The Nun Who Gives Second Chances

The Nun Who Gives Second Chances September 24, 2014

The following column was written by The Christophers’ Jerry Costello:

You might say that Sister Teresa Fitzgerald’s life has been one of two callings. The first one came some years ago when, out of a quiet upbringing in Hewlett, N.Y., on Long Island, she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood. There she seemed destined for a dedicated career as a Catholic school teacher and administrator – one that attracted so many of her contemporaries – and she followed that path for a time.

Then the second calling came her way. It was one that she answered with a zestful “Yes!” and it would change her life forever.

That call came 27 years ago from Sister Elaine Roulet, already at work with women in jail and their infant children. Would some other nuns be interested in dealing with older children, giving them a home and offering them the chance to stay in touch with their mothers? Sister Teresa’s hand went up right away. And from that modest beginning she went on to start Hour Children (for the typical hour allowed for visits with incarcerated women), which now provides homes for some 70 children in a new 18-unit apartment building.

There are also thrift shops, a day care center, a food pantry, and a job training program; the women inside, whether residents or part of the full-time staff, are nearly all former convicts.

The subject of a recent profile by John Leland in The New York Times, Sister Teresa – or Sister Tesa, as she’s universally known – deals patiently with people who complain that the women she deals with should have made better choices.

“For some there weren’t any choices,” she’ll say. “It was just a life experience that they were channeled into for whatever reason–economic or personal or addictive issues. But I was amazed and touched by their goodness and their openness…I met very few people who blamed someone. And their resiliency, their hopes and dreams are big.”

There are problems too, and Sister Tesa recognizes them. “I didn’t know anything about the barriers,” she says. “I was ignorant. You realize their American dream is fraught with potholes. I had no idea.”

Male convicts form 90 percent of the prison population across the country, but still about 100,000 women, most of them mothers, are behind bars. Many are arrested again soon after their release; the figure for New York State, with nearly 2,500 female inmates, is 28 percent. Hour Children claims a much lower rate, but Sister Tesa concedes that the number cared for by the program is relatively small. Still, Sister Tesa, now 67, carries on. She’s gotten a reputation as the woman who gives second chances, and she does her best to live up to it.

Reporter Leland told the story of a woman who had left the program, gotten rearrested, and now was hoping for one more try.

“I know I’ve messed up,” she wrote. “Honestly it’s either your program for me or death. I’m at my rock bottom and looking for a helping hand.”

Sister Tesa’s comment was in character. “It breaks your heart,” she said, “but what can you do? We’re not for everybody. All you can do is give them another chance.”

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