October 28, 2022
By Marly Reichert, Special to the Exponent
Retirement Fund for Religious co-chair entered religious life for opportunities to serve the poor – and found them.
CANTON, OHIO – Sister Karen Lindenberger started thinking about religious life in sixth grade because she wanted to help people – especially the poor.
“Back then, sisters talked about religious life and we watched movies about being missionaries in faraway places,” said Sister Karen, 78, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Tiffin, Ohio. “That is what I wanted – to help the poor but also to experience different cultures.”
Sister Karen, director of Hispanic Ministry at Canton St. Antony/All Saints Parish, is one of the honorary co-chairs of this year’s appeal for the Retirement Fund for Religious. The other is Humility of Mary Sister Susanne Gill, 92.
Even though it was the Notre Dame Sisters who taught her in elementary school, she was very familiar with the Franciscan Sisters of Tiffin because they served at her grandparents’ parish in Peru, Ohio, in Huron County. Peru is not far from Norwalk, where she grew up, Sister Karen explained. She was the third of nine children.
“By the time I was in eighth grade, my sister Betty was already at St. Francis High School in Tiffin [in nearby Seneca County]. St. Francis was an aspirant school for girls thinking about religious life,” Sister Karen said. “My mom kind of figured I was on the same path because she could see the joy I had when visiting Betty there. I could see the joy in the sisters there and I wanted to be part of that.”
Sister Karen entered the Franciscan Sisters of Tiffin as a postulant when she was 17. She spent two years in the novitiate, which she described as a “quiet, silent life.” She took classes in theology, Scripture and education, along with some Spanish at St. Francis convent there, making her first profession in 1964.
She attended St. Francis College in Joliet, Illinois, for two years and then was sent out to teach at St. Mary School in Millersville, Ohio, where she taught 45 first- and second-graders, while continuing her college education. At the time, “the order needed us in the schools, not earning degrees,” Sister Karen explained. She graduated from St. Francis College with a Bachelor of Science in sociology and a minor in education and eventually received a Master of Arts in theology from the University of Dayton.
After teaching in Millersville and later in North Auburn and Bucyrus, Ohio, Sister Karen found herself “discerning whether I wanted to do mission work. So I studied Spanish and eventually decided to go to our order’s mission site in Chiapas, Mexico, near the border of Guatemala, where we worked with the poor in mountainous areas.”
“One of the things we did was teach the women how to boil water to avoid disease. We taught them basic health care and explained why they needed to wear shoes and not go barefoot and why they needed to clothe their children,” Sister Karen said. “It was a wonderful experience. The people there had almost nothing, but they had joy in their hearts.”
“No matter what hut we went to, they were always so happy to see us. The women would always give us eggs, a live chicken, oranges or tamales to show their appreciation, but we always felt like we were the ones gifted and blessed,” Sister Karen said.
When her parents became ill, she returned to Ohio, where she continued teaching in rural Catholic schools until 1994.
Then, she was off to Berkeley, California, on a sabbatical, “just to become enriched and enlivened and to discern my next ministry,” Sister Karen said.
That ministry was in the heart of Appalachia in southeast Kentucky, where she worked with the poor and served Holy Family Parish in the city of Booneville for nine years.
Deciding to pursue a new call to Hispanic ministry in the states, Sister Karen’s next destination was San Antonio, Texas, where she spent five months at a Spanish language school and also learned pastoral skills at the Mexican American Cultural Center there.
“I knew there was a wave of migrants coming to the United States and I wanted to be ready to serve them,” Sister Karen noted.
After returning to her motherhouse in Tiffin she started calling various dioceses to see who needed help with Hispanic ministry.
“It turned out that my services were badly needed, but no one could afford to pay someone to do it. I was a nun and didn’t make a lot of money, but I certainly couldn’t work for free,” Sister Karen said.
“I finally got invited by Father Thomas Bishop to come to All Saints Parish in Canton. We started out with 15 to 20 people in our Hispanic ministry program but it grew quickly,” she explained. The migrants had asked for a weekly Mass, so Father Bishop learned enough Spanish to celebrate the liturgy in their native language.
St. Anthony Parish in Canton, which eventually merged with All Saints to become St. Anthony-All Saints Parish, hired Sister Karen in 2005. The Hispanic ministry program moved to St. Anthony and Sister Karen has been there ever since. She said now there are 180 to 200 people at the Spanish Mass every week.
Sister Karen is now the Hispanic ministry coordinator for the parish, serving families from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
“I prepare families for the sacraments and provide outreach to the community, including providing transportation to those without a vehicle to doctor appointments. I provide interpretation services for the schools, in court, and at the Department of Job and Family Services,” she said.
The parish also offers a food pantry, and Sister Karen makes sure there are items the migrants need or would otherwise search for. She also is a liaison when someone makes a donation of furniture or household goods.
“I always keep diapers on hand too,” she said, adding, “we serve 630 families with our program and we are open to any Spanish-speaking person in Stark County – not just Catholics.”
Of the migrants’ faith, she said it is “always very deep and sincere. I am always impressed because they have so much hope for the future,” Sister Karen said.
“I feel like I have been blessed in every opportunity as a nun,” Sister Karen said. “My entire religious life has been joyful.”
Though she loved teaching and found it a joy being with young children, she really enjoys her current ministry, she said.
Regarding the appeal for the Retirement Fund for Religious, she said there are a lot of sisters older than her who are retired and need the financial boost.