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By David Staba

While eulogizing Sister Karen Klimczak -- who was killed on Good Friday, allegedly by a parolee living in the halfway house she founded and ran for almost two decades -- Father Roy Herberger asked not for vengeance or even justice, but mercy.

"If there was one word synonymous with Sister Karen, it would be 'forgive,'" said the priest who co-founded the ministry serving ex-convicts recently paroled from prison, which would become known as Bissonette House, with the murdered nun. "And she would be the first one to say that about Craig -- 'Father, forgive him for he doesn't know what he's doing, because of the crack cocaine.'"

During Sister Karen's funeral on Saturday at St. Ann's Church, Father Herberger and the nearly 2,000 people packed into the sanctuary and a huge tent in the parking lot prayed for Craig Lynch, who police say confessed to the crime three days after she disappeared, and led them to the makeshift grave where her body was found. And they prayed for his mother, who neighbors said wailed, "What did you do?" again and again as police led him away in handcuffs.

Mostly, though, the day was not filled with mourning for Sister Karen's horrific death, but celebration of her remarkable life.

White paper doves, hand-printed with what had served as her slogan, "I leave peaceprints," decorated the church and overflow tent.

Her sister, who is also a nun, talked about those words while sitting in the kitchen of Bissonette House at noon Tuesday, less than 18 hours after Sister Karen's body was found.

"She said to me, 'You leave your fingerprints on everything. We need to be people who leave imprints of peace wherever we go in our world,'" Sister Jean Klimczak said. "That's what she was about and that is what she challenged others to do."

During his eulogy, Father Herberger talked about not just Bissonette House, but all of Sister Karen's efforts -- serving prisoners, running another facility called Hospitality House to provide a place to stay and eat for the visiting families of prison inmates, leading prayer vigils at murder sites throughout Buffalo, dressing up as a clown named Bounce to entertain at churches, schools and senior centers, and giving Christmas parties for the children and siblings of murder victims.

It was to Bissonette House, though, that she devoted, and eventually gave, her life. Bissonette House was named for Father A. Joseph Bissonette, who was murdered in 1987 in a room off the kitchen of his rectory by two men he was trying to help. Sister Karen turned the former rectory into a haven for men readjusting to society.

At Bissonette House, parolees got shelter, food and structure, with check-in times and curfews part of the requirements. Sister Karen gave them something more, insisting that they gather to pray at 7 a.m. in the room where Father Bissonette died.

Her ministry was as spiritual as it was religious. On the Web site she maintained (www.hopeofbuffalo.org), a section called "Stories of Hope" demonstrates the little touches that made such a big impact on the people she helped.

"It was Dan's 27th birthday and we celebrated with a party," she wrote. "We had cake with candles, ice cream and a small present. As we began to sing, I looked over at Dan and saw tears coming down his cheeks. I couldn't imagine what could possibly be wrong.

"I went over to Dan and whispered, 'What's wrong?' He said, 'I've never had a birthday party in my life.'" Hundreds of men passed through Bissonette House over the years. Many of them regularly returned to volunteer, trying to repay her for her support and love.

"She did everything she could for us, to straighten us out and help guide us in the right way," said Willie White, who spent six months at Bissonette House after being paroled from a burglary sentence and now works as a counselor for other former inmates. "You don't find too much of that anymore."

Craig Lynch had only been at the brick house across Grider Street from Erie County Medical Center for nine days when he snuck out to get high on crack, then broke into Sister Karen's room looking for something that might be worth another rock, police said. He told his interrogators that he panicked when he heard the 62-year-old woman coming and attacked from behind when she entered the room. An autopsy determined strangulation and blunt-force trauma as the cause of death.

Lynch told police he traded her cell phone and charger for a bag of crack that turned out to be fake. Detective Sgt. James Lonergan of the Buffalo Police Department's homicide squad said Lynch's remorse helped lead to his confession Monday afternoon.

"He'd cry for a period, then he'd be calm," Lonergan said. "We fed him, then he started to cry again. He'd have periods of remorse and other periods where you wouldn't think anything happened."

In the wake of the murder, some talk-show callers demanded an end to parole and facilities like Bissonette House.

"There have been talk shows on the radio filled with bitterness and hatred," Father Herberger said during his eulogy. "That's totally a contrast to what Karen's life was about. Some people just don't get it."

Lonergan, who had investigated Father Bissonette's murder as one of his first cases as a homicide detective, said much the same thing Tuesday while standing in the driveway outside the halfway house.

"They're very important," Lonergan said, looking at the building. "We can't blame all parolees for this. It's one individual. The rest of them in there, they're all as upset as we are. It's just one bad apple smoking crack." More than 100 people from throughout the city helped search for the missing nun over Easter weekend and hundreds more attended vigils Monday and Friday.

Saturday morning, cars lined Broadway for blocks in either direction. The gathering included young and old. Black, white, Hispanic and Asian. Men and women. Corn-rows and crew-cuts. A middle-aged white man in a monk's robe and a young black man in a Los Angeles Lakers jacket worked their way through the crowd in the tent, lighting small candles held by mourners. More than 40 tables in the overflow tent were covered with pizza, pasta, relish trays, fruit and desserts donated by businesses and individuals from throughout Western New York.

More than a thousand voices opened the Mass by singing "How Great Thou Art," and ended it with what had to be one of the longest "Peace be with you" handshake-and-hug sessions in religious history.

On Good Friday evening in the brick house on Grider Street, one man provided indisputable proof that there is evil in the world.

But in the aftermath of Sister Karen Klimczak's death, thousands of others demonstrated that there is even more good.

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 25 2006