An Arlington Heights woman who died after saving a 9-year-old boy from drowning in a Wisconsin lake was remembered Saturday for a willingness to take care of others and being nonjudgmental.
Roughly 250 mourners attended Karen Wessel's funeral Mass at Our Lady of the Wayside Catholic Church in Arlington Heights. Our Lady of the Wayside's pastor, the Rev. Edward Fialkowski, presided over the service.
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"Throughout her life, she lived her life showing great love to those around her," Fialkowski said in his homily.
Family and friends have praised Wessel for saving the boy while at Star Lake in northern Wisconsin on July 22. Police said three boys began swimming across a narrow channel toward a sandbar when adults told them to return to shore.
Wessel, 47, her sister Janice Potocki of Arlington Heights and their friend Karen Altamore jumped into the lake when the children struggled to reach land.
Potocki and Altamore brought two of the boys, including Wessel's 9-year-old son, Michael Barr, back to shore. An exhausted Wessel then swam out to rescue the third boy, Altamore's 9-year-old godson.
Wisconsin authorities said Wessel reportedly used her body to push the child above the surface to prevent him going under water, but she did not immediately resurface and later died at a hospital.
At Saturday's funeral Mass, Fialkowski said Wessel had a loving demeanor that came through by being a good listener and nonjudgmental, always with a concern for the needs of her family, neighbors and co-workers. Her house in the Pioneer Park neighborhood became known as a welcoming place.
"Very clearly, she lived her life as a way of joy," Fialkowski said. "J-O-Y. Jesus first. Others next. Yourself third. Joy."
Fialkowski lightened his homily when he touched on the bond between Wessel and her sister. Wessel and Potocki lived next door to each other in Arlington Heights and in their vacation homes in Star Lake, an unincorporated area near Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
"This is a true story Janice shared with me. ... Early in the morning, Janice would call Karen. They both have side windows of their homes facing one another. They opened the drapes and talked to one another looking through a window," Fialkowski said.
In addition to her son and sister, Wessel is survived by her 17-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. The immediate plan for the children is for them to live with Potocki.
Wessel family friend Don Bussey said a trust fund has been established for Wessel's children. He said Wessel was a single mother of "very limited means."
Bussey said donations should go to the "Elizabeth Wessel and Michael Barr Support Trust." Contributions may be sent to Village Bank and Trust, 234 W. Northwest Hwy., Arlington Heights 60004, or dropped off at any branch.
"As the creator of the trust, I can assure the public that the trust has strong yet reasonable language to direct its use and maintain integrity," he said. "Specifically, the trust can be used for Elizabeth and Michael's education, health and maintenance in reasonable comfort."