Sister's prison ministry finds its center in Matthew 25

Franciscan Sr. Mary Lou Lafferty

Franciscan Sr. Mary Lou Lafferty
Profession: Prison ministry coordinator for Catholic Charities in the Camden, N.J., diocese
Lives in: Mount Ephraim, N.J.

Sr. Camille: Mary Lou, when you assumed the role of prison ministry coordinator for Catholic Charities in the Camden diocese in September 2013, the executive director of Catholic Charities, Kevin Hickey, issued the following statement:

"Catholic Charities is thrilled to have Sister Mary Lou join our hope-filled community. Sister Mary Lou brings a varied background to her work with prison ministry and that variety of experience is so helpful to us in the difficult work which we undertake."

What constitutes the variety of experience to which Mr. Hickey referred?

Lafferty: From 2000 to 2012, I served my congregation in leadership, both congregational and regional. Prior to this ministry, I was involved in the field of education and held positions in Catholic school offices as assistant superintendent in the diocese of Paterson, N.J., and the archdiocese of Boston, as well as principal in many dioceses, among them being here in the Camden diocese at St. Agnes School in Blackwood.

Your transition from Catholic schools to prison ministry seems a voyage from a world of great expectations into one of nightmares for inmates and their families. What challenges and opportunities awaited you?

Prison ministry was never on my radar, as they say. When Mr. Hickey offered me this position, I did a lot of self-talk and came to the awareness that my knowledge and skills were transferrable. In addition, my congregation had recently adopted an initiative to engage in service with people who are unemployed, underemployed and those affected by these conditions. So from the start, I've envisioned prison ministry as fitting in with this initiative, and it's multifaceted. Outreach to the incarcerated and their re-entry back into society are priorities; however, ministry to those affected by this situation, especially spouses and children, needs to be addressed. Matthew 25 is my focus in this ministry.

Is this a new effort for Camden?

No. Over the years, many priests, deacons, religious and laity have volunteered their time and energy to this corporal work of mercy, visiting the imprisoned. Since I assumed this position, I've made contact with several parishes, and a master list is being created and opportunities provided for support and encouragement for the volunteers are being initiated.

How does your work impact families of incarcerated individuals?

To date, my direct ministry with the families has been minimal; however, there are many services that Catholic Charities affords these individuals. Many of the volunteers have indicated a desire to begin support groups for spouses and loved ones, so I envision that to be a next step.

Please say something about what you've learned in this role and also about the supporters you've encountered and encouraged.

My greatest awareness is the generosity of so many -- clergy, deacons, religious and laity. In addition to whatever is each person's primary responsibility, he or she always seems to manage additional time, talent and treasures for whoever seems to be the least and most forgotten in our society: the incarcerated. I am often overwhelmed with their selflessness and outreach.

Are you aware of the impact prison volunteers have had on a particular inmate?

Yes. Many of our volunteers are there when an inmate is released. Often, all their past support systems (family, friends, etc.) have been broken and there is no place for him or her to go. So the volunteers assist in temporary housing, clothing, job opportunities, etc. Recently, a "returning citizen" spoke with gratitude of the compassion and kindness he had received from one of our deacons.

Any disappointment?

The greatest disappointment is the bureaucracy and attitude of personnel within some of our penal institutions. I've been appalled at the treatment I have received as I attempted to be approved for visiting privileges or to arrange for pastoral visits of our bishop and/or clergy; the times I have been kept waiting for an hour to accompany volunteers for a scheduled 90-minute session, which turns into a half-hour. These are only a few examples of negative experiences I've had. I shudder to think what it must be like for those who are incarcerated if I have been treated so shabbily.

Can you cite an accomplishment in this ministry?

In early May, I arranged for the first gathering for pastoral care volunteers in prison ministry. About 65 people attended and enjoyed input from you, Sr. Camille, and a panel of volunteers. Also, Bishop Dennis Sullivan, the local ordinary, attended and shared his appreciation and commitment to this ministry as well as his reflections on a recent pastoral visit he made to South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, N.J. This visit was a first in 12 years. It brought great delight and appreciation from the local staff and the New Jersey Department of Corrections.

I'm sure the world you now inhabit is different from the one that formed you. Where and with whom did you grow up?

I was born and brought up in Lowell, Mass., the fourth of five children in an Irish Catholic family. Our family life was very simple; however, I believe we possessed much. There was stability in our lives -- family, faith and human needs were central.

Did you have specific role models?

My parents were my greatest role models. We grew up during the Depression, so they had to struggle, I am sure, but they were wonderful providers. We never wanted for the basics.

What led you to religious life?

I remember from an early age, I wanted to be a nun; however, it was when I went to Catholic high school that my desire to enter religious life became more serious. I knew very little about the Allegany Franciscans, but my confessor at the time introduced to me to the Sisters at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Brighton, Mass., and following graduation, I left to begin my life's journey as a Franciscan Sister of Allegany. Never once did I look back to question that decision.

Can you identify one experience that makes you grateful for your life choice?

I have had much happiness and fulfilment both in community life and ministry. To name one experience is a challenge; however, our charism of hospitality and our mission of outreach to the poor and marginalized, especially women and children, have brought me to many situations for which I am grateful to have had the opportunity to provide assistance, whether in a classroom, someone's home, or in a prison.

What message do you have for those in prison?

I believe that Pope Francis' constant message of Jesus' love, joy, mercy and peace for all humankind is so apropos. Jesus came to forgive, not to condemn.

And for those who visit them?

Often, I equate the volunteers with the Good Shepherd spreading the good news. As Pope Francis has said on many occasions, Jesus didn't come to be served; rather, to serve and look for and save those who are lost. The volunteers' compassion and passion for the ministry are so evident in their selfless outreach.

Are there different strategies for incarcerated women and men?

In New Jersey, there is one prison that is not in our diocese for all women, so the majority of our interactions are with men in the one federal and three state prisons. As for the county jails, both men and women are housed, and we do provide separate programs. The female inmates are much more open and vulnerable, so their time appears to be more flexible. Depending upon the volunteers, there are Scripture studies, Communion services, values discussions, literacy classes and rosary meditation, and, when priests are available, liturgy and reconciliation are celebrated.

Do you have a favorite Scripture passage? How does it impact your life?

My favorite passage is Luke 12: 22-34. In a paraphrase by Eugene Peterson in The Message, he refers to this section as "Steep Yourself in God-Reality." It is a constant reminder of God's everlasting care and love for me.

How do you pray?

In addition to daily community prayer, I try to maintain a posture of presence, contemplation and prayer throughout my day. When I get lost in and consumed with the busyness of the day, I always have the opportunity to begin again!

How do you relax?

I enjoy reading novels, listening to music, cooking and trying to solve Sudoku puzzles.

What gives you joy?

Celebrating any occasion with community, family, colleagues and friends. I am always happy to be with others and have a party! Being in relationship with others is another congregational charism!

What saddens you?

The poverty and violence that surrounds us in the United States and throughout the world. How can we as a church address this with our resources, both human and monetary?

What else would you like us to know?

Often, the victims as well as their families and friends seem to get lost in the shuffle. We'd like to better develop and publicize the kinds of pastoral assistance that can be offered for these, our brothers and sisters.

Thank you, Mary Lou, for all you've shared with us and, especially, for all you do those who are incarcerated and their families.  

Sister Mary Lou may be reached at the Catholic Charities Office, 1845 Haddon Ave., Camden, NJ 08103, by phone at 856-342-4106 or by email:

[Mercy Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, broadcaster and author, narrates Stories of Forgiveness, a book about people whose experiences have caused them to consider the possibilities of extending or accepting forgiveness. The audiobook, renamed Forgiveness: Stories of Redemption, is available from Now You Know Media.]

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