Total Pageviews

Popular Posts

Monday, September 28, 2009

Catholic Worker Karen Lenz: a tribute

There are small, unsung purveyors of hope in Philadelphia, and some of them are right here in the neighborhood.
One unsung hero is the Sister Peter Claver Catholic Worker House at 430 W. Jefferson Street. As a house it is not much. It’s filled with books, arts and crafts for children, holy pictures, a crooked, narrow staircase, and a kitchen that has fed thousands of needy and destitute people throughout the years.
My first contact with the Jefferson Street CW occurred several years ago when I was assigned to do a story on the place and interview the overseer, Karen B. Lenz. Karen, who was confined to a wheelchair for many years prior to her death on August 6, 2009, became a sort of friend after that first meeting. We discovered that liked the same Catholic authors, mainly Thomas Merton and Flannery O’Connor; that we shared similar beliefs regarding the treatment of the poor—especially in the area of health care, where private insurance companies make health care coverage an impossibility for low income people. We also shared a fascination for the history of the Catholic Worker movement, how founder Dorothy Day, a one time Marxist/Greenwich Village bohemian/ atheist, converted to Catholicism, and founded the Catholic Worker, a movement devoted to peace and justice and equality for the financially underprivileged.
We got along so well that Karen invited me to the community potluck dinner that evening, where I met Peaches and Jackie, two women who lived in the CW house because they had no place to go. That first night a number of other dinner guests arrived: a woman from the affluent Main Line with bags of donated clothing, and another woman deeply involved in the women’s ordination movement.
I’d make many visits to the CW house over the next few years. A convert from Lutheranism, Karen was an avid, but not uncritical Catholic with a deep spirituality. For Karen, the Eucharist was the sacred core of Catholicism, not the actions and edicts from the hierarchy, with whom she had issues. These issues included women’s ordination as well as peace and justice concerns, notably the war in Iraq. Another subject that concerned Karen was the way the Vatican behaved during the priest abuse scandal. She objected to the Vatican’s efforts to link homosexuality and sex with minors in the minds of people. “This is a pernicious and false connection,” she wrote in Equal wRights, a Catholic feminist newsletter that she also edited. “Indeed, most pedophilia and ephebophilia is heterosexual and most same sex love is healthy, good, natural, and holy…”
Karen exuded a Mother’s love; there was something about her that made you—or me, anyway—want to wrap my arms around her and hold her for a time. Her great heart, lively intelligence and sense of humor kept even the drollest conversation percolating throughout a cold February evening. Thursday’s were potluck dinner night, and when I’d visit to say the liturgy I’d bring a Stock’s bakery vanilla pound cake. Potluck dinner guests changed from week to week, so you never knew who you were going to meet. Karen knew everybody, from canonical hermits, to nuns, to baby-cheeked students from nearby colleges, so dinners were a feast of new people and stories, maybe a shared bottle of wine, and talk that made the hands of the clock race ahead so that we were always saying, “Gee, it’s time to go home already?”
During dinner there’d almost always be knocks on the door. Sometimes it would be a woman wanting food to feed her children, or somebody dropping off a donation. There were also times when addicts or the homeless would knock for something to eat.
Throughout the evening Karen’s Rabelaisian sense of humor had us pounding our forks on the table in good natured howls. Karen may have been saintly in many ways, but she was not made of plaster.
While Karen was passionate about women’s ordination issues, I tended to be lukewarm. Karen liked the liturgical changes in Catholicism since Vatican II whereas I believed that the so called “new” Mass was about as awe-inspiring as a political stump speech, or an Info-commercial on the Fox network. Despite these differences we managed to agree to disagree, so our friendship remained intact.
When we came and went we always gave one another a kiss. Her face, like that of a great lioness, would lean out towards mine, as I’d stoop over the wheelchair and tell her, “Thank you.”
Why thank you? Because Karen B. Lenz gave and gave…. a lot….

Thom Nickels

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.