'Saint' Lidwina Dirne departs

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COEUR d'ALENE - Lidwina Dirne, founder of Dirne Community Health Center, died Monday. She was 97.

Dirne, who began the organization in 1986 after immigrating to the Inland Northwest from the war-torn Netherlands, died peacefully with friends and family by her side.

Those who knew her described Dirne as a visionary leader whose passion for serving will be remembered by the community she strove to help.

"She was, and is, a saint," said Lisa Benscheidt, a friend of Dirne's for 20 years through their church, St. Pius X. "Her vision and perception on what was needed in the community and how to bring it about was a miracle ... So many of us say, 'We need to do that.' And how far do we get? She was a woman of action."

A school teacher in her early 20s, Dirne lived in Nazi-occupied The Netherlands before migrating to Canada, where she taught in a mission with limited funds. On her way to Oregon in pursuit of work, she stopped in Liberty Lake, Wash., and attended an informal community meeting. She changed her course and settled in Kootenai County.

In 1984, she met a single mother struggling to afford medical care for a chronic condition. Together with Sandy Mamola and Peggy Irving, Dirne cared for the mother, leading to the establishment of the Dirne Community Health Center. It was incorporated as an Idaho 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation in January 1986. In 2003, Dirne applied for and received federal funding from the Health and Resources Services Administration to become a federally qualified health center that was serving nearly 7,000 people by 2007.

Dirne continued to serve on the board, according to Dirne's website.

"It is amazing to consider the impact that one life can have on a community," Dirne CEO Mike Baker said in a press release notifying the board of Dirne's passing on Monday. "Ms. Dirne's passion for this community led her to assemble a team of our finest and most caring people to ensure that affordable health care was available to everyone who needed it."

Besides the health-care center, Dirne created other groups for people to give back to the community, including the Mustard Seed, a support group for women who engaged in activities to benefit the area by volunteering for 20 years.

"She was the wisdom of the group, very, very wise, very broad, very accepting. She had spirituality like nobody I've known," said Ann Smart, who knew and volunteered with Dirne for 40 years.

Dirne's "unbelievable perseverance" was best described by Dirne herself, who used to say she "was a stubborn Dutch lady," Smart said.

"Because you know she's going to follow through," Smart said. "They may not have known her, but many people who never knew her benefit from her. They benefit from her vision ... She made a difference in this community and people will know the difference even if they didn't know her."

Dirne was the grand marshal of the Fourth of July parade in 2011. Though she didn't have any biological children, those who know her said she leaves behind an entire region as her family.

"Ms. Dirne will be sorely missed, but we will celebrate and honor her life by continuing to provide compassionate services to our entire community," Baker wrote the Dirne board. "We have seen the amazing things that can happen when a committed group of individuals work together to creatively meet the needs of the community."

"She'll be dearly missed," Smart added. "To relate how special she was to our family is impossible ... She had lots of children, lots of godchildren - a whole host, a whole village."

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