by Erin Hunninghake
ATCHISON — With shows like “Orange Is the New Black” and “Prison Break” scoring top ratings, the lives of America’s inmates have become nothing more than a salacious storyline for some viewers.
Sister Maria Larkin, OSB, however, sees it much differently.
For the past 14 years, Sister Maria has made a weekly journey, usually on foot, from Mount St. Scholastica convent on South Third Street, over the Fifth Street Viaduct and through the doors of the Atchison County Jail.
Although Sister Maria has now been committed to the ministry for more than a decade, what may be surprising is how long it took her to discover this calling.
“I was 73 years old when I began,” she said.
But she knew in an instant.
“I felt from the very beginning that God blessed me the moment those sliding metal doors opened to the three pods at the Atchison County Jail,” said Sister Maria.
It started back in June 2001, when Sister Rita Claire Judge, OSB, invited Sister Maria to join her on a trip to the local jail. The Atchison County Jail was housing immigrant detainees at the time. Sister Maria spoke Spanish, giving her a unique opportunity to overcome the language barrier that creates an obstacle for so many trying to minister to the immigrant inmates.
“There is mystery involved in the call to a ministry,” said Sister Maria. “Before I received an invitation from our Sister Rita Claire Judge to join her at our county jail, being a part of such a ministry never even entered my mind.”
But once it did, she never looked back.
“I have felt enriched by the preparation for my weekly visits to the jail and have received so many graces because of my contact with the detainees and staff members,” she said.
Her ministry involves a weekly Bible study that she leads inside one of the jail’s pods. Here, both men and women are welcome to gather around a table and join in on the conversation. Or not.
Either way, Sister Maria makes it a point to greet every person when she arrives.
Sister Maria said many of the inmates show a real interest in learning more about the Bible. But because there are not many Catholics and more than one denomination in the group, she keeps the study very ecumenical.
Regardless of their religious identification or level of scriptural knowledge, Sister Maria said it is evident that “the Spirit dwells within these men and women.”
While most people would likely admit to feeling intimated, nervous or hesitant about entering a room full of inmates, Sister Maria has felt nothing but welcomed.
“Great hospitality is given to me,” she said. “I guess I am a ‘grandmother figure.’ Everybody is respectful to and loves a grandmother.”
“I have never been nervous or afraid,” she added. “But there have been a few days when I felt tired and I hesitated to make a visit. However, on those occasions, I always felt invigorated soon after being with the detainees.”
The men and women Sister Maria ministers to often express their gratitude with the gift of a drawing, a poem, a paper flower, or a note of appreciation.
“I have several binders of artwork, poems and letters that I have received from Atchison County detainees,” she said. “Much of their artwork reflects people who have talent and deep religious feeling.”
Fourteen years of visiting inmates has led Sister Maria to encounter many different people from all walks of life. Some relationships even continue after the inmates leave Atchison.
“I write regularly to a number of men who are now in prison, including a man currently on death row,” she said.
At 87 years old, Sister Maria has no plans to retire from her ministry anytime soon. As she continues this special assembly with the inmates, she hopes others will learn to open their hearts to these men and women in a similar way.
“I am hoping some will say, ‘Visiting the incarcerated is something that I could do.’ Or, ‘This is an important ministry, and I shall pray for prisoners and those who minister to them,’” she said.
Sister Maria said that for those who are drawn to this ministry, it can be a very rewarding experience.
“One grows spiritually and helps others to do the same,” she said. “It may not be possible for most people to devote the necessary time for preparation and for regular visits, but it is a great ministry for those who can pursue it.”
Though Sister Maria feels everything discussed in the pod during Bible study is significant, one message has become central for her to share — that is, to remind these men and women of God’s limitless love.
“It’s easy for those unacquainted with prisoners to think that these people are evil, dangerous, frightening individuals,” she said. “When one meets them face to face, it is not difficult to love them.”
“They are usually people who struggle to survive in difficult situations,” she said. “It is a privilege to be able to remind them that God loves them.”