To life: meet the sisters who minister on death row

Sister Camille D’Arienzo. Photo by Uli Seit for The New York Times

Jim Dwyer in the New York Times offers this glimpse at two women religious—including an FOB (Friend of the Bench) from Brooklyn—ministering on death row.

Details: 

This week, trailing a group of men walking through a prison, Sister Helen Prejean overheard bits of what they were discussing. “I heard one saying, ‘He is so honest,’ but I didn’t catch who they were talking about at first,” said Sister Prejean, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, an order of Roman Catholic sisters.

Then she figured it out from fragments that floated back to her, hearing mention of a man who admitted to having been excessively authoritarian as a boss, who washed the feet of women and prisoners and Muslims, and who had called for the Catholic Church to find a “new balance” in its teachings of moral concerns. The subject was Pope Francis.

The people talking about him were 12 bishops who were visiting California’s death row in San Quentin prison, the home to more than 700 condemned men.

“Francis’ whole style is so honest and forthright,” Sister Prejean said. “He just really says what he thinks. That’s what the bishops were commenting on. They’re not used to it.”

 Catholic sisters in New York are getting older, but their works meet enduring needs. They run homes for women just released from prison, feed drug addicts and prostitutes who gather under the Major Deegan Expressway, build homes for women who are victims of human trafficking.

Sister  Prejean, the author of “Dead Man Walking,” an account of her ministry on Louisiana’s death row, is working her way across the country to the Convent of Mercy on Willoughby Avenue in Brooklyn, for a gathering on Sunday afternoon of the Cherish Life Circle, which Sister Camille D’Arienzo founded 20 years ago. The group ministers to people on death row and to the victims of crime.

“Camille embodies everything we’re talking about,” Sister Prejean said.

As it happens, Sister D’Arienzo is a former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the very organization that fell under Vatican scrutiny last year.

“I am pretty confident that this nonsense with the Vatican is going to go away,” Sister D’Arienzo said. “There is no way that we would relinquish our authority which is not in conflict, really, with anything the Vatican imposed.”

She had no intention of getting involved in direct death penalty ministry, but learned about a man imprisoned in Allenwood, Pa., who was scheduled to die in less than two months. A few weeks before the date, Sister D’Arienzo visited him. By mistake, they were led into a room with no barriers.

“He asked, ‘Why are you here?’ ” Sister D’Arienzo recalled. “I told him, ‘I couldn’t find anyone else.’ He burst out laughing.”

The man, David Paul Hammer, received a stay of execution. He has since drawn artwork used for Christmas cards that Sister D’Arienzo sells, raising $70,000 for a children’s school in Jamaica. She, too, has found Pope Francis to be a revitalizing presence, and is certain he will appreciate the complexity of working with castoff people.

“He is a holy man who has hugged the people that he has walked the streets with,” Sister D’Arienzo said. “He, more than anyone, will understand those of us who are committed to serving the people he cares so much about, those on the margins of society.”

Read it all.  


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