Jubilarian Profile: Karl Koenig Marks 50 Years Since Profession

Wendy Healy Friar News

This is the seventh in a series of profiles of Holy Name Province friars who are marking major anniversaries as Franciscans in 2015. The last article featured James Patrick Kelly, OFM, of Hartford, Conn. Karl and the other jubilarians commemorating 50 and 25 years of profession will be honored by the Province on June 24.

CAMDEN, N.J. — A love of plants and animals is what Karl Koenig, OFM, says initially drew him to the Franciscan Order. The Philadelphia native, who is now marking 50 years since becoming a friar, was in a post-high school horticulture apprenticeship when he first read about St. Francis’s connection to nature.

“I wrote to the friars. Salvator Fink, OFM, the vocation director then, actually came to my home to talk to me,” recalled Karl, who has spent his religious life working with the marginalized, as both a missionary and in parish and social services roles. “He took me to Callicoon, N.Y., and Lafayette, N.J. — early Holy Name educational sites — and, before you knew it, I was signing up for the brothers’ program in Croghan, N.Y.”

Becoming a Catholic was interesting for Karl, who grew up as a German Lutheran. His stepfather introduced him to the Catholic Church. Karl’s dad, a pharmacist, died in his 50s, and his mother remarried a Roman Catholic man.

“I went to Mass with him on Sunday and enjoyed talking to the parish priest,” said Karl. “One day, he asked me if I was interested in becoming a Catholic. I was the first in the family to become Catholic. The theology really isn’t very far from Lutheran.”

After graduation from Northeast High School in Philadelphia, Karl attended a summer program at St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon. He was received into the Franciscan Order at St. Raphael’s Novitiate in Lafayette, professing first vows there in 1965, and continued his education at the Province’s house of philosophy, St. Francis College, in Rye Beach, N.H.

Karl had taken college-level classes in sociology and psychology after high school at the University of New Hampshire, but never finished because he wanted to become a missionary. After meeting Joseph Nangle, OFM, who had ministered in Bolivia, at Rye Beach, Karl knew he would follow this path. In 1968, he went to Lima, Peru, where he professed his final vows one year later.

Missionary Work in Peru
Karl went to work with Joseph, pastor of Holy Name Parish in Lima, and began ministering to locals who were working as servants. Part of his role, he said, was organizing the workers, who lacked education, into a community. Opening a school was among Karl’s first projects, and he became fluent in Spanish. “I was in Peru from 1968 to 1979. I found it to be very interesting. We worked to get the house workers an education and to have them organize together to defend their rights.”

When Karl returned home, he was assigned to St. Bonaventure Friary in Paterson, N.J., where he began giving retreats and leading Alcoholic Anonymous workshops. It was during this time that he also became involved with the local diocese and, because he spoke Spanish, was asked by the bishop to co-coordinate the Hispanic apostolate, a position he held until 1981.

In 1982, he was assigned to work with the diocese’s Straight and Narrow drug and alcohol program. Soon after, Karl began a 25-year period in which Karl lived on his own, outside of Franciscan community life. During this time, he worked with a federal medical program in the Philadelphia area, doing outreach to Hispanics with alcohol and drug issues, and became certified by the Centers for Disease Control to work with HIV patients.

Assignment in Camden
In 2010, Karl realized something was missing from his life and, after working with a spiritual director, decided to return to the Franciscans. “I was missing something all along. I missed the community. I was ready to come back.”

In December of that year, Karl was assigned to St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Camden, a heavily Hispanic community where he could use his Spanish-speaking skills. Karl, who has a variety of roles, especially enjoys ministering with a group of parents of deceased children. Though many of the parents have lost children to violence, Karl says the group is open to anyone with a deceased child. He also helps at Mass and leads the Liturgy of the Word at funerals.

Before recent surgery forced him to slow down a bit, Karl was also doing chaplaincy work with the local police.

The jubilarian said he is grateful to Holy Name Province. “There are a lot of great friars and the Franciscan life has always attracted me.” He thanks his many mentors, including Joe Nangle, Vianney Justin, OFM, and Jud Weiksnar, OFM, as well as the late Theophane Larkin, OFM, and Reginald Redlon, OFM.

The jubilarian is also a fan of Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, whose books he reads. Karl says he enjoys talking to his two remaining siblings — a brother living in Florida and a sister in Moorestown, N.J., and to his nieces.

He would like to be remembered for “doing what I tried to do. I think I was successful and was very lucky to have worked in Peru. We were able to take a group of people that were marginalized and organize.”

Karl notices that much of his ministry over the years was with the less fortunate. “It seems that I have always connected with groups of people that were marginalized, such as alcoholics, drug addicts, HIV victims and immigrants.”

— Wendy Healy is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.