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Putting Love Where There Is No Love: Sister Rosemary Dowd’s Jail Ministry

St. John of the Cross once said, “Put love where there is no love, and you will find love.”

During my Christopher Closeup interview with Sister Rosemary Dowd, RSCJ, she cited that statement several times when explaining the motivation behind her 40 years of work with prisoners. Currently the chaplain of Cook County Jail in Chicago, Sister Rosemary joined her order, the Religious of the Sacred Heart, when it was still semi-cloistered. After Vatican II, it became possible for her to volunteer in different types of ministries, so she chose to live out one of the Corporal Works of Mercy by visiting the imprisoned.

Sister Rosemary explained, “I had no knowledge [of jails] except what you see in the movies. I simply always thought that people in jail were not loved very much by anybody, that they weren’t surrounded by love, and that most people don’t care about people in jail.”

The prisoners she visited in her Illinois community came to appreciate Sister Rosemary, who could feel she was making a difference. She decided to continue her focus of bringing a touch of God’s love, mercy and compassion to those who lived without it.

One prisoner in particular —an addict who spent 28 years in and out of jail—stands out in Sister Rosemary’s mind. While he lived what she calls “a one step forward, two steps back” sort of life, he also had a holiness about him that made him willing to help others. Other prisoners sought him out for counsel because he had a good reputation.
Sister Rosemary and this man stayed friends when he was out of jail, and one day he asked her to help him find a priest who would hear his confession. She accompanied the man to a local church, found a priest there, and waited until the sacrament of reconciliation was complete. Regarding her friend, Sister Rosemary recalls, “His face afterwards was beautiful. I really haven’t seen anything like that before. He said that it was a wonderful experience.” Her friend was also surprised that the priest didn’t yell at him, but instead said, “Don’t wait another 30 years before coming back.”

There have been other moments too when Sister Rosemary had transcendent experiences. Once when she brought a glass of water to a prisoner who was in severe pain, and another time when she tied the shoe of a prisoner whose arm was broken, she felt like she was serving Christ Himself.

Sister Rosemary’s time with the prisoners she currently serves at Cook County Jail often involves praying for them and with them, listening to them discuss problems, and providing them with reading material that will nurture their faith. It’s that last part which The Christophers are happy to help her with. Sister Rosemary says, “I have a lot of people who said The Christophers have been such a wonderful help. The Three Minutes a Day books and the pamphlets are great and the guys love them…A lot of men I know here want to change, and I love that the Christopher material is so helpful in providing models of people who have changed.”

The Christophers are glad to play a small part in Sister Rosemary’s work, but the love, prayer and support she offers these prisoners as a conduit of Christ’s grace is their real catalyst for self-improvement and rehabilitation. Thank you for putting love where there is no love, Sister.

To listen to the full interview with Sister Rosemary Dowd, download our podcast:
Christopher Closeup Podcast – Guests: 1) Sister Rosemary Dowd, and 2) Monica Brown

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About Tony Rossi

After graduating from St. John's University in New York with degrees in Communications and English, Tony Rossi found a job at the Catholic media organization, The Christophers, that allowed him to indulge his interest in religion, media, and pop culture. He served as The Christophers' TV producer for 11 years, and is currently the host and producer of the organization's radio show/podcast Christopher Closeup, writer and editor of their syndicated Light One Candle column, and producer/scriptwriter of the annual Christopher Awards ceremony.