Sister Karen Thein’s spirit finds joy in God and the people through whom He has filled her life with good things.
Her 60 years as a School Sister of Notre Dame have magnified her capacity to trust and dare.
“You never know what you’re saying ‘yes’ to, but God gives you the grace to say ‘yes’ anyway,” said Sr. Karen, pastoral minister for Holy Cross Parish in Cuba, St. Francis Caracciolo Parish in Bourbon and St. Michael Parish in Steelville.
“I sure didn’t know where it was going to take me, but I really do believe that God is with me,” she said.
An important characteristic of the School Sisters of Notre Dame — the name means “Our Lady” in French — is their willingness to imitate the Blessed Mother in saying “yes” to God, wherever that may require of them.
“Our relationship with Mary, our Blessed Mother, that’s always been a really great source of strength for me,” said Sr. Karen.
Letting God decide
Sr. Karen was the second-youngest of five children born to her parents in Clara City, Minnesota.
The Thein family was tight-knit and immersed in their faith.
Her mother became sick with cancer while Sr. Karen was in high school.
“She suffered greatly but was so attentive to others who were around her,” Sr. Karen recalled.
Her death came just before Sr. Karen’s sophomore year in high school.
“I was privileged to be with my Mom in her final time,” said Sr. Karen. “I often reflect on her final ‘yes.’
“That morning, we had a conversation, and she said, ‘Karen, don’t leave me ... and I will never leave you,’” Sr. Karen recalled. “Those were almost her final words, and then she passed into the next life.”
Sr. Karen told God that whether or not He chose to restore her mother to health, she would do whatever He put upon her heart — “get married or be a religious.”
Sr. Karen had been dating a young man at that time.
“We were always together,” she recalled. “I think everyone thought that it would wind up being ‘Tom and Karen.’”
Yet, deep down, she was hoping to hear, “You’re going to be a sister.”
“I always kind of felt that I wanted that,” she acknowledged. “I had School Sisters of Notre Dame in grade school, and they were wonderful role models for me.”
She and Tom stayed good friends, “but I came to realize that I was being called to religious life.”
Sr. Karen entered the SSND candidature at the motherhouse in Mankato, Minnesota.
Most of the other candidates had gone to high school together. Sr. Karen knew none of them and felt very lonely at the beginning.
“But we had a very good postulant directress,” she recalled. “And when I went into the Notre Dame novitiate, I met one of the most wonderful SSNDs there. She knew how to encourage and also how to call us into a deeper relationship with God.”
Sr. Karen professed first vows in 1962.
She completed a bachelor’s degree in Latin and Spanish from Mount Mary College (now University) in Milwaukee in 1964.
“I’ve always enjoyed studying languages,” she said.
She taught high school Latin and Spanish in North Dakota for four years, then for a year in Iowa and three years in Minnesota.
She then received certification in religious education from Gonzaga University, Spokane, Washington, and spent a year teaching at Our Lady of Good Counsel Academy in Mankato.
“We had students that came up from Mexico and learn English,” she recalled. “That was my introduction to Hispanic culture.”
“Part of my heart”
One of her fellow SSNDs was scheduled to spend a summer with sisters serving in Guatemala.
“That sister passed away, and Reverend Mother didn’t want to let the ticket go to waste,” Sr. Karen recalled. “So I went down to Guatemala and spent nine weeks there and had a wonderful experience.”
Two years later, the SSND leadership asked her to help open a second mission in Guatemala.
By then, Sr. Karen’s father was elderly and she didn’t want to leave him behind.
“They encouraged me to call him and see what he says,” she recalled. “I called him and said, ‘Dad, the sisters are asking me to go to Guatemala.’ He said, ‘Then, that’s what you have to do.’”
She served first as a catechist and pastoral minister in Nahualá, Sololá.
She then spent 14 years teaching English at Colegio San Bernardino, Patzún.
An earthquake leveled the school and convent in 1976, and she helped rebuild.
“And in 1981, our little town was taken over by the military,” she noted.
She and a fellow SSND were sent to Merida, Mexico, until the local priest told them after a week that it was safe to come back.
Sr. Karen remained there until 1989.
“I loved Guatemala,” she said. “I loved the people. I think I left part of my heart there.”
It was a familiar pattern for her.
“That’s the thing: No matter where you are, you love the people,” she said.
Change of plans
Back in the United States, she earned a corporate ministry certificate from Saint Louis University in St. Louis, followed by a master’s degree in pastoral studies from Loyola University, New Orleans.
She then took up ministry to Hispanic Catholics at several parishes in Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota.
After a sabbatical, she served as a pastoral associate for the Hispanic community at St. Cecilia Parish in Kennett.
She visited Holy Cross Parish in Cuba after making a discernment retreat at the SSND motherhouse in St. Louis.
She then interviewed for a position in Hispanic ministry at a parish close to where she grew up in Minnesota.
“I had never been in a place close to my family,” she noted. “The interview went really well. I liked it there. I planned to go to this place.”
A short time later, her provincial counselor called and asked her to consider serving as a pastoral minister for the three parishes in Crawford County, Missouri.
There was a need she knew she could help meet. She knew what her answer had to be.
“My heart broke for a short time,” she recalled. “But I quickly found out how much I really like it here. Father Richard Boever, a Redemptorist priest, was the pastor and understood religious life. And Sister Mary Elizabeth Runde (SSND) came to be in community with me.”
Sr. Karen planned to stay for a year or two.
That was in 2016.
“It’s such a great community,” she said. “The people here are wonderful. The pastors have been great.”
For her 60th anniversary as a professed School Sister of Notre Dame, Sr. Karen composed her own version of the “Magnificat,” the Blessed Mother’s litany of praise (Luke 1:46-55):
My whole being proclaims the goodness of You, O Holy One.
For You have favored me with the gift of parents who loved me; brothers and sisters who continually forgave me and saw beyond my faults.
You have done great things for me: calling me into religious life as a School Sister of Notre Dame!
You have allowed me to see Your greatness wherever I “Am Sent ...” in schools, in parishes, in hospitals, in the people of Guatemala and Mexico.
You have filled my life with new relationships wherever I journeyed ... Canada, Japan, Hungary, Germany, Italy, Central America, and the United States.
You stripped me of Wisdom people in my life — only to show me their power and strength into the untraveled future.
My family and friends are scattered over this land, so I am at “home” wherever I go.
You have filled me with New Life, New Understandings, and a desire to grow in Your Love — to live the “NOW” forever. Amen.
“It took me a long time to put all of that into words,” Sr. Karen noted. “But I’ve had a long religious life to live it.”
“In so far as I can”
Sr. Karen’s heart overflows with thanks for everything God has done for her and the people who have become her family in religious life and in the communities where she serves.
She has found the people of Crawford County to be generous, kind and cooperative.
“Right now, this is the most special place for me,” she said. “They have been through everything with me. I really feel loved by them, and I know I love them.”
Her father lived to be 96. He often told her that he felt a great responsibility as the last living sibling in his family.
“Now, here I am in that same position,” said Sr. Karen. “All of my brothers and sisters have passed away.”
If she could go back 60 years and remind her newly professed self of anything, it would be God’s instruction repeated numerous times throughout the Bible “Don’t be afraid.”
“Me saying, ‘Here I am,’ and God saying, ‘Be not afraid’ — I don’t think it would be any more than that,” she said.
When asked what prayers she’d ask for as her jubilee year winds down, she called to mind a quote from Catholic mystic Thomas Merton:
“The thing is to cling to God’s will and truth in their purity and try to be sincere and to act in all things out of genuine love, in so far as I can.”
“I would like people to pray for that to be in me,” said Sr. Karen.