When Fr. John Kern thinks of his dear friend Cindy Lieb, he thinks of the book, “Wounded Healer,” written in 1972 by Dutch priest Fr. Henri Nouwen.
In the book, Fr. Nouwen encourages modern-day Catholics to “recognize the sufferings of their time in their own hearts and to make that recognition the starting point of their service.”
“That was really Cindy’s role,” said Fr. Kern. “In the midst of her wounds, she was healed, and was a source of healing for others.”
Lieb, director of Christian Formation at St. Catherine Parish, Milwaukee, died suddenly on July 30, at age 60. The cause of death was undetermined at press time, but thought to be heart-related.
For friends, family and fellow parishioners, Lieb’s life was – and continues to be – a testimony to indestructible faith and quiet, abiding strength. She endured more tragedy in the space of 20 years than most will endure in a lifetime: in February 1996, her 20-month-old son Anthony died. On March 5, 1996, a house fire took the lives of her three sons Joseph, 5; Zachary, 7; and Jonathan, 9.
Recently, the Lieb family suffered the loss of two grandchildren. Granddaughter Lola Jane Zalewski died at the age of 3 months in October 2008, and grandson Zachary Lieb died from complications at birth in August 2013.
Lived each day on faith
Lieb’s son, Christopher, described his mother’s faith as “paramount” in her life.
“It wasn’t just that faith allowed her to heal – she lived every day based on her faith, and preparing for the kingdom of God,” he said. “About a year ago, when my son died, I remember her saying, ‘I think we often don’t realize how thin the veil is between life and death’… Quite simply, she didn’t question too much what happens in life. She put her faith in God and accepted what came, and would go forward and take care of what she needed to take care of.”
Lieb is survived by Roger, her husband of 40 years, as well as 11 of her children and 24 of her grandchildren. Fr. Kern described the Liebs as “a great couple who had a lot of fun.”
“Their house was always very filled and Roger was just a very strong supporter of Cindy and her efforts, and really a believer himself,” he said. “Cindy or Roger didn’t have to say much; they did much. That was the sermon, that was the evangelical message.”
“She had 15 kids, and acted like each one was an only child,” said family friend Rory Gillespie. “Plus, she was funny. She was a riot. One of the best nights you had was to go somewhere, sit and drink beer with Roger and Cindy, talk baseball stats or which is the most important commandment – she was a riot.”
Developing an intentional community
Cindy Lieb was born Cindy Korey in Davenport, Iowa, on Oct. 28, 1953. She met Roger while working as a lifeguard, and the two married in 1973. They moved to Milwaukee with their growing family in the mid-1980s, quickly finding a spiritual home at St. Catherine Parish on West Center Street.
It was the community of St. Catherine’s, said family friend Vicki Thorn, that helped to sustain Cindy, Roger and their children in the aftermath of the house fire. Parish members rallied around the family, donating clothes, furniture and even temporary living quarters. That generosity, said Thorn, was paid back by the Lieb family tenfold.
“If you needed Cindy, she was there. (If) you needed Roger, he was there. I think if there was one thing Cindy could say to us, it would be the importance of community. They were always there for us; we have always been there for them. In today’s world, where does that happen?”
‘Hands-on’ approach to religion
Lieb returned to school at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary and became St. Catherine’s full-time director of Christian formation in 2004, the same year Fr. Kern became the parish’s pastor (he retired earlier this year). As a volunteer and as a lay minister, Lieb encouraged the use of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a Montessori-based program that Fr. Kern said underscored Lieb’s “hands-on” approach to faith and religion.
“We learn through experience – we can read about it, we can research it, we can write about it, we can talk about it, but until we’re in it, in touch with it, hands-on, we really don’t know it,” he said. “We don’t know of God, we don’t know what faith and commitment is, we don’t know what discipleship is.”
Lieb also helped the parish and school navigate its path during a difficult period in its history. St. Catherine’s went from a parish of about 1,500 families in the 1950s and 1960s to its current size of about 350 families; of the roughly 220 students in the parish school, only about 10 percent of them are Catholic, estimated Fr. Kern.
“Cindy really extended her vision, her approach, and was always up for everything,” he said. “Because of that, the school has kind of been reattached to the parish … Cindy and I and the other staff really said, ‘No, this is our school; we teach the students not because they’re Catholic but because we are.”
“She wasn’t somebody who beat you over the head with her faith. She lived it. It was witness that people saw,” said Thorn.
“After the fire, I once said something to her like, ‘I could never live through this,’” said Judy Gillespie. “And she just said, ‘Well, yes, you could.
This is why in the downtime you cultivate your faith, because when this happens, you’re going to be able to live through it, because you’re already standing in that place.’ That was her attitude. It was, ‘Well, this is why I say a rosary in the good times, because when it comes to the bad times, it’s already who I am.’”
Christopher Lieb said Cindy’s family takes comfort in the knowledge that she has finally gone to a place where there is no more pain and suffering.
“She’s dreamed and prepared every day for a long time to join Jesus in heaven,” he said. “She showed her family around her that this should be how we live our life.”