Faith helps Elmira Catholic Charities director endure illness - Catholic Courier
A woman smiles at the camera.

Nancy Koons, executive director of Catholic Charities of Chemung/Schuyler, leaned on her faith during a recent illness. (Photo by Rick Bacmanski)

Faith helps Elmira Catholic Charities director endure illness

ELMIRA — As executive director of Catholic Charities of Chemung/Schuyler, Nancy Koons strives to aid society’s most vulnerable members.

Koons experienced her own vulnerability this past year with a diagnosis of stage IV kidney cancer. She has leaned on family, friends and coworkers to help her through her struggles.

“I have so many blessings in my life,” she said. “There are so many, even in the most challenging moments.”

Koons also tapped deeply into her Catholic spirituality during treatment, which included chemotherapy and removal of a kidney.

“I just needed to get the fear out of my system and transition that to faith,” she remarked. “Faith is like the warm blanket that comforts you, and I’ve said that many times.”

Koons’ current prognosis is encouraging: Her cancer is in remission — “thanks be to God,” she said — and she continues full-tilt performing the good works of Catholic Charities.

“I feel wonderful, blessed and extremely grateful,” said Koons, 68.

Elmira Catholic Charities director says, ‘I love the Catholic Church’

In her director’s position, Koons oversees regional Catholic Charities programs and ministries addressing such needs as food; shelter; assistance with rent, housing and prescriptions; managed care; justice and peace; victim services; and youth services.

Koons, a native of Chicago, has worked for Catholic organizations around the United States for more than 30 years. Her longest tenure was from 1990 to 2005, when she was director of stewardship and development for the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas. She went on to Catholic leadership positions in Arizona and Georgia, then was executive director of Catholic Charities of the Texas Panhandle (2011-16) and executive director of the Catholic Foundation of Oklahoma (2018-20).

“I love the Catholic Church, I love the tradition of our church,” said Koons, a member of Elmira’s Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish. “I love the fact that there are Catholics all over the world celebrating Mass on Sundays and weekends. It’s so unifying.”

In early 2020 — shortly after the COVID shutdown took effect — Koons had such a good online interview process with diocesan Catholic Charities officials that she accepted the Chemung/Schuyler directorship before having ever visited the Rochester Diocese. She drove across country that May; quarantined for two weeks upon reaching Elmira; and then began working in the Catholic Charities’ office on East Church Street, which was largely deserted, with most occupants still working remotely.

Cancer survivor leans on support of family, friends, coworkers

In August 2022, Koons began experiencing back pain that grew in intensity over the ensuing months. She was told of her cancer that December following a biopsy. On May 26, 2023, she underwent surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee, during which a kidney was removed.

Although she could have opted to extend her sick leave, by July, Koons was back at work full time while slowly regaining her stamina. “I was anxious to get back in the saddle,” she recalled. She has continued working full time while traveling to doctor visits at Vanderbilt every few months to ensure that her cancer doesn’t resurface.

Koons said she couldn’t have returned to work so smoothly without the support of Karen Dehais, diocesan director of Catholic Charities, and other agency board members and employees.

“The staff here (in Elmira), I can get emotional in a heartbeat, talking about how wonderful they are,” she said.

Koons said she also has been buoyed by her three adult children who live out of state — “they’ve supported me in a way that I never experienced before” — as well as new friends she’s made through their shared experiences with cancer.

Chemung/Schuyler official believes in the power of prayer

Koons noted that she also had experienced a serious health issue in 2006 while living in Arizona. She underwent surgery to remove a tumor inside her spinal cord, and although the tumor was benign and she eventually recovered, the surgery was delicate due to potential spinal-cord damage, she explained.

“I prayed for whatever was coming my way, that I handle it with grace and dignity,” she recalled.

These days, Koons routinely brings a rosary to doctor and hospital visits. Just before her surgery this past spring, she said she had instructed her daughter to take one of her rosaries to the hospital chapel and pray.

“I totally believe in the power of prayer. I believe that prayer will never disappoint you,” she stated. “It will never provide all the answers you want, but it will provide the answers you need.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: “Profiles in Faith” highlights Catholics in the Diocese of Rochester of all ages and walks of life who are role models for living the faith. To suggest someone to profile, email

Tags: Catholic Charities, Chemung County News, Profiles in Faith, Schuyler County News
Copyright © 2024 Rochester Catholic Press Association, Inc. All rights reserved. Linking is encouraged, but republishing or redistributing, including by framing or similar means, without the publisher's prior written permission is prohibited.

You May Also Enjoy

Choose from news (Monday), leisure (Thursday) or worship (Saturday) — or get all three!

No, Thanks

Catholic Courier Newsletters