EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth and final installment of Bishop Clark’s report on his visit to the Sisters of St. Joseph mission in Brazil.
Monday, Jan. 23: The main event today was a trip to the jail. Maria Jose, who just finished her law studies and is now waiting to take the bar exam, has been involved in ministry to the prisoners there. She arranged clearance for me to visit, and for Jean who translated.
We had the opportunity to meet with the director of the cell block we visited. He was cordial to us even as he explained that the scope of our visit would be limited because of some trouble they had experienced today in one of the units.
The visit was a sobering experience. The prisoners who chose to meet with us — both men and women — were cordial and receptive enough. The tough part involved the crowded conditions, lack of programs for rehabilitation and a very high rate of recidivism.
One image I’ll carry with me for a while was the visit to one of the cells in a men’s block. The cell contained eight cement-framed bunks — four deep and two high. A narrow aisle separated the bunks and led to a small space, which contains a primitive toilet/shower. There is also a small space for some cleansers. Bad enough. But they also told me that at night four mattresses were put in the aisle for an overnight accommodation of 12 men in that small space.
Another memory: In a visit to a women’s cell to meet four of the eight women who live there, we also met two of their children — one 7 months of age and another about 1 year old. The children were born in the jail and will remain with their mothers until they stop breast-feeding. When that time comes, family members will assume care of the little ones. In a subsequent conversation with an inmate who is expecting at the end of January, I asked her if she had any obstetric care during her pregnancy. She responded that she saw a doctor at the beginning but had received no care since.
On the way home, Maria Jose said that when she returns from her weekly visits, she feels quite worn down. I can understand that even though it comes from her, a walking dynamo. I just hope that she is consoled by the obvious respect that she and her coworkers receive from guards and prisoners; and that she keeps faith that the seeds she and her colleagues in the ministry are planting will one day bear abundant fruit.
Tuesday, Jan. 24: The sisters begin gathering today for a community meeting that starts tomorrow and ends on Sunday. I am happy for a chance to speak with Sister Betty who is a Brazilian sister who has made her first vows. Betty comes from the Mato Grosso. She has just finished the third year of a five-year course in psychology. Eventually she would like to work with children in rural areas. It was a short visit with her, but I am glad we had a chance for a brief conversation before we leave.
The only sisters Grace and I will not see on this trip are Barbara Orczyk and Chris Burgmaier. I am sorry to have missed them. They were here when I first came in 1981, and we’ve had time together on every visit since then.
The retreat center where the sisters will have their meeting is on the same side of town as the airport. We travel in shifts through the afternoon. Grace and I will be leaving here around 4:30 p.m. to catch our 6:30 flight to Sao Paolo. Through the afternoon, we’ll have a chance to chat and say goodbye to many. Some we’ll not see again because they will arrive here after we’ve left.
Wednesday, Jan. 25: As we fly home I am deeply grateful for this trip — for the warm hospitality of the sisters and for the opportunity to meet some of the people among whom they work. I tried at every stop to speak to the people of the bonds that unite our sisters and the people of our diocese. And I told them that for more than 40 years now you have supported them by prayer, encouragement and financial gifts. I also told them that when we pray for our sisters, they, too, are part of our prayer. I think the people already have a sense of those spiritual relationships, and assured me that they pray for us, too.
Please keep all of our sisters serving in Brazil and Chile in your prayers.
Peace to all.