Setonian Tradition of Prison Ministry
Elizabeth Seton’s own daughter, Catherine Josephine, entered the Sisters of Mercy in New York and dedicated 40 years of her life toward prison ministry. Sister Catherine advocated for prison reform and served as spiritual advisor and confidante to even the most hardened criminals.
In the Annals of the New York Sisters of Mercy, Mother M. Austin Carroll wrote, “as soon as [Catherine] began the visitation of the Tombs, she set herself the task of learning German and Spanish [being already fluent in Italian and French] in order that her usefulness among the unhappy inmates might find no limit.”
Many of the former prisoners to whom she ministered kept in touch with Sister Catherine Seton and were eager to show their gratitude in the form of gifts, letters, and donations for the poor.
The New York Catholic News extolled the work of Sister Catherine in in April of 1891: “No one probably ever acquired such influence and control over the thieves and robber class of New York…she was able to prevent much evil and inspire much good.”
Elizabeth Seton’s spiritual daughters have continued this tradition of prison ministry and the need couldn’t be more pressing. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit think-tank focused on mass incarceration, imprisoned individuals earn 41% less income than non-incarcerated individuals (prior to their incarceration). Basically, incarcerated individuals, particularly women, are more likely to struggle with poverty and lack of an education throughout their life, both pre and post-incarceration. In addition, cries for prison reform and human rights echo hollow without advocates outside the prison system.
Prisoners are exactly the kinds of poor, forgotten populations that Jesus Christ, St. Vincent de Paul, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton have urged us to consider. The Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill began their important ministry with prisoners in the 1970s.
Operation Outward Reach
In 1972, Sister Mary Agnes Schildkamp, who was working as the director of Project Forward at Seton Hill College, learned of the need of an organist and GED teachers at the State Correctional Institute (SCI) in Greensburg. She felt called to respond and recruited Srs. Marian Clare McGurgan and Mary Leon Bettwy to help with the Sunday liturgy and GED courses. In 1986, SCI-Greensburg would honor Sr. Mary Agnes at the first GED graduation ceremony for the years she taught men and women in the prison system of Westmoreland County.
It was during this same period that Operation Outward Reach (OOR) was instituted at SCI-Greensburg. Funded by a federal grant through the Governor’s Justice Commission and a state grant by the Department of Community Affairs, OOR was founded to “provide training leading to employment for men nearing the end of their terms in the correctional institution.” The program, which was initially supported by the United Presbyterian Church and the Diocese of Greensburg, took place at the Regional Correctional Facility No. 5.
Sister Mary Agnes became involved in Operation Outward Reach through the GED program and she dedicated nearly 20 years of her life to it. As a work release and skill development program, OOR functioned similar to an apprenticeship program where a cohort of inmates from each prison system would train under the leadership of qualified tradesman, particularly in construction fields. The inmates participated in the renovation and reconstruction of community buildings, historic sites, churches, and local homes.
In its first 20 years, the program trained 982 inmates in construction and ¾ of those inmates obtained a job in the field in the year following release. Only 10% of program participants ended up back in prison. In later years, OOR would expand to prisons in Mercer and Huntingdon.
In her retirement letter to Raymond Thompson, Director of Operation Outward Reach, in 1992, Sister Mary Agnes Schildkamp wrote, “OOR is special for me. I have marveled at its function and success since it was born twenty years ago…”
In addition to her work on behalf of SCI-Greensburg, Sr. Mary Agnes was involved in the Western Pennsylvania Coalition Against the Death Penalty and the Pennsylvania Council to Abolish the Penalty of Death.
GED Program & Spiritual and Emotional Support
At the invitation of Sr. Mary Agnes, Sr. Edith Strong began teaching mathematics courses to inmates in the GED program at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute in 1974. She would expand her ministry as organist for Sunday liturgies and spiritual and emotional support for inmates and families for nearly 20 years. She also worked at the Westmoreland County Detention Center from 1981 until 1993.
In describing her work for the prison in 1985, Sr. Edith wrote, “on Sunday mornings, we have Mass, time to socialize with the residents, and opportunity for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, instruction in the faith, bible study, and Holy Name Society meetings. Residents of all faiths attend the Liturgy.” Sr. Edith also served an influential role in fostering interfaith support groups for the inmates and was a proud sponsor of the annual Christmas party where laughter and a sense of joy filled the prison walls.
She received an award from SCI-Greensburg in 1993 for her volunteer efforts. In a congratulatory letter, Bishop Anthony Bosco wrote, “it was clear to me that the men had a genuine affection for you and you for them…I commend you for your fidelity.” Fifty inmates attended Sr. Edith’s award ceremony – a true testament to the love and gratitude of this prison community. Although she moved on from prison ministry when SCI-Greensburg closed in 2013, Sr. Edith’s shining example made a lasting impression on those around her.
To read more about Sr. Edith’s experiences, check out a full article in Celebration, Vol. 27, No. 1 here: https://scsh.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/2018-02-Celebration-Winter.pdf
In 1992, Sr. Eleanor Dillon took over the ministry of Sr. Edith at the Westmoreland County prison, but found that there were changing needs in the prison community. Sr. Eleanor began administering a program called Prison Network for female inmates in 1994. Prison Network helped filled institutional and legal gaps by answering questions and fulfilling requests that the Westmoreland County Public Defender’s office couldn’t handle. It was a pioneer program in the county and was supported by both judges and prison wardens.
Services also extended to family members of inmates. Sr. Eleanor served as a liaison between female inmates and family, friends, and members of the criminal justice system, rehabilitation facilities, and other agencies. Sometimes the requests were practical – someone needs to turn off the gas in a now-empty home. Other times, the requests were more pressing – who will care for my children while I am imprisoned? When will I be released?
In a grant application, Sr. Eleanor wrote, “the goal of the Prison Network is to enable the female offender to return to society better prepared to avoid/abstain from further criminal involvement.”
By 1996, Prison Network was ready to evolve. By partnering with THE PROGRAM for Female Offenders in Pittsburgh, Sr. Eleanor expanded and enlarged the scope and design of the ministry. Job placement programs became part of the rehabilitation of convicted women. Seeing the struggle of interim child caregivers, Sr. Eleanor also advocated for support programs for grandparents and legal guardians. The Pennsylvania Commission on Corrections and Delinquency helped fund the ministry, as well as the Sisters of Charity.
Unfortunately, leadership transitions within THE PROGRAM for Female Offenders in Pittsburgh prompted significant staffing and services alterations. Prison Network in Westmoreland County was discontinued in 1998.
Although Sr. Eleanor hoped to continue prison ministry at the age of 75, frail health forced her into permanent retirement.
The prison programs adopted and supported by the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill have served as models for modern work-release plans, educational opportunities, and advocacy programs.
With the opioid crisis devastating the Pittsburgh region in the past decade, an influx of drug-addicted individuals have been and are entering the prison system. Rehabilitation and general support programs, like those mentioned above, are becoming even more necessary for adjustment to a post-release, successful civilian life.
Srs. Marian Clare McGurgan, Mary Philip Aaron, Mary Zachary Endress, Mary Dorothy Huber, Mary Noel Kernan, and Lois Sculco have also volunteered in prison ministry. Let the work of all these wonderful sisters inspire us to “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Hebrews 13:1-3).