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Mourners Gather to Remember Slain Nun

April 22, 2006

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) _ Whenever the blood of violence stained a city sidewalk or street, Sister Karen Klimczak would soon be there _ not to condemn the place, but to claim it. She would lead a peace vigil, and plant a sign with a dove that read, ``Nonviolence begins with me.″

It was that determination to turn bad into good, a belief in second chances, that had driven her in 1989 to transform a rectory where a priest was murdered into a halfway house for parolees.

More than 1,500 mourners on Saturday gathered to remember Klimczak, who was strangled and beaten inside her room at the Bissonette House on Good Friday. The 62-year-old nun had walked in on a resident as he was stealing her cell phone to trade for crack cocaine, police said.

Authorities said Craig Lynch, 36, confessed and led police to her body Monday as 600 people were praying at a vigil for her safe return.

At her funeral Saturday, mourners vowed to carry on Klimczak’s work.

``There is just too much violence in our community, not only what happened to Sister Karen ... We have to stop it,″ Bishop Edward Kmiec of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo said inside St. Ann Church, where dove cutouts adorned every pew and pillar.

Sister Karen, as she was known, had ``a kind of magnet in her heart″ that drew her to minister to prison inmates and parolees more than 20 years ago, said Sister Elizabeth Savage, president of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

A year after visiting a state prison in 1984, she founded Hope House _ Home of Positive Experiences _ to help recently released prisoners transition into society. More than a job, it became her way of life.

The nun, who favored jeans, a sweat shirt and sneakers, lived at the house with her eight or nine charges, ate her meals with them, got up early each morning and prayed with them.

``This wasn’t just a house. This was a home. They were part of her family,″ said Sister Jean Klimczak, her biological sister who is also a nun.

Karen Klimczak moved Hope House into the former rectory of St. Bartholomew Church in 1989, two years after the Rev. A. Joseph Bissonette was killed there. She changed the name of her ministry to Bissonette House in honor of the priest, who was bashed in the head with a can of food and stabbed in the heart as he made sandwiches for two teenagers who had knocked on his door, hungry, they said.

Antwan Diggs remained friends with Klimczak after spending eight months at Bissonette House upon his release from the Collins Correctional Facility in 1999.

Diggs said he was greeted by Klimczak with clothes and shoes, his own room and a full refrigerator. Later, there were job leads and bus passes, and phone calls on his behalf.

``When someone opens their house to you like that, most guys are not thinking about harming this lady,″ Diggs, program coordinator of Buffalo’s Weed and Seed initiative, said from his City Hall office. ``You’re thinking, `God has sent me an angel _ and on top of that she’s cooking me dinner.‴

If Klimczak was afraid for her safety in the poor and gritty Buffalo neighborhood, she did not show it.

Sister Mary Johnice Rzadkiewicz, a friend of Klimczak who founded the Response to Love Center to provide food, counseling and other services not far from Bissonette House, said the two often talked about the potential dangers.

``And we said, ’You know, this is the way it is and if we feel this is the call, we have to make a response,‴ Rzadkiewicz said.

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