God Won the Toss
As is my annual tradition, I celebrated Mass yesterday for the inmates at Taconic Correctional Facility in anticipation of Christmas. After the Mass was concluded, I blessed a plaque in honor of Sister Antonia Maguire, a Franciscan Sister, who ministered to the inmates at the facility for about five decades. Sister Antonia recently died, and what follows is a moving tribute to her by Sister Laura, her Provincial.
God Won the Toss
“Go and preach the gospel… when necessary, use words.” (Saint Francis of Assisi)
She didn’t want to go; she didn’t know how to turn down such an invitation graciously; and most importantly, she wouldn’t tell a lie. Sister Antonia had been invited to be a volunteer and work on a REC (Residents Encounter Christ) retreat at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women. Her presence would have been a great asset to that weekend retreat team; the inmates would have fallen in love with her, she had so much to offer them. She was always known as a generous, loving, warm person, overflowing with all those Franciscan attributes that make a person feel one’s inner joy. She was the right person for the job. She quickly answered NO! She loved teaching; she enjoyed her times counseling young people. She KNEW that God had called her to work with his innocent little ones. That was where he wanted her to build his kingdom, not behind prison walls. But, she wouldn’t tell a lie. Antonia told Moe that she would pray over the invitation. The time drew near to give her answer. Antonia knew that God wouldn’t want her in prison, but she also knew that she hadn’t even asked him how he felt about this new experience. Striving to be like Francis, she went before the Lord to wait for his confirmation that he was pleased to use her exactly where she was. Trusting in his word, like Francis, she randomly opened her Bible, hoping to read about “the little children coming to the Lord” and instead gazed upon the words of Matthew as he tells of Jesus mandating his followers to “visit him when he is in prison” while at the same time warning us that “woe to those who do not come and visit me in prison, for you shall be consumed in the everlasting flames!” Annoyed and sitting on the loser’s side of the altar, Antonia uttered her “Yes” …but only this once and solely because God won the toss!
This was the moment of conception for what has grown and blossomed into a lifetime of being a loving, vibrant peacemaker in an environment of ugliness, pain, rejection, and inhumanness. This “Yes” was the beginning of embracing countless leper-like children of God with a love and a passion that only leads to self-acceptance, metanoia, and new life; it was the start of a ministry that created the Franciscan woman who is now lovingly referred to as the “Worldwide Mother of People in Green; Mother Teresa of the NY State Correctional System”.
Since 1977, Sister Antonia has preached the Gospel loudly with her actions behind bars: in segregation units, in solitary cells, in keep-locked caves and in prison nurseries. She has brought Jesus to secured hospital wards, waiting rooms and morgues and funeral parlors. Her presence at baptisms and weddings and family reunions reminds many that God is alive and working in the lives of all people who thirst for him. She is the harbinger of his Good News when spirits are low and fears are oppressing, when children are lost in a careless foster parent system, when loved ones are fighting for life and others have gone home to God, when AIDS becomes a reality in the depths of one’s existence and when injustice prevails and common respect is much too hard to find. Antonia, follower of Francis, is sometimes the only instrument of peace when hatred grows and festers and sneaks through the razor-wired walls of a secured state prison. She stands tall and powerful as she picks up the shattered pieces of fractures lives, lives scarred by the hatred of abusive spouses, violent parents, punitive teachers, scheming co-workers, selfish drug dealers, and unfit friends. It is here that her gentle smile, her warm embrace, and her closeness with the One who loves her… sows love.
Incarcerated men and women are hurt; they are injured by those who should have loved them, by a harsh and selfish society that has taken them for granted, by acquaintances that have led them astray and abandoned them behind secured walls. They have been hurt by peoples’ indifference, greed, anger, and lust. They have been raped of their dignity and stripped of even their name. They are in pain. Compassion and caring and inner strength teach these “numbered” men and women that forgiveness is real and indeed possible in the midst of deep pain. One who has known the joy of being forgiven… sows forgiveness, with joy.
Broken people forget how to have faith. Haunting memories of abuse and rape and fighting and drunkenness and anger and ugliness overtake the hidden sparks of light which are burrowed in one’s heart. Doubt prevails… there is no light, there is no hope, there is no chance to change and become anything more than a locked up criminal. It is the compliment, the pat on the back, the genuine smile and the warm safe hug, the extra mile that Antonia takes that leads the doubting and despairing soul to stop and recognize a spark of hope within a tomb of darkness. The presence that never lets the darkness overtake one’s life… sows light.
Prison is the womb of sadness; the place where joy is left on the doorstep and happiness is barricaded away for a long, long time. When the days are gloomy and the only news is bad, when the letters aren’t written and the visits never happen, when loved ones die and children become ill, when caring becomes obsolete and life loses its meaning… there is sadness, there is hopelessness, there is despair. And when an inmate feels so far down that there is nowhere else to go, it is the little bits of “perfect joy” that bring a real Franciscan presence to God’s truly injured people. The affirmation that comes from a “Happy Birthday” or “Your hair looks nice today”; from a simple “thank you” for a deed so often gone unnoticed, from a special prayer for a pressing need, and mostly, from a woman, generous, caring, and devoted; from a follower of Francis who always puts herself last and God’s chosen ones first; a real companion of the Father, working from a wheelchair, spreading little bits of sunshine all along a shaded path… sowing joy. It is a rare gift in this world to find someone who genuinely understands people, especially when they feel they are so complex and confused that no one could ever look beyond the mess they feel they have made of themselves and love them. In a correctional environment, inmates, numbered people, feel alone and misunderstood. In such an atmosphere, no one fights for you, only with you. Solitude is safety, distance provides protection, isolation fosters peace. Antonia’s affirming presence draws women to trust her, to open their hearts and share their deepest feelings with her and to wholeheartedly believe that she unconditionally cares for them. She respects who they are, what their stories tell, where they’ve been, and she gently leads them to believe in the beauty she sees within them. She sees the sculpture hidden in the stone of rejection and by her actions and her caring she becomes the instrument releasing the beauty that has always dwelt within… she understands.
Consoling, loving, pardoning, giving… Antonia speaks the Gospel daily. Her proclamation of the Good News is the magnet which draws so many diverse kinds of people to her heart and ultimately to the heart of the Most High God. She sees goodness in the midst of evil, she embraces joy during moments of pain, she suffers deeply with the despairing, and she brings peace and goodness to countless imprisoned children of God. Listening and hearing, crying and smiling, hurting and healing, she often puts her job on the line as she embraces her ministry to our modem day lepers. She is the one who fights for justice, unearths mistreatment and demands change; she touches hearts and speaks the truth at any cost (for she will not tell a lie!). She finds the best in the worst and leads others to share in that vision; she changes numbers to names and tears to smiles and she shows people what God is like and rejoices when they find him deep within their own scarred being. Obeying her father Francis, she never ceases trying to do good.
Sister Antonia has built the church within the poverty of prison walls. She has nurtured a group of women who band together and live as children of the God of freedom. These followers, this band of troubadour sisters, live the gospel as they reach out to the hardest of hearts among them. They pray, they sing, they support fellow inmates and greet the day in perfect joy as they become the minstrels of the prison, knowing that “good works must follow knowledge”. Now, these “little flowers of St. Francis” bring love to the lonely and hope to the despairing and joy to those sated with sadness. They join together as they spread their share of light in darkened halls and cold-stone hearts, and they shine! They work, they help, they smile, and they, too, preach the Lord’s Gospel by their many loving actions accompanied by some needed affirming words.
Each week, after we have celebrated the Liturgy, Sister Antonia reminds the women that there are many hurting people behind the prison walls. She missions them to the cell blocks with the mandate to BE KIND TO EACH OTHER. She never tells them to go out and preach, convert, teach or admonish… she instructs them to be who they have become: transformed, loving, vibrant, caring children of a Father who created them in His image from the beginning. As builders of God’s- kingdom, they obey the words of our great Francis of Assisi and “show themselves joyfully in the Lord, cheerful, and suitably gracious”. (Rule of 1221)
The many friends of Sister Antonia Maguire, along with all the men and women whom she has touched during this long ministry of setting people free are blessed indeed, and most thankful to God for sharing her with them. Her preaching of God’s “Good News” has been witnessed and cherished by a multitude of people who indeed have been created anew by one who obeyed God with her “Yes”, and are filled with gratitude that so many years ago, God won the toss!