On Saturday May 18th a vibrant community of RSC sisters, friends, associates, former RSC’s and their spouses, and volunteers gathered at California to celebrate Mary Aikenhead. We began with a story from Mary Aikenhead’s life in which Robert Henry O’ Neill, an 18 year old was to be executed in a week. In a passionately charged argument with a friend Robert ended up killing him. Robert was brought up to the courts in Dublin for his second trial and Mary Aikenhead asked for prayers:
“There are sad cases nearer home which the Rev. Mother takes to heart, prays over, and interests others about. Among these is the fate of a young soldier (18) confined in the Richmond jail under sentence of death, for having killed one of his comrades in a quarrel provoked by a hot discussion on some religious or political question”. Thus she gives the facts, writing on the 10th of June, 1854.
Sara Atkinson Mary Aikenhead: Her Life, Her Works and Her Friends p. 411
We were reminded that throughout our history as a Congregation and in all our Provinces and Regions, prison ministry has been a consistent commitment. Stephanie Hernandez, a former novice, read a passage from Matthew 25 emphasizing “When I was in prison, you visited me” and then we all reflected on our own response to the Gospel by raising our hands to these questions:
How many of you have visited Jesus in prison?
How many of you have sat in a courtroom with immigrants, youth, or the incarcerated?
How many of you have taken action against the death penalty?
This theme of prison ministry was chosen because a facility where our sisters have ministered over the years, Los Padrinos, a detention center for young people who are incarcerate, is closing in a few weeks. Sr. Teresa Doherty has been the chaplain at Los Padrinos for 44 years! During this time, Teresa has formed, invited and involved more than 100 volunteers to help in this ministry. About 15 of these volunteers were present at the Mary Aikenhead gathering. Los Padrinos detention hall was opened in 1957 and only Mass was available on Sunday; without any catechesis or formation. Our belated Sr. Campion Heavey was the one who asked Cardinal Manning to send Teresa as chaplain. Teresa has advocated for these youth for 44 years, appearing in the courtroom on their behalf as well. Teresa and her volunteers have provided for the spiritual, physical, emotional needs of the incarcerated youth; prepared them for the sacraments and gone the extra mile to show them that someone cares.
Mary Ellen Dunne, one of the volunteers, gave a wonderful testimony to how she has witnessed the charism alive in Teresa. All those present shared where they had seen glimpses of the charism and gave a few examples in small groups.
Since Los Padrinos is closing, each person was challenged to imagine how they will carry the charism forward and continue to visit prisoners.
An optional justice action was part of the prayer and all were encouraged to sign a petition asking our Senators and Representative in Congress to abolish the death penalty in the U.S. The Governor of California has issued a moratorium on the death penalty and we are anxious for this to be a national decision.
Sr Edith Prendergast asked all to extend their hands in a blessing over the Mary Aikenhead volunteers that had served at Los Padrinos and prayed a blessing. Edith then led us in a final blessing over Sr. Teresa Doherty.
A taco bar was then available for all to enjoy Mexican food as well as margaritas and other drinks. It was a very spirited day with lots of laughter and story telling as all reunited under the one person who brought us all together: Mary Aikenhead.