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Sister Stories Profile: Sr. Rita Mary Harwood, SND

The Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland is pleased to support National Catholic Sisters Week (NCSW), an annual celebration that takes place from March 8-14 created to honor Catholic sisters. We are devoted to sharing the important work taking place by Catholic sisters throughout the nation and are lifting up their voices by sharing Sister Stories throughout the month of March. This week we are sharing a profile on Sr. Rita Mary Harwood, SND and her work on the front line in prison ministry for the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland in the Secretariat for Parish Life and Development.

This article was originally published by the Sisters of Notre Dame Chardon Province Network Newsletter.

This scripture demonstrates Jesus’ mandate to care for those in prison. Today, with an ever-rising crime rate and overflowing jails and prisons, the need to minister to men, women and youth incarcerated in our state, county and municipal jails continues to grow. Sister Rita Mary Harwood, SND, works on the front line in prison ministry for the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland in the Secretariat for Parish Life and Development.

“I was invited by Bishop (A. James) Quinn to an informational meeting on how the Catholic Diocese might better minister to individuals convicted of crimes and serving time in prison. I was the only woman in attendance. I walked out of the meeting and thought how interesting such work would be but how did it connect with my role in Parish Life,” recalls Sr. Rita Mary. “Bishop Quinn questioned me, ‘Well, where do you think the people come from?’ I told him I didn’t know anything about prison ministry, but he laughed and said, ‘That hasn’t stopped you before.’”

Emboldened by his words, the passionate Sister of Notre Dame immediately volunteered to organize with the Diocese of Cleveland’s Ministry to the Incarcerated. The idea of helping convicts hit home. Her brother Bill was murdered at the age of 23, six months after returning from Vietnam, in a random shooting near St. John Hospital on Cleveland’s near west side.

“I was 28 at the time of Bill’s murder and a Sister of Notre Dame. My father was already deceased, and I was the only girl with three brothers. It was just horrible,” recalls Sr. Rita Mary with tears in her eyes. “My brother, Bill, was a great guy with a good sense of humor. He was a very kind, sensitive person. For many years, I could not even talk about his death. And here I am doing prison ministry; the healing power of God!”

After talking with Bishop Quinn, Sr. Rita Mary began educating herself on the needs of convicted criminals – particularly for rehabilitation and restoration as individuals. She met with a group of representatives from the Catholic Diocese, the legal system, wardens, social service agencies, and even family members of those incarcerated. After consulting with different groups and identifying the needs, the group developed a strategic plan that would be incrementally implemented.

She realized the most important task was recruiting good volunteers, educating them and providing them with training. “Our prison ministry is rooted in volunteers,” Sr. Rita Mary emphatically states.

The Sisters of Charity generously provided the group with a grant for the education and development of individuals who would serve in the prison ministry. The first volunteer team totaled 140, each receiving more than 25 hours of training from 1989-1990. “Bishop (Anthony) Pilla was very helpful in meeting with wardens and convincing them to allow us into the prisons and jails, and since his appointment as the Bishop of the Cleveland Diocese, Bishop Richard Lennon has taken a very active interest in prison ministry, visiting the jails and prisons and encouraging the ongoing development of programs,” adds the petite, softspoken Sister.

Sr. Mary Dion Horrigan, SND has also taken a very active role in the Prison Ministry. She has ministered to women in the Cuyahoga City jail for five years. Sr. Dion facilitates a group in jail called “The First Step” which is an introduction to the power of the 12-Step AA Program. Besides this she spends time in one-on-one visits with inmates. Sr. Dion says, “My time with these women confirms in my heart these words of Greg Boyle in his book, Tattoos On the Heart.” He writes, “How do we get the world to change anyway?…All Jesus asks is ‘Where are you standing?’ And after chilling defeat and soul-numbing failure, He again asks, ‘Are you still standing there?’” Sr. Dion explains “I feel privileged and humbled to stand with women in incarceration.”

Today, the Diocese of Cleveland’s Ministry to the Imprisoned includes 350 well-trained, dedicated volunteers who meet with inmates of Ohio’s three state institutions, eight county institutions and five juvenile facilities in addition to communitybased correctional facilities that offer transitional services. They have expanded their services as outlined in their strategic plan over the years. Still, they continue to face a daunting task.

“Human trafficking, homicide, domestic violence, theft, drug dealing and addiction, you name it; the individuals we visit cover the gamut of crime,” acknowledges Sr. Rita Mary. Called by the Holy Spirit, the volunteers extend the hope of reconciling love in their relationships with the offender, the victim and their families. The ministry is implemented in a way that is ecumenically sensitive and respectful of the diverse population: men, women, youth, mentally and physically challenged, from various cultures, language groups, and races.

“God is never outdone in generosity. So many of the volunteers tell me that they receive so much more from the incarcerated than they are able to give. One recently commented, ‘When I walk out of the jail, I feel like I am walking on top of the world.’ Prison Ministry is a special calling. It is a gift,” says Sister Rita Mary with a broad smile.

At the initial meeting, volunteers acquaint each prisoner with pastoral services available, such as the sacraments, bible studies, and spiritual counseling. They give interested inmates a bible, Catholic literature and other materials to read. “For indigent prisoners, we also provide personal supply items such as toothpaste, underwear, deodorant, and socks as well as writing paper, cards, stamps and even reading glasses. There are many ways people can help in this ministry. Some volunteers, including Sisters of Notre Dame residing at the Provincial Center, write letters to inmates and offer prayer support,” describes the compassionate Sister.

She says other volunteers provide tutoring and classes on self-esteem, anger management, and parenting skills; offer legal aid and vocational training; lead Alcoholic Anonymous and drug rehabilitation support groups; and even give assistance with developing a parole plan. Others make Christmas boxes and Easter baskets that prisoners can give their children during home or on-site visits.

Sister Joan Piovarcy, SND coordinates the involvement of Sisters of Notre Dame in the Diocesan Prison Ministry. Sister Joan meets with Sister Rita Mary at least every other month to update her on projects underway through the Sisters of Notre Dame, including a prayer ministry, pen pal ministry and the Christmas boxes and Easter baskets.”A group of Sisters of Notre Dame serve as pen pals to former inmates at the Reintegration Center on East 30th Street. A few Sisters of Notre Dame visit the male and female inmates while 20 to 30 SNDs at the Provincial Center pray for the inmates, their families, and the prison workers,” explains Sister Joan.

“Prison Ministry is part of the Sisters of Notre Dame’s mission for social justice,” Sr. Joan states. “Our justice system needs a great overhaul. There is such a lack of Christianity in the treatment of inmates. In some cases, our visits and letters are the only outside human contact inmates have because their families have written them off.”

Sister Rita Mary explains, “After imprisonment we are working with other agencies and groups, support continues: assistance with housing, employment, job training, financial assistance, legal aid, especially in child custody cases, emotional and transitional support in re-establishing family, and much more. Many people in jail are homeless and leave prison with exactly what they had going in. We decided to make backpacks for indigent persons when they leave with personal items like a wash cloth and soap, a toothbrush, bus ticket, lotion, wipes, etc. The need was so great that we ran out of funding after only a few months! It is a ministry I hope we will be able to provide again one day.”

The Diocese of Cleveland’s Prison Ministry continues to grow. They are just beginning support groups for families who have an incarcerated loved one. On Friday evening, August 8, the first group of this new ministry met at Holy Angels Parish in Bainbridge. Those who participated were so grateful for the opportunity to be with others who know so well the impact of incarceration on families. St. Ladislas Parish, Westlake and Sacred Heart Chapel, Lorain are planning a bi-lingual (EnglishSpanish) group and St. Agnes-Our Lady of Fatima in Cleveland will organize a group in the Hough area. Both will begin these groups in the fall. “Our hope is to provide a supportive and compassionate presence for families who often feel so alone. These groups are the first in the greater Cleveland area. We hope to be able to expand!” explains Sister Rita Mary.

Sister sums up, “We offer social, physical and emotional support in addition to spiritual and pastoral care through our Prison Ministry. There is a need for respect and protecting the rights of the offender as a human being as well as a need for safety in the community, respect for the victims, and support for their families.”

The outspoken advocate encourages “restorative justice” – accountability for offenders in terms of taking responsibility for actions and taking action to repair the harm caused to the victim and the community. She joins her other Sisters of Notre Dame in advocating for a model of reconciliation and restoration instead of the present emphasis on vengeance and punishment.

“In Matthew’s Gospel the message is so clear, ‘When I was in prison, you visited me.’ The Sisters of Notre Dame and other volunteers of the Ministry to the Incarcerated are bringing the presence and message of God’s love to inmates of our jails and prisons. Our presence speaks of God’s love for them and assures them that they are not abandoned. They are loved, and there are people who care about them. This ministry for me has been God’s way of healing the pain and anguish of my brother’s murder. I’ve come to know people who have done horrible things but who are still people – so much more than the crime they committed. Who am I to judge? When we read Scripture, we realize God calls us to love. Nowhere in Scripture are we called to judge.”

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