By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
INDEPENDENCE — Kansas City media had a field day.
“Nun on the run, pursuing justice,” read the headline in the Kansas City Star daily newspaper.
“You don’t mess with nuns from the Sisters of St. Francis,” said one TV reporter.
“Thou shalt not steal — especially within sight of a convent,” said another.
There is a 17-year-old man confined in the Jackson County Jail as he awaits serious felony charges who now has an entire community of sisters — not nuns, an important distinction — praying for him. If he needs any help to turn his life around, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Eucharist will provide it as best they can.
But he should know now that he is loved, said Sister Connie Boulch, one of the two sisters who helped police capture the burglary suspect as he tried to cut through their motherhouse property in northern Independence.
“I hope we get a chance to talk to him,” said Sister Connie, the community’s vicar who also works as the director of the Office of Consecrated Life for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
“I would like to tell him that he was on our property not by accident, but by providence,” she said.
“All sorts of people wander onto our property,” Sister Connie said. “They are all prayed for, and hopefully because of that, their lives are better.
“This young man has his whole life ahead of him,” she said. “He has the opportunity to change. I know that the prayers of the sisters will be with him for a long time.”
Sister Connie rose at 5 a.m., as she always does, on Aug. 13 to pray in the motherhouse chapel before reporting to work at the diocesan chancery.
Shortly before 7 a.m., she opened a window in her non-air-conditioned office, not far from the chapel, to let in the cool, early morning air for herself and Sister Catarina da Silva.
Sister Catarina saw a young man walking through the soybean field on the 82-acre property.
“We saw him dragging something. We thought he was poaching deer,” Sister Connie said.
The sisters got in Sister Connie’s car, drove to the edge of the field and called the young man over. He immediately dropped what he was dragging, but approached the sisters to talk still carrying a small tree limb saw and a pair of red boxing gloves. The item he dropped was a shotgun, and all three items were later discovered to be stolen from a nearby residence.
At no time did the young man threaten the two sisters in any way, Sister Connie said.
“He walked right up to us,” Sister Connie said. “I asked him what he was doing, and he told us he was cutting through to a friend’s house. I asked him to tell me the name of his friend, and he couldn’t do it. I told him that he shouldn’t be on our property and we were going to call the police.
“He panicked and ran,” Sister Connie said.
Sister Catarina, 49, a native of the Brazilian jungle where the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Eucharist long had a mission, gave chase, wearing a pair of flip-flop sandals on her feet, and her modified brown habit, while Sister Connie called police.
She caught up with him after a few hundred yards near the convent.
“He wasn’t a cross country runner. He was completely out of breath,” Sister Connie said.
Sister Catarina said the Franciscan life of manual labor keeps her in shape.
“Reporters asked me what I do to exercise. I told them I work. That is my exercise,” she said.
Sister Catarina told the young man to wait, but just before police began to arrive, he ran again into a nearby woods.
Soon, the property was full of police, search dogs and helicopters hovering overhead.
Using tracking skills she learned as a child, Sister Catarina led an officer in a patrol car to the area where the young man entered the woods. As they continued their search, Sister Catarina saw a baby deer caught in a barbed wire fence at the property’s border.
She insisted that the officer stop. The officer told her that getting out of the car would be dangerous with all the search dogs, unfamiliar with the sister, in the area. She insisted.
Sister Catarina and the officer abandoned their search for the young man, and cut the fence to free the tiny deer.
“He was only seven or eight months old, but he was strong,” Sister Catarina said. “There was a line of deer off in the distance. When he was free, he made a little noise to call his momma, and ran to those deer.
“The policeman said to me, ‘We did some holy work today,’” Sister Catarina said.
The young man was captured about a mile from the sister’s property, hiding behind a barn. He was taken back to the convent, where Sister Connie and Sister Catarina identified him as the young man they confronted earlier.
“He was shaking, he was so afraid,” Sister Connie said. “Never once were we afraid of him.”
Police asked both Sister Connie and Sister Catarina several times if the young man ever pointed the shotgun at them, or threatened them in any way.
Sister Connie said they told police officers, several times, that the young man never made a threatening gesture nor spoke a threatening word to either one of them.
The police asked Sister Connie if the sisters wished to file trespassing charges.
“I said, ‘No, I think he is in plenty of trouble already,’” she said. “Then I started praying for him.”
As police took the young man away, Sister Catarina turned to Sister Connie and said, “I hope he learns something from this and changes his life.”
Stories in the Kansas City media contained the admonition against private citizens confronting suspects. Sister Connie said she and Sister Catarina didn’t confront a suspect. They confronted a child of God.
And they had no reason to fear. God has always looked after the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Eucharist.
“We have had lots of things happen over the years, and no one has ever gotten hurt,” she said.
The sisters, who moved to the property that was once totally isolated and surrounded by farms in 1982, have made only one concession to safety. After a few acts of vandalism, they installed a front gate on their private drive that is closed only at night.
“Before we decided to move here, Msgr. (Martin) Froeschl and Msgr. (Bernard) Koenig heard we were looking at this property, and they buried St. Francis medals here, hoping that would bring us here,” she said.
“Sister Lucy (Lang, the community’s elected “sister servant” leader) and I have also blessed every corner of this property,” Sister Connie said.
“It has been holy ground for us,” she said.
At 5 p.m. Mass that evening at the motherhouse chapel, the community continued to pray for the young man.
They recognize that the God-given dignity of the young man’s life can never be taken away, said Father Steve Hansen, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Lexington who celebrated Mass for the sisters that day.
“Christians see dignity even in criminals,” Father Hansen said in his homily, after a Gospel reading from Matthew 18: 21-35 that just happened to center on the power of forgiveness in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.
The larger community will be confronted with a powerful lesson when it learns that the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Eucharist are praying for a young man who is facing years in prison.
“Jesus cared for the prisoner,” Father Hansen said. “People are going to see that and experience it by what you are doing.”
(Sister Catarina da Silva and Sister Connie Boulch – Kevin Kelly/Key photo)