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St. Henry youth minister serves for three decades

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

By Mary Caffrey Knapke

ST. MARYS DEANERY — When Linda Thieman was a school bus driver, a break between routes gave her time to sit in her bus and read. That is, until the director of religious education for St. Henry Parish noticed.

“She came out one day and said, ‘Instead of sitting out here reading a book, would you be interested in teaching a religion class?’” Thieman said. She took on a kindergarten CCD class; a couple years later, she was asked to start a youth ministry program.

“When I started this program, the lady handed me an envelope. It had one piece of paper in it and three dollar bills,” Thieman said. “There was nothing else to go by. I didn’t even know what youth ministry meant. I asked her, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ She said, ‘You’re supposed to provide educational, spiritual and social events and opportunities to the young people of St. Henry High School.’ That’s how we started.”

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Linda Thieman poses with her goddaughters, Thruthrukani, Loudia and Linda. She has known their father since he was a child in the orphanage where she stays when visiting Haiti. She has not heard from the family since the earthquake struck earlier this month. (Courtesy photo)

Thirty years later, Thieman is retiring from her role as the youth group coordinator for the St. Henry Cluster. In that time, youth ministry in St. Henry has come a long way from a piece of paper and three dollars. Thieman has developed a variety of events and opportunities, all of which include educational, spiritual and social elements.

There’s the Breakfast Club, which meets every Friday at 7 a.m. to hear a speaker. There are local and statewide retreats. Social outings include baseball games or bowling. Community service work includes visiting the elderly and cleaning up the football field after games. Monthly meetings allow the group to reconnect and put their activities in perspective.

In addition, the group’s pilgrimages and mission trips have taken them around the world. Thieman has led journeys to six World Youth Days: Denver (1993); Manila, Philippines (1995); Paris, France (1997); Toronto, Canada (2002); Cologne, Germany (2005); and Sydney, Australia (2008). Mission trips have included work in Cincinnati and Appalachia.

Thieman has also led 46 mission trips to Haiti as part of Saint Henry’s partnership with Saint Michael Parish in Plaisance. This program is separate from youth ministry, though St. Henry youth and other community members have participated. “My focus in Haiti is to show [participants] what the poorest of the poor look like,” she said. “And for people over there, it’s to show them that we care.”

A personal highlight of Thieman’s trips to Haiti was the few minutes she spent with Mother Teresa in the early 1990s. Thieman was visiting a charitable organization, and in the midst of a crowded room, the two women passed each other.

“I turned around and looked, and there she was,” Thieman said. “And when I turned around to look, she turned around and looked at me. It had to be a God moment. So then I just walked over…I said, ‘I’m Linda from Ohio, and I just want to let you know I feel very privileged to be in the same building with you.’” Mother Teresa then led her outside, where they sat and talked. “No matter how many questions I asked her about herself — ‘Why have you done this all your life?’ Or, ‘Can you give me one bit of advice?’ — she would always turn it around. She wanted to know about the young people of America.”

The experience was one of many unexpected blessings Thieman and her fellow travelers encountered. Another occurred during World Youth Day in Cologne, when travel plans forced the group to leave early and miss the papal Mass. But while they waited for the train to the airport, they heard that the pope’s car would be passing by the very spot where they waited. “As the pope’s car came through — he was sitting in the back — it stopped. Some kids were standing right there, and he opened his window up and he gave them a blessing,” Thieman said. “That’s why my title is youth coordinator. Because I can coordinate the trip, but when my plan doesn’t work, God’s got a better one.”

Thieman’s work in Haiti has become even more urgent following the Jan. 12 earthquake. Several days after the tragedy, Thieman had made contact with some Haitian friends but had not heard from others. She still intends to lead previously planned mission trips there this summer. In addition, she and her brother may go sooner to personally deliver aid to the people and organizations they have worked with over the years.

“When the people need us the most, I cannot turn my back on them,” she said.

It is perhaps Thieman’s spirit of service which led Precious Blood Father Tom Hemm, pastor of the St. Henry cluster, to comment that “her impact in this community in so many ways is like nothing I have ever seen…Linda has a spiritual energy that sustains her and underlies her deep sense of mission.”

Former youth group member Kristie Wellman called Thieman’s work “a living legacy that will never end. She has touched the lives of thousands upon thousands of people.” Wellman now serves as coordinator of youth ministry at Holy Trinity Parish in Coldwater. “In large part this is because Linda gave me, through her witness, an example of what it means to be a youth minister,” Wellman said. “Without her, I don’t think I would have had any idea and probably wouldn’t be here today.”

Mary Caffrey Knapke can be reached at [email protected].

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