By Sr. Donna Donovan
Chris, a long time repeater at the old Wapello County Jail, wrote “Sister Mary Rules” on a cell wall. When the new jail opened in 2000, the old one became a storage facility except for one cell kept intact for posterity. Recently, Sister Mary Hilary Veith saw a piece on television regarding the old jail and saw that cell with its message preserved on the wall! Chris later did hard time, but now is out and Sr. Hilary still keeps in touch with him.
Sr. Hilary has been a “fixture” at the county jail for more than 45 years and is greatly respected by jailers and inmates alike. She has also written once each month to prisoners incarcerated in other facilities. She continues to write to four or five “lifers” in Clarinda, Anamosa and Fort Madison, Iowa, and one in Florida.
During her “career” she has sometimes visited the third generation of offenders within the same families. On rare occasions, a “new guy” may not be as respectful as he should be but the “veterans” set him straight immediately and he “gets with the program.”
Bobby, in jail on charges of murder and awaiting trial, has known Sr. Hilary for years but she can’t visit with him now because he only has one hour out of 24 that he’s not in solitary. She continues to take him religious reading materials which he goes through meticulously, underlining passages and coordinating them with Scripture. He even wrote a “Litany of Thanks” for all she’s done for him. I guess you could say she’s his “spiritual director” from a distance. One card he sent said, “I love you like my grandma.”
At home in Ottumwa, Sr. Hilary has a “prisoners gallery” comprised of assorted art work given to her over the years. Some of the pieces are of professional quality. Mike, a “lifer,” sold his card designs to the Leanin’ Tree card line. He created unbelievable designs using limited materials. One of his cards that Sr. Hilary received said, “You are the light in my darkness.”
Another prisoner, Michelle, wrote this poem:
Religion, incarceration, no better time to start;
to look for the man who completes the heart.
Faith and belief is all we need to begin;
To worship God, not ourselves, until the end.
Every Wednesday you brighten our day;
And not for the things that you give away.
After you leave with Our Father’s prayer;
Feeling revived because you care.
When you come to visit every week;
To all us inmates, it’s a Godly treat.
So when we go home and everything’s scary;
We’ll think of the wonderful, Sister Mary.
(This article, which appears in the summer 2011 edition of The Flame, a publication for friends of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary, is reprinted with permission.)