On Oct. 27, 2000, Sister Camille D’Arienzo served as godmother to a man being welcomed into the Catholic faith.
“It was a most extraordinary event,” she recalled.
Indeed, considering that her godson is on death row — and that the baptism took place in a federal prison — few might rate it as anything less than extraordinary.
David Paul Hammer has been incarcerated mainly at the United States Penitentiary at Terre Haute since July 1999, the year after he was sentenced to die. Sister D’Arienzo’s friendship with him stems from her tireless opposition to the death penalty, which she conducts through writings, lectures and her weekly radio broadcasts on WINS 1010-AM in New York City.
Sister D’Arienzo, 73, a member of the Brooklyn Regional Sisters of Mercy, will speak at Elmira Notre Dame High School on Saturday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public; free-will offerings will be accepted.
Her presentation that night will be “Reconciliation in a Broken World.“ She noted during a telephone interview that Veronica — who wiped Jesus’ face as depicted in the sixth Station of the Cross — is an apt model for this theme.
“This woman rushes from the crowd and does what she can. It was a public standing with him, sharing the ignominy that was his,” Sister D’Arienzo said. “I think she stands for many of us who in some way try to alleviate the pain of others — encourage those who are hurt by their own sinfulness or the sins of others.”
She said that she will suggest ways for audience members at Notre Dame to practice reconciliation — “not on a global or international scale, just in their personal lives.”
Sister D’Arienzo, who entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1951, has provided social commentary on WINS since 1973. In the early 1990s she began the Declaration of Life, a petition spurred by George Pataki’s promise to reinstate the death penalty in New York state while he was campaigning for governor. The nun said that the petition — which continues garnering signatures to this day — has likely been signed by more than 50,000 people.
She feels her efforts are helping make a difference, noting that overall public support for the death penalty has declined. On the state level, she observed that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was formerly in favor of capital punishment.
“We had hearings before the assembly and to our great astonishment, Sheldon Silver changed his opinion,” she said.
Now, she said, she would like to see a similar change of heart in Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen. Hillary Clinton, both of whom support the death penalty.
Sister D’Arienzo said that Sister Helen Prejean — whose campaign against capital punishment brought her fame through the book and movie “Dead Man Walking” — is “a wonderful friend.” She lauded the Rochester Diocese’s efforts in such matters, saying that Bishop Matthew H. Clark stands strongly against the death penalty.
In addition, she has received backing for her cause from Benedictine Father Martin Boler, prior of Mount Saviour Monastery near Elmira, where she has made numerous retreats.
“It’s my spiritual watering hole. I started going there in 1975 and have tried to go at least once a year,” she said of Mount Saviour.
Hammer came into Sister D’Arienzo’s life after she learned in December 1998 that he was looking for somebody to pray for him, as well as for the soul of a man he was convicted of killing. She was also influenced by the late Pope John Paul II’s emphasis on visiting prisoners as an initiative for the Jubilee Year 2000.
Hammer, 47, received the death penalty in November 1998 after pleading guilty to strangling a fellow prisoner in April 1996 at the federal penitentiary in Allenwood, Pa. He has had three stays of execution, coming within three days of dying in June 2004. There is currently no set execution date. At Terre Haute he resides in the same prison where convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was put to death in June 2001. McVeigh was the first federal prisoner to be executed since 1963.
Sister D’Arienzo visits Hammer twice a year and just traveled to Terre Haute in early January. The friends have also developed a Christmas-card enterprise over the last five years, with proceeds going toward children who have been abused.
“He does the artwork and I do the marketing,” Sister D’Arienzo said, adding that she and her unlikely business partner raised $8,500 this past year.
While acknowledging that Hammer is a murderer, she maintains that this fact alone doesn’t mean he should be put to death.
“Those who order the executions take the lives; they are the murderers. How many murders have occurred in Texas, California and Virginia? What do you say about a person who approves one killing after another? It’s very frightening,” she stated.