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Bishop Forces Out Beloved Nun

Sister refused to turn over financial control of the charity she founded and has run in Visalia for two decades.

August 12, 2003|Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer

VISALIA, Calif. — No place in California, save for the borderlands of Imperial, is poorer than this place. Like the fields, despair runs clear to the horizon.

So it comes as no surprise that residents approach the cluster of buildings on the north side of Visalia -- a refuge known as the Good News Center -- as if it were hallowed ground. For years, a small relentless nun with the unusual name of Sister Kenneth Quinn has performed what the down-and-out here consider miracles.

The center, built by the sister and a community of patrons and staffed by a small army of employees and volunteers, is a one-stop mall for the afflicted. Here, the hungry are fed, the tattered are clothed, the sick are mended, the aggrieved are given a lawyer and the homeless provided a bed.

Residents have long wondered what life would be like when the sister passed away. They had promised to carry on in her name and continue the mission of the local Daughters of Charity Order. What they never imagined is that the woman regarded as the "Mother Teresa of the San Joaquin Valley," alive and kicking at age 65, would be booted from the very place she built.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 13, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Visalia nun -- In Tuesday's California section, a photo caption accompanying an article on a Visalia nun misspelled the names of Kyle Nudson and his son Matthew as Nudsen and Mathew.

And yet it happened this summer, in the heat of a tiff with Bishop John T. Steinbock, head of the Diocese of Fresno.

After years of taking a hands-off approach to the Good News Center, Bishop Steinbock decided to change course a few weeks ago. Steinbock and the local Catholic Charities demanded a say-so in the center's budget, a level of oversight that the sister found demeaning.

She has now packed her belongings and left the center for good, declaring that her vow of obedience gives her no choice but to accept the bishop's decision to fire her.

But the community of Visalia has taken no such vow. In the last week, many staff and volunteers have decided to follow her out the door, throwing the future of the center -- the only place of its kind in this sprawling farm belt -- in doubt.

"This whole thing is about politics, and the sister has no patience for politics," said Pete Moreno, the center's maintenance man and driver. "We had a good thing going and, like they say, 'If it isn't broke, why fix it?'

"Now everything's gone crazy and a lot of us are quitting. She asked us not to, but how can we stay?"

Before she left, Sister Kenneth made one final try at holding on. She proposed to cut the center's last ties to Catholic Charities and cast its lot with the western headquarters of the Daughters of Charity. The bishop, though, refused to give up the reins.

Steinbock wrote a lengthy letter to the Good News Center's staff, volunteers and patrons, underscoring that the center belonged to his diocese and detailing Sister Kenneth's insubordination. He said he had no choice but to remove the sister and two of her fellow nuns.

"This was tragic for everyone involved," wrote the bishop, who has since declined to comment. "The sisters will be missed greatly, but our work for the poor must continue."

Visalia Mayor Jesus J. Gamboa and the City Council are urging both sides to declare a six-month "cooling-off period" in the hope that Sister Kenneth might be allowed to return. Last week, 75 of her supporters drove to the bishop's house in Fresno and protested for an hour, chanting, "S.O.S.! Save Our Sister!" Their cries fell on deaf ears. The bishop, neighbors said, was gone on a long-due vacation.

"He's being intractable," said Bob Felts, a longtime Visalia attorney who's donated thousands of hours of legal work to the center. "The bishop isn't thinking of the best interests of the poor. What it comes down to is a personality conflict between him and the sister."

Poorest in State

Year after year, the numbers hardly change: The jobless rate in Tulare County stays stuck at 17% while nearly a third of the population lives in poverty. This county ranks as the No. 2 farm producer in the nation -- and the No. 1 producer of milk -- yet more poor people report fighting hunger here -- 47% -- than in any other county in California.

It's not as if farmers are unwilling to help, Sister Kenneth says. They simply needed a network of gleaners willing to pick up their culls and deliver them to the poor. That's where the sister and her band of hardy volunteers stepped in.

The middle child of a big Irish family in Chicago, she followed the path of two older sisters who joined the Daughters of Charity. Arriving in Visalia in 1981 after a stint at a children's home in Rosemead, she began working with Sister Ursula Peternel, a beloved nun who became her mentor.

"There was no homeless shelter, no soup kitchen, no health clinic, no thrift store, no immigration office. Nothing," she recalled.

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