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Sister Karen's care packages joyous as ever

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Christmas season traditionally is a time for giving to others and reflecting on life's blessings. From today until Christmas, The Buffalo News will present stories of local people who have been touched by that spirit.

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If there was any doubt about whether the spirit of Sister Karen Klimczak lives on in Western New York, consider the 1,000 care packages that arrived Thursday at Wende Correctional Facility in Alden.

Sister Karen started this local holiday tradition more than 20 years ago -- out of the firm belief that prisoners deserved to share in the joy of the Christmas season.

When the spunky, peace-promoting nun was killed in 2006 by a former inmate she was trying to help, the Christmas care package project might easily have died with her.

Instead, it has flourished, with new volunteers stepping in to pick up where Sister Karen left off.

Across Western New York, many of her initiatives -- the prayer vigils at violent crime sites, the interfaith remembrance service, an annual Christmas party for families of crime victims, the making of dove symbols -- also continue.

And new ones in the form of peace gardens, a center for nonviolence, a peace summit and walk have been created in her name.

"Her spirit is still very much alive," said the Rev. Roy T. Herberger, who founded the Christmas care package project with Sister Karen and was one of her closest friends.

Sister Jean Klimczak isn't surprised that the work her sibling started goes on through others.

Sister Karen wasn't territorial about programs and regularly collaborated with others, said Sister Jean, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany.

"She would help initiate things, but she would also encourage people and say, 'You can do it.' She was an enabler," Sister Jean said.

Herberger and Sister Karen developed the idea for the Christmas care packages in the late 1980s. Sister Karen got area schoolchildren involved, asking them to decorate the white paper bags with holiday messages in crayon and marker.

Throughout the year, she collected various goodies -- Ramen noodles, wrapped candies, granola bars and paperback books -- and often stored them in the basement of Bissonette House, the halfway house she operated. Each year, she wrote a special Christmas message to accompany each bag.

Sister Karen relied on a small group of volunteers to stuff the bags before she and Herberger drove them in a rented van to Wende.

Early on, they were sometimes accused of coddling prisoners, recalled Herberger, a former prison chaplain.

"The officers would say, 'You're wasting your money. Give it to the poor, give it to the needy. These guys don't deserve it,' " Herberger said.

Sister Karen responded by explaining that they already gave to the poor and the needy throughout the year, according to Herberger.

Following her murder in April 2006, many of the programs and ministries that Sister Karen began -- including the largest of them, Bissonette House -- faced an uncertain future.

"All of that stuff was questionable," said the Rev. Robert L. Gebhard, who at the time was pastor of St. James Catholic Church and president of the board that oversaw Bissonette House.

But most of the ministries are still going strong now.

Bissonette House, located on Grider Street in a former rectory where the Rev. A. Joseph Bissonette was slain in 1987, was even able to expand earlier this year. The program, in its 25th year, now accepts up to 20 male parolees, nearly double its prior capacity.

Amid the turmoil of trying to keep the halfway house going without Sister Karen, the Christmas bags easily could have been forgotten about. But Gebhard's congregation decided to keep up the tradition.

They stumbled to figure out exactly how Sister Karen had proceeded year after year.

The care package concept was simple. However, the sheer number of bags to be passed out and then collected from area schools and the thousands of items to be gathered and stuffed -- along with strict prison guidelines on what could go in the packages -- made the project a time-consuming logistical challenge.

Sister Karen left behind no organizational road map, so Gebhard and volunteers from St. James and St. Gerard parishes devised their own.

In early 2008, another wrench became evident.

St. James and St. Gerard churches were closed in a merger with Blessed Trinity Church, causing many of the parishioners to scatter. The care package project was again at risk.

Janice Burns, a former St. James parishioner, proposed that Blessed Trinity sponsor the care package project as a "unifying effort" for the merged parishes.

Blessed Trinity, in turn, opened the project up to a broader community of churches, including the Chapel at CrossPoint, "The Hub" youth ministry of Wesleyan Church of Hamburg and a couple of large suburban Catholic parishes -- all of which donated items for the bags.

"It's become a more ecumenical kind of thing, as opposed to just a Catholic thing, which I think is kind of cool," said Burns, volunteer coordinator for the project.

Burns said she believes that the simple gesture makes a lasting impact with prisoners, by providing some measure of hope, and helps connect members of the community with people who are behind bars.

"Oftentimes, they haven't received anything other than these bags at Christmas," she said.

The decorated bags, in particular, hit home for some prisoners, according to Herberger. "This would literally bring many of the inmates to tears," he said, "because it would remind them of their own children and grandchildren."

Each year, some of the Wende inmates write to express their gratitude for the gift bags.

"Thank you for taking the time out to help the brothers who have nobody to be there for them. God has done wonders for me, by bringing people in my life who are positive and God fearing," a prisoner named Michael wrote to Burns following last year's delivery.

Another inmate, Larry, wrote: "You guys are such a big help -- sometimes the ONLY help. May God bless you and all of your families this Xmas and throughout the New Year."

About 50 volunteers showed up on a cold, snowy evening at Blessed Trinity to get the bags ready this year. Among them was Sister Elizabeth Savage, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, the community to which Sister Karen belonged.

"Since it's a project Sister Karen started, I feel a tie to it," she said. "I think she'd be really happy to see such a mixture of folks here tonight."

Prior to this year, Paula Hunt, of Buffalo, last participated in the bag-stuffing when it was still in its infancy.

Back then, Hunt recalled, the volunteers were mostly senior citizens. This year, though, about half of the group consisted of young people, many of whom Sister Karen knew personally in her role as pastoral associate and youth director at SS. Columba & Brigid Church, a post now held by Hunt.

"These kids grew up with Karen," Hunt said. "We're keeping her alive."

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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