International Day of the Nun: Karen Klimczak and the Halfway House of Sisterly Justice

Nothing causes outrage among the nuns like a man, particularly a man who’s never taken the time to talk with them or get to know them, who uses the privilege of his gender in our male-dominated culture to speak on their behalf.

One thing people rarely understand about the nuns is that, in large part, they are victims of having been born into a misogynistic, imperialistic, male-dominated society, just like everyone else. When a man comes around to make fun of a nun or to blame her for the problems of the church, that is akin to blaming a sexual assault victim for the assault. The nuns are on the lowest rungs of the Catholic Church; they are not altogether without power because they all possess a power within that they can tap into, but they, like all of us, are a product of a culture of domination. That’s why grassroots (n)underground efforts to empower the nuns are so important. A good number of nuns enter the convent in order to be shielded from male domination and to take refuge in the egalitarianism of Jesus Christ; the fact that they usually end up subjugated by The Vat doesn’t somehow make them culpable and responsible for their subjugation nor does it make them the equivalent of The Vat.

If you hear a man, whether he’s the pope or the anti-pope, speaking on behalf of the nuns, there is only one thing to do: (tune him out and) tune into the nuns. Unless a man knows what it’s like to be a nun because (a) he was a nun, (b) he wants to be a nun, (c) he is a friend of the nuns (as in: he has their endorsement– not as in he claims to be their friend), or (d) he has spoken with and is delivering direct quotes from nuns, he cannot speak fairly and competently about the nuns. Claiming to speak for them or know their motivations without actually having a conversation with them is downright despicable. It’s akin to Father Donald (Trump) speaking on the subject of Russia, or anything for that matter.

Even if the man is a well-read intelligent scholar or a skeptic, if he starts telling the nuns who they are and what they do, he’s just as bad as The Vat. To condemn a nun for perpetuating, or being a cog in, a defunct system, when she willingly places herself with the lowest of society in an effort to offer help and compassion, is to be a big old dickhead, and the nuns would never say it like that, but I’m probationary so I can. And I will.

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WRONG. THIS IS CALLED ELITIST WHITE MALE MISOGYNY.

It’s too bad that an intelligent feminist fellow like Mr. Christopher Hitchens could not, during his life, have realized that a woman trying to do good in the world, even if she’s a near-powerless cog in a big, powerful, and corrupt man-machine is not to blame for the machine into which she was born. Did Mr. Hitchens do his research on Mother Teresa? Did he talk with her? Listen to her? Try to understand her? Did he talk to those whom she attempted to help? I don’t know, maybe I’m a skeptic, but somehow I just… doubt it.

To discount the good a nun did and intended to do in the world by virtue of pointing out her “failures” is not only a fallacy in logic; it’s also a very typical misogynistic behavior. It’s too bad Mr. Hitchens could not have made his point without being much like The Vat he wished to condemn. It’s too bad he couldn’t criticize the machine that produces poverty without attacking one of its victims. Mother Teresa did her work among the poor. Whether she perpetuated a system of oppression of poverty or not does not detract from the work she did with individuals and the solace and comfort her presence brought to the lives of others. It makes a big-mouthed probationary nun like me mad as hell when I encounter a privileged white man, particularly among the intellectual elite, condemning a woman in order to make his point. Skepticism and intellectualism can become their own kind of papacy. Mr. Hitchens was a celebrity in his own right, in his own atheist circle, and it was probably quite rebellious and glamorous for him to say something like this about a woman revered for her holiness. You can think it’s all a sham without making a mockery of a human being who did her best to serve others while she lived. I wonder what kind of service work Mr. Hitchens did during his lifetime… you know, atheists can be just as hypocritical as Catholics, and I say that as a fully dysfunctional hypocrite.

A mistake that people sometimes make when considering the nuns is to say that they are merely pawns of the church. Nuns are not pawns. If they are treated as pawns, that is because The Vat and society are corrupt. The nuns are human beings– they are women who choose to live among women.

Think about it: the nuns make a life choice to live primarily among other women. They do this with the expectation that they will not live among men. What do you make of this, Readrrr? I know that this is the main reason I wanted to become a nun, way back when, when I used to tell my mother that I planned to be a nun when I grew up.

Connect the dots. The nuns make a life choice to be sequestered among women. Nunhood is an (attempted) escape from manhood, from society-as-we-know-it/male-domination. Nun life is just an imperfect, derailed ideal of a Sapphic Safe Space, an Isle of Lesbos, a place where women can take refuge away from a world of gender-based violence and domination.

And we know, Readrrr, that once a nun enters the convent, she learns very quickly that she’s stuck under one of the biggest patriarchal boots around, via The Vat, but that doesn’t detract from or somehow distort the desires for refuge and safety that brought her to the convent in the first place.

There are no safe spaces for women and other non-violent, non-domination-oriented people of the world. Safe spaces are illusions and ideals, but they are worthy ones and I admire the nuns with all my heart and soul for trying to carve out a safe space for themselves in a world that is dangerous to them.

Not all nuns live with other nuns, however. Some of them live with ex cons.

When I was a young probationary nun, during the early days when I was unaware that I would later become a Sapphic satirist, a linguistic revolutionary, a journalistic rebel, and a spy; I met a nun by the name of Sistrrr Karen Klimczak. Sistrrr Karen ran a halfway house for ex-cons, and I had the honor of being welcomed there.

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Meet Peace Activist, Sistrrr Karen Klimczak. Our hero.

Meeting Sistrrr Klimczak was an honor, and if I ever hear any fungus-brained father or brother say an ill word against a sistrrr-saint like Sistrrr Karen, I will run him through the metaphorical shredder forty six, or seven, thousand times.

Sistrrr Karen was a gentle nun, and would never use her mouth and fingers against the patriarchy like I do, but that’s why I’m here. To be the middle nun. A halfway house of probationary truth. A hex con in a halfway house.

As a woman who was once a die-hard Catholic and who with seriousness considered being a nun, and as a Sapphic Spinster and nun-empathizer, I come to my study of the nuns with love and with a desire to (n)understand. And I also come with the ability to say exactly what I think without having one iota of fear of what The Vat will do to me. It’s not that The Vat won’t harm me; The Vat has harmed me– The Vat is harming me right now (ow, ow, ow).

It’s just that I’m a raging feminist and I’m willing to fight like hell, non-violently, for the nuns because that is how much I love the nuns. Despite my colossal fears and my inherent non-violence and my small stature and my poverty and my sensitivity, I’m still here, still speaking out, despite all the obstacles against my ability to practice freedom of nun-speech. Some of us are just willing to risk it all to be who we are, follow our truth, and do our part to change the world.

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Social and racial justice activist, Sistrrr Karen

Sistrrr Karen Klimzcak risked more, in following her passion for compassion, than any other nun I know. She is my nun hero, and I honor her on the day after International Day of the Girl –October 12th: International Day of the Nun– and always because meeting her and, more importantly, learning about her work changed my life: who I am and who I am becoming.

I grew up in a very wealthy suburb outside Buffalo, NY, where I went to school at the Friary Priory. The Friary Priory School is one of the best in the area, naturally, because where there is money, there is high quality education (it’s called EDUCATIONAL INJUSTICE, and it’s a product of capitalism, in which access to educational resources is dictated according to wealth, which is interconnected with RACIAL INJUSTICE which is rooted in imperialism, colonialism, and slavery). When I first started out at the Friary Priory, I was unaware of INTERSECTIONAL OPPRESSIONS, but I soon became NUN-aware of it, and part of that NUN-awareness is due to my visit with Sistrrr Karen.

Prior to my visit to Sistrrr Karen’s HOPE House in the city of Buffalo, I had just come into some new wisdom and brain development. My life-changing encounter with Sistrrr Karen happened when I had just turned sixteen, in November of 2000, around Thanksgiving. I was in the middle of (n)undergoing a radical transformation.

My mother, who is an extraordinarily talented cook and baker, told me that she had heard of Sistrrr Karen and her HOPE House, and that she wanted to make a Thanksgiving dinner for members of the HOPE House.

What I was told by my kindhearted mom is that Sistrrr Karen ran a house in which she lived with men who were coming out of jail, who were committed to non-violence, and who had no other place to live (read: ex cons… just one radical step away from hex-cons). I later learned that she did much more than that. Sistrrr Klimzcak founded the HOPE house in 1985 as a transitional home for men who were released from jail and in need of shelter and rehabilitation.

We sometimes hear about male activists of/for non-violence, but we less frequently hear about women, particularly nuns, who have lived out their extreme pacifist ideals. Sistrrr Karen chose for her HOPE house to be located in the house in which Fathrrr Joseph Bissonette was murdered in his rectory at St. Bartholomew’s Church. I have been in this rectory, Readrrr. I sat with my mother and Sistrrr Karen in the rectory sitting room, visited the rectory kitchen, and was shown the upstairs of the rectory by Sistrrr Karen herself. I met and shook hands with some of the members of the halfway house, as well. I remember the sun blasting our faces and the white walls of the rectory parlor while Sistrrr Karen talked to my mother and me about the house and about Fathrrr Bissonnette, and the work she did. I also remember feeling terrified. There I was, a privileged, sheltered young girl from the suburbs, sitting in the former rectory in which a priest had been killed. There I was, looking up to the high-ceiling while sitting with my mother in the parlor, listening to this tiny nun thank us for our food and tell us about her mission while my mind was traveling everywhere inside and beyond the house.

This was my only visit. I never went back to the HOPE house. A short visit, in which we dropped off a Thanksgiving dinner and met the members of the household, was all it took to change my life. All of it started out with my mother and me making pies the night before we made our visit. A ton of pies. I’m sure the pies were delicious and the members of the house thanked us, but we were the ones who needed to be grateful. I cannot recall what I said at the time to Sistrrr Karen. I know I have always been an extremely polite person, particularly when I was sixteen, so I am sure I thanked her. But I need to write again now to thank her properly and to do justice to the way in which going to the HOPE house broadened my understanding of life and radically shifted my perspective about people and about poverty and about everything.

But back to that parlor. Sitting in there, I was haunted by thoughts of the priest being murdered. My imagination was elaborating on the details Sistrrr Karen shared with us. The room I was looking at was not white, though it was splotched in sun spots. The room I was seeing was covered in blood. I had a knot in my stomach. I was scared. Yet I was somehow calmed by Sistrrr Karen’s demeanor as I listened to her: she wasn’t afraid; she was cheerful. This room was home to her. She made it home. She made it home to those without homes. The horror of the murder that occurred there did not horrify her: she looked upon it for what it was and the spirit of forgiveness seemed to wipe away all of the average feelings of fear and disgust felt by most people. She brought healing to a house stained by homicide.

Sistrrr Karen possessed a spiritual gift: she looked upon human acts of violence with compassion for both the victims and the perpetrators. To me, this indicates that she possessed a great wisdom, the wisdom to understand that violence is more than an act: it is a system and a state of mind (in Catholic terms, a state of sin) in which all of us are implicated and culpable and responsible for change. She was wise enough to (n)understand that the alienation of those who commit violent crimes will not solve the problem– that condemnation is not the answer; that proactive compassion is the answer. There will likely always be violence in the world, unless our species evolves in a way that eradicates and reforms its culture of domination. It seems like violence prevails, but there are highly evolved individuals, like Sistrrr Karen Klimczak, who offer us a vision of what it might be like to transcend that. I have had a lot of important teachers in my life, and it only took Sistrrr Karen an hour or so of her time to place in me the roots of a lesson that I will be learning across my lifetime. There is no better way to thank a radical teacher like that than to carry on their work through who you are and strive to become.

Sistrrr Karen gave her time to my mom and me. We were not giving her a gift; she was granting us one. She told my mother a story about something that happened when she went with the members of her house to visit St. Gregory the Great in Williamsville (the church I attended throughout some of my childhood and my adolescence). It should be noted that St. Greg’s is a large church with mostly-wealthy and mostly-white members. Like, we’re talking 98%, at least. I don’t need to point out that the congregation is largely conservative, do I? Well, anyway, Sistrrr Karen told my mother that when she and an African American member of her household were visiting St. Greg’s, members of the congregation at St. Greg’s would not shake his hand, and were very direct about it. This story hurts to think about, but racism is a real and horrible and prominent part of our world, and Sistrrr Karen was aware of this. She fought non-violently against racial injustice through the work that she did, and she was aware of racism, or she would never have told my mother that story. After she told my mother that story, my mother (maybe on behalf of St. Greg’s, I don’t know) met with the fellow whose hand had not been shaken, and she shook his hand and she apologized for cruelty of those who had rejected him at her church. My mother is not some kind of crusader against racism– racism is in and affects us all, because it is a system, but I know that Sistrrr Karen educated my mother in a profound way when she told her that story.

At the time, I could not understand how this tiny, fragile woman could live in and run a house with some of the most violent men among us. Wasn’t she scared, I thought. Wasn’t she terrified, being around men who were much larger than her who were capable of brutal violence. Whether or not she was scared, she did the work. She risked her life to teach others, by her example, the meaning of forgiveness and empathy. She was a radical activist for racial justice and for a culture of non-violence and empathy.

I never saw Sistrrr Karen again and I cannot visit her now, to tell her how profoundly she changed my perspective because in 2006, Karen was murdered by one of the men whom she served. When I learned about this, I was devastated. How could it end this way for her, I thought. My initial response was to wish Sistrrr Karen had never risked her life that way, for my worst fears and inner beliefs about the nature of men had been confirmed. But then, over the years, I thought about what Sistrrr Karen stood for, and I remembered that her perspective was that God’s mercy and forgiveness is shown through all actions, bad and good. Sistrrr Karen’s terrible and heinous murder, despite her charitable nature and brave non-violence activism, further demonstrate the importance of non-violence. Sistrrr Karen’s life is an example of godliness. Non-violence is the closest manifestation of godliness that our world will ever know. It is the antithesis of sin and base human acts of violence. She was a revolutionary activist for non-violence, and the message of her work is carried out through her life and her death. Do I hate it with all my being that this happened to Sistrrr Karen? Yes. Does it make me angry? In a way. Mostly it just hurts. But Sistrrr Karen taught me that the only way to transcend a culture of violence is to foster a culture of mercy and non-violence. Her work is not diminished by the way her life ended; the way her life ended strengthened the potency of her mission and message.

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Peace vigil for Sistrrr Karen. I wish I had been able be there.

I am not and never will be brave in the way that Sistrrr Karen was brave: that is why she is my hero and I honor her, but I do my best to be brave and to teach in the ways that I know how to be brave and to teach. And I share with Sistrrr Karen a philosophy of non-violence.

Please take a moment to learn about Sistrrr Karen and her work, and please join me in the movement to dismantle our culture of violence. Be brave and meet me halfway.

I apologize for the lack of Sapphic satire in this post, but some occasions call for serious nun-spy reporting.

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Our hero, Sistrrr Karen, in her Peace Garden (Photo by Patrick McPartland)

Reporting to you from The Grapevine…

Sistrrr Grim

Learn more about Sistrrr Karen here: http://www.sisterkarencenter.org/about-sister-karen/

2 Comments Add yours

  1. jaakko2 says:

    Pardon me if I test this? I don’t think this comment will happen. Call it a lack of will if you will. It is written below that I do have a wordpress.com account, but I don’t believe it. Nevertheless, just in case it does happen: Thank you for the record of this saint–can I call her that as a metaphor: I’m an atheist?

    Like

  2. jaakko2 says:

    Why the purple people eater come up?

    Like

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