This morning I learn that the blesings of the feast of St. Clare this week included the passing from this life of Fr. Sigmund Klimowicz.
I met Fr. Sigmund (or Zygmunt) when I stayed at one of our Capuchin infirmaries one summer. I went to work a little bit in the care of the brothers and also to prepare for the dreaded Weston Jesuit Latin exam that fall. Fr. Sigmund was a sweet old friar, still very Polish despite having lived many years in America, and very curious and interested in people. His eyesight was failing, so he wouldn't recognize you until you got close. Then, all of a sudden, "Ah! Carlo! Carlo Borromeo!"
Fr. Sigmund discovered that I was partly in the infirmary as a way to have an environment free of distraction to work on Latin. He approved, believing strongly in the value of language learning, but was disappointed that I was not learning Esperanto. It had been a long time since he had met anyone with whom to practice. He used to say that his own ability of to speak Russian was a big help in surviving the concentration camp.
Fr. Sigmund (and if I remember rightly, some classmates with him) was a deacon when he was imprisoned. His stories from the experience were interesting. They were always horrifying, for sure, but were also tender in some ways. He once told me about how he made friends with a Jewish barber because he was the biggest and strongest man he could find. The guards were afraid of him, said Sigmund, so he felt safe with him. But then the story and the friendship ended when the man was shot.
My most memorable experience with Fr. Sigmund came on the day we celebrate the five Capuchins among the 108 martyrs of the Second World War beatified by John Paul II. As I perused the ordo (the little annual book that gives the details for the Mass and Divine Office of each day) in the sacristy that morning, Fr. Sigmund came in. He took the book from me and began to go through the names of the beati. This one he could believe was a saint. Another one was a pain to live with in community. This one had always been jealous of Sigmund for his better ability to speak Russian. At that moment I realized with astonishment that it was only chance that separated the old friar before me, living in the obscurity of a friary in upstate New York, from these martyrs being celebrated by the public cult of the Church. From that moment on I began to look on him as a living martyr, and myself as someone given the extraordinary gift of knowing him.
After liberation, Sigmund (and again, if I remember rightly, some other Capuchin deacons) had no province to go home to. They set out, looking for somewhere to complete their studies and be ordained. I don't remember all the details of this story, but I do remember that it left Fr. Sigmund with a grudge against the French. After their ordination, the friars eventually made their way here to the States and began a Polish ministry here.
Among all the blessings God has given me through my life among the friars, meeting Fr. Sigmund is among those for which I am most grateful.
Requiescat in pace.