.
“When I pray, I give thanks for everything I have been given,” Soto said. “I hope I can use the remainder of my life in a positive way and help as many people as I can.”