Nun’s peace message lives after her death

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A woman who helped crime victims becomes one herself.

BUFFALO, N.Y. – Sister Karen Klimczak moved quick as the wind off Lake Erie, a peace-loving nun who crisscrossed the city with such speed that friends wondered, only half jokingly, if she hadn’t borrowed some Catholic saint’s miraculous ability to bilocate.

In a day she might race from counseling ex-offenders at the halfway house she ran to praying at a murder victim’s vigil, then head to the youth center she founded before donning a clown suit and bouncing joyously through a senior center.

She was 62 years old, 5 feet 2 inches tall and just over 100 pounds, tireless and in near-constant motion. In western New York, they called her Mother Teresa in fast forward. Without a trace of hyperbole, they called her a gift from God.

Now people stumble over their words as they try to speak of her in the past tense. That’s in part because the tragedy that befell Sister Karen over Easter weekend still seems too impossible, too wrong, to be real. And in part because this nun, who left a trail of forgiveness behind like footprints, seems as present now in death as she ever was in life.

Raised in a deeply religious home outside Buffalo, Karen Klimczak entered the convent after high school, earned a master’s in pastoral study from Loyola University Chicago in the early 1980s and spent several years as a Catholic-school teacher in Buffalo.

A summer of volunteer work at a state prison revealed in her a profound sympathy for people who’d served time, setting a course for her life’s work.

“She felt they were forgotten,” said one of her sisters, Mary Lynch. “She felt they never had a chance unless somebody was there to help them.”

In 1985, Sister Karen opened HOPE House, a “Home of Positive Experience” for ex-offenders. With a mix of toughness and motherly compassion, it became one of the more successful after-prison programs in the region.

Men would return and invite her to their wedding. They’d ask her to be godmother to their children. Yet Sister Karen insisted it was she who benefited from the work.

“HOPE isn’t for men who have been incarcerated,” she said in a videotaped 1987 interview with the Diocese of Buffalo. “HOPE is for me. For me to grow, for me to see brokenness in the eyes and in the heart of an individual. And when the brokenness is there, you can see God, and God can become real. And he’s become more real for me through HOPE than any other experience.”

On Good Friday, Sister Karen attended a 7 p.m. service at Sts. Columba and Brigid Church, where she was a pastoral associate. The scripture focused on the final words Jesus Christ spoke as he hung on the cross at Calvary, including: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

After the service, she drove to the red-brick halfway house. Several years ago she had changed the name from HOPE House to Bissonette House in honor of the Rev. A. Joseph Bissonette, a friend murdered in the building in 1987 by two teenagers who’d come to him seeking help.

Sister Karen believed it important that the site of Bissonette’s murder be a place of love and forgiveness. Morning prayers are said each day in the ground-floor room where he was killed.

At about 9 p.m., Sister Karen was on the third floor chatting with Robert Walker, an ex-offender who’d been there nearly a year. She brought up the home’s newest resident, Craig Lynch, a convicted car thief only nine days out of prison.

Walker recalled the nun saying that Lynch, who’d battled the law and drug addiction more than half his 36 years, seemed ready for a fresh start. A few days earlier, he’d helped her string paper crosses for Easter decorations. Before leaving Walker’s room, Sister Karen spoke with her usual optimism: “I think Craig’s doing well,” she said. “I think he’s going to be all right.”

One floor down, police say, Lynch had just passed Sister Karen’s room and noticed the door open, noticed the cell phone sitting by her computer. He would later tell police he walked in to take the cell phone, hoping he could sell it to buy crack cocaine and cigarettes.

At 12:45 p.m. Saturday, Walker was in the kitchen of Bissonette House, worried. He hadn’t seen Sister Karen all day. It wasn’t like her to not check in.

“I thought, “It’s Easter weekend, maybe for once her planning got a little screwed up with all the festivities,”‘ he said in an interview earlier this month. “But it didn’t seem right.”

By 3:30 p.m., Walker phoned the Buffalo police, convinced Sister Karen was missing.

Concern grew as Easter weekend continued, and when she didn’t come to Easter Mass, most suspected foul play.

“I knew that something terrible had happened,” said the Rev. Roy Herberger, who’d known Sister Karen more than 20 years. “I was just a basket case, emotionally.”

Police and more than 100 volunteers spent Monday combing the rough Buffalo neighborhoods where Sister Karen was best known, and a prayer vigil was planned for that night. Minutes before the vigil began, relatives got word from police: The nun’s body had been found.

When Detective Sgt. James Lonergan heard Sister Karen was missing, it felt like history repeating. Two decades earlier, one of his first homicide cases was the murder of Bissonette. Now he was literally returning to the scene of that crime.

The home’s nine residents were rounded up Monday morning, interviewed and given drug tests. Police say Craig Lynch was the only one who tested positive.

After several hours of interrogation, Lonergan said, Lynch’s claim that he knew nothing of Sister Karen’s disappearance began to unravel.

“He finally admits he stole her cell phone,” Lonergan said. “He says she was fine when he left. But it just didn’t make sense.”

As his stories and alibis crumbled, Lynch confessed to killing Sister Karen, Lonergan said.

He led police to her body, buried in a ramshackle shed behind an abandoned yellow house about five miles from Bissonette House.

Lynch, who has two prior felony convictions and more than 10 arrests, mainly for theft, has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder and, if convicted, faces life without possibility of parole. His court-appointed attorney, David Addelman, has entered a not guilty plea and is looking into the circumstances under which Lynch confessed.

“He does not consider himself a violent person,” Addelman said, noting that Lynch got along well with Sister Karen. “He was fond of her.”

Jailhouse interview

Shortly after his arrest, and without his attorney’s knowledge, Lynch gave a jailhouse interview to the Buffalo News, again confessing to the murder, saying he was high on crack when it happened.

In a signed transcript of his confession to police, Lynch detailed what he claims happened on Good Friday:

At about 9:40 p.m. he entered Sister Karen’s room on the second floor to steal her cell phone, but heard her coming and hid behind the door.

When she walked in, he grabbed her from behind and put his hand over her mouth. She was trying to scream.

“This is how people get hurt,” he told her, according to the confession. “People resist and they get hurt. I don’t want to hurt you.”

He forced the nun to the floor, pressed her face into the carpet and held her there until she stopped moving. An autopsy would later reveal she died from strangulation.

Lynch said he placed her body in the bed so it looked like she was sleeping. He then drove to a nearby drug spot and traded the cell phone for one rock of crack cocaine.

He drove off and stopped to smoke the crack, but it wouldn’t light. The rock was fake.

“I threw the rock out the window,” Lynch told police. “That’s when reality set in and I realized what I had done.”

He said he returned to Bissonette House at 4 a.m., wrapped Sister Karen’s body in a comforter and drove to his mother’s home. He hid the body outside, then returned Easter Sunday and carried it across the street in a garbage can to a shed behind an abandoned house. He dug a deep hole in the hard clay soil and said a prayer.

“When I was done, praying, I asked sister for forgiveness,” Lynch said in his confession. “I picked her out of the garbage can and put her in the hole.”

Lonergan said it was lucky Lynch confessed.

“We’d have never in a million years found her,” he said.

Sister Karen’s funeral in the cavernous St. Ann’s Catholic Church on Broadway Street was believed to be the biggest in Buffalo history. White paper doves lined the walls and pews. People held candles high, swaying and singing “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”

The Rev. Herberger stood in the pulpit and referred to the words of Christ read at the Good Friday service eight days earlier: Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.

“If one word would be synonymous with Karen it would be the word “forgive,”‘ Herberger said. “And she would be saying that about Craig. She would be the first person to say, “Father, forgive him, he really doesn’t know what he’s doing.”‘

At the base of the altar was a dove-shaped sign. On it was a slogan Sister Karen came up with, part of a non-violence campaign she hoped to launch.

The sign read: “I Leave Peaceprints.”

She hoped it would inspire people to leave peace behind them wherever they go. Since the funeral, more than 4,000 signs have gone out, with more being made each day, and they’ve sprung like flowers on lawns across Buffalo.

Rather than turn people against ex-offenders like Lynch, Sister Karen’s death has brought greater commitment to the work she did. Anonymous checks have come in to Bissonette House to ensure it keeps running. Volunteers have come forward.

“If she would have known that her death would have had such a ripple effect, she would’ve said, “So be it,”‘ said Sister Roz Rosolowski, a chaplain at Attica prison and longtime friend of Sister Karen’s. “What keeps a lot of us going is the drive to continue this work in her name. And it has just caught fire.”

The people of Buffalo have lost someone who will never be replaced, yet there is little anger to be found this spring. Instead, there is resolve and focus. Determination and forgiveness.

There is a sense of ease, it seems, in the knowledge that Sister Karen hasn’t gone far.

She’s still leaving peaceprints. Everywhere.

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