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One-woman play pays homage to Sister Karen

A giant in the local nonviolence movement will come to life on the stage as a new one-woman play about the life of Sister Karen Klimczak. It will be performed at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Ephesus Ministries, 341 Grider St.

Sister Karen founded a half-way house for former convicts in Buffalo and was murdered by one of the residents in 2006. The play, “This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Sister Karen Klimczak,” was authored by local playwright Joan Albarella, who used as her primary source Sister Karen’s own journals.

“The play was framed around her journal entries, so that you could see, first of all, her spirituality and how that influenced everything,” said Albarella.

Sister Karen “had a very personal relationship with God,” Albarella added, “very similar to what I think is a traditional mystic relationship. It was that relationship that directed her and propelled her to do everything she did. She was not cavalier about what she did, but she really had no fear because she felt she was divinely directed.”

Local actress Kelly Meg Brennan stars in the production which, according to the playwright, aims to take the audience on a journey through Sister Karen’s life.

A Lackawanna native, Sister Karen and her younger sister, Jean, both attended Immaculata High School before both chose to enter a religious life. During her life, Sister Karen was admired and praised for her efforts in the nonviolence movement. After her death, Sister Karen was lionized in local music concerts, social justice forums and through the ubiquitous Peaceprint signs that she created right before her death.

“In the play, we’re looking at what really led to her work for peace and we trace how she became involved in the peace movement, and even how she moved from one religious order to another,” said Albarella.

Sister Karen left a more traditional order to join the Sister of St. Joseph, “because their motto, which spoke more to working with the underdog,” Albarella said.

Sister Karen was very much influenced by the pre-eminent leader of the Indian Independence Movement, Mohandas K. Gandhi, who developed a nonviolent social justice movement that later influenced civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

When Sister Karen made her first forays into the nonviolence movement, nuns were steered toward being either teachers or nurses, said Albarella.

“By the time she went into her master’s program at Loyola (University)... she became very involved in clown ministry, which was very cutting edge at that time. She also studied a great deal of Gandhi. They were starting these very directed Christian communities in that time around the 1970s. That was where lay people and religious people lived in community and they all had the same focus, which was social justice,” Albarella said.

One of Sister Karen’s summer work projects as a teacher took her to Georgia, in the aftermath of what became known as the Atlanta Child Murders around 1980. Wayne Bertram Williams was eventually convicted of killing more than two dozen young African American boys and men in Atlanta.

Sister Karen “went down there to work with the survivors to reassure them and try to get rid of some of the fear,” said Albarella.

Sister Karen’s second work project led her to Providence House, a facility for women ex-convicts in Brooklyn. She then returned to Buffalo, where she sought to replicate the Brooklyn program here.

“But instead working with women, she saw the need was more for men. That’s how she started her journey,” Albarella said.

“Just getting the halfway house was a big part of the journey, because she met a lot of resistance in the community from most people she met. But Father Joseph Bissonnette and Father Roy Herberger were her greatest advocates,” she added.

Father Bissonnette was, himself, murdered in 1987 in the rectory of St. Bartholomew’s Catholic Church, which Sister Karen eventually took over for the halfway house and named it after the slain priest.

Albarella, a retired professor with the University at Buffalo Educational Opportunity Center is the author of five novels written in the 1990s. About five years ago, Albarella started writing plays about strong religious women, starting with Mother Francis Cabrini, Sisters of St. Francis founder Mother Marianne Cope, when she was approached by Sister Karen’s sister, Jean Klimczak.

“Sister Jean was looking for a way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Sister Karen’s death and she asked me... At the time, we were just coming up with ideas to bring her vision of peace back into the forefront,” said Albarella.

Though she never met Sister Karen, Albarella was given access to Sister Karen’s journals. Though she would have liked to have met the subject of her play, Albarella said it helped the project that she never did.

“As a writer, that gives you a little bit of objectivity that you need, otherwise it’s colored by your personal feelings,” she said.

Her work is enthusiastically endorsed by the woman who, perhaps, knew Sister Karen best, her sister, Jean who has seen the play performed twice. “...If I close my eyes I could hear Karen’s voice, her expressions, the way she said things. The actress also is superb in portraying the words. The way that Joan put it all together, she managed to get a story of Karen’s life, but in a way that uses Karen’s own words from her diary,” said Sister Jean Klimczak.