For years, our Sisters have not only served as chaplains, nurses and visitors to those who are incarcerated, but also as advocates for greater social supports for them. To complement this story, Sisters Mary Anne DiVincenzo, Roseann Gaul, Pat Phillips and Mary Agnes Spampinato share personal reflections about ministering to those who are incarcerated. Read our Fall 2017 Dear Neighbor magazine online.
From the motherhouse in Baden, Sisters can look directly across the Ohio River and see the stark sprawling structure of the Beaver County Jail in Aliquippa. Inside a group of women in lime green jumpsuits appear to be buoyed by the familiar presence of Sisters and gravitate toward them on this Thursday evening.
Amid the activity of television shows, card games, and animated talk in the female pod, Jackie finds her way to Sister Sally Witt, who pulls two plastic chairs together for a “private” conversation. In hushed tones, they speak face to face, knee to knee, hand in hand.
“God, faith, spiritual life and prayer are always the heart of our visits. They are paramount in the lives of the women I have spoken to. Their lives have called them to total dependence on God, and they hunger for prayer and for a transformation of their lives,” Sister Sally says.
The women have heart-breaking stories to tell. Many have suffered greatly. They are challenged by relationships and finances. They are separated from their children. They are poor and abused. Most struggle with alcohol or drug addiction.
“Being present to their story without judgment is the healing balm,” says Sister Cynthia Comiskey. “They always ask me to pray, but sometimes I ask them to pray and, in that moment, I am always humbled.”
Affectionately called the “church ladies” by the women in jail, 10 Sisters of St. Joseph and an Associate have participated in the visitation ministry at the Beaver County Jail over the past decade. They plan their schedules to help ensure that the incarcerated women can expect a visit from one or more Sisters each Thursday. The Sisters typically meet one-on-one with the women. Some conversations take 20 minutes; others last two hours.
When they arrive at the jail on this Thursday, the Sisters are greeted by Beaver County Jail Chaplain Dennis Ugoletti. He says that for more than a decade, the Sisters have “moved in the wonderful grace of the Lord” to help disenfranchised and lonely women experience the “family of God.”
“The Sisters have made a tremendous impact on these incarcerated women because of their faithfulness. Every week the Sisters give unselfishly of themselves to spend time with those less fortunate,” he says.
“These faithful acts of compassionate ministry have helped many of our female inmates experience the power of prayer in their personal lives. It is so good (for them) to know that someone cares when you’re stuck in a dark place.”
In addition to the opportunity to pray with the women, the Sisters say their visits make them more conscious of social justice needs beyond the walls of the jail. Sister Cynthia, a licensed clinical social worker, says she is more aware of how people get caught in a web of violence and self-destruction. She notes that the majority of women are incarcerated for drug offenses, and the opioid epidemic has severely impacted their circumstances.
Sister Sally worries, too, about what happens to the women once they are released. As she leaves the jail on this Thursday and drives away, Sister Sally draws attention to a lone woman, likely just released, walking slowly along the roadway just outside the parking lot and carrying a small plastic bag.
“I have seen women frightened of leaving jail because they had no place to go except to the people and places that had been harmful to them,” says Sister Sally, who has served as a volunteer visitor for more than 10 years.
“There is not sufficient support or assistance for those who leave jail (or prison), and people are very vulnerable when they come out of incarceration. We need many new programs at the local level, and we need support for these programs at the state and national levels. Mainly, we need to have new thinking about the suffering in our society and new compassion in recognizing that we all suffer and are joined in that suffering.“
The Sisters who are drawn to the jail ministry readily refer to the works of mercy and outreach to their next-door neighbors.
“I think I was called to this ministry because I always look over across the river and pray for the inmates,” Sister Cynthia says. “It is my way of practicing the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. I’m glad that several of us volunteer. So, it’s just not my thing but a ministry we practice together.”
Sister Sally, who has served for more than 20 years as a historian and an author, is not sure what set of circumstances led her to the jail ministry, but she is convinced it was a call of God.
“It came when I was older and understood better the unity of all of us, how we are one in Christ regardless of where we are,” she says. “It is also from a sense of care for the dear neighbor. These are our neighbors . . . and they cannot visit us. So, of course, we would visit them.”