Donate to RNS

Nun, 93, preaches the gospel behind razor-wire fences

c. 2008 Religion News Service MUSKEGON, Mich. _ Sister Elizabeth Barilla rolled in a wheelchair past inmates playing basketball as a pleasant breeze blew across the campus of the Muskegon Correctional Facility and sun glinted off the razor-wire fences. The Dominican nun was impatient to arrive for her monthly 6:15 p.m. class teaching the Bible […]

c. 2008 Religion News Service

MUSKEGON, Mich. _ Sister Elizabeth Barilla rolled in a wheelchair past inmates playing basketball as a pleasant breeze blew across the campus of the Muskegon Correctional Facility and sun glinted off the razor-wire fences.

The Dominican nun was impatient to arrive for her monthly 6:15 p.m. class teaching the Bible and Catholic doctrine to a handful of the 1,300 male inmates at the medium-security facility.

She put on her nun’s veil as a long-haired inmate named Marc opened the door and greeted her graciously. “Sounds like they put a playing card in your wheels,” Marc joked about her whirring wheelchair.

She could have walked with a cane, but at age 93, Barilla gladly accepted the ride. It had been a long hike from the prison security checkpoint, where she walked through a metal detector, was patted down and held onto her veil.

“They make me take it off because they think I’m hiding something,” she said with a chuckle.

After almost two years of teaching there, Barilla knows the drill well. The former Catholic school teacher puts up with security hassles so she can bring the gospel to convicts.

“It was Jesus Christ who came to save us and redeem us from our plight,” she told five class members on a recent Tuesday evening. “All that he did for us showed the tremendous love God has for each and every human being.

“We will share in God’s glory someday. Isn’t that wonderful?”

Barilla began teaching prisoners after one inmate requested a class about Dominican spirituality. The class began in the summer of 2006 and Barilla joined not long after.

The prisoners originally wanted to join the Dominican Laity, an order of lay people who strive to live by the Dominican values of prayer, study, community and service, but high inmate turnover and insufficient lay volunteers made that impractical.

Bob Croft, one of about a dozen local Dominican Laity, remembers the first time he went to the prison with Barilla. It was a windy February day and, at that time lacking a wheelchair, she had to stop to catch her breath while walking across the yard.

“Here’s this woman just determined to (teach) those people and spread the word of God,” recalled Croft, of Grand Rapids. “It’s really quite an amazing example.

“She’s not afraid at all,” he added. “She has a lot of courage and faith, and also a lot of charity to go in there and teach them the love of God.”

Volunteers like Barilla provide most of the religious instruction to those of the state’s 50,000 inmates who want it, said Russ Marlan, public information officer for the state Department of Corrections. He has a name for volunteers like Barilla: “Godsends.”

Barilla, a native of Saskatchewan, Canada, taught in Catholic schools for more than 30 years after joining the Dominicans in Grand Rapids. She also taught in Hungary in the 1990s. She readily accepted the opportunity to teach prisoners, whom she regards as not so different from herself.

“Our guys, they’re good guys,” said Barilla, her high voice carrying a trace of her Hungarian heritage. “You wouldn’t be able to tell them from an ordinary man on the street. The biggest thing is, they realize they’ve made a mistake and want to do better.”

She relies on fellow volunteers like Ethellynne Niewiek to teach the basics of Dominican life while she focuses on Scripture and theology.

“One fellow said to me, `You mean I have to forgive so and so?”’ she recalled with an amused smile. “I said, `Yeah, that’s what Jesus was telling us.’ I’m just trying to teach them what a true disciple of Jesus should be like.”

In her latest visit to Muskegon inmates, Barilla and Niewiek had to pass through three security gates and carry hand-held alarms in case they had trouble. They never have had to use them.

“Instead of saying the whole rosary today, we’ll just say the Hail Mary because we have a lot to do,” Barilla told the members of her class, a few of whom brought their Bibles. They recited with her, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee …“

Sitting at a desk in a room lined with globes, books and posters, Barilla looked very much the teacher. At the inmates’ request, her topics were salvation, how to get to heaven and modern Dominican saints.

The prison includes men serving life sentences for murder. Others have been convicted of criminal sexual conduct, armed robbery or drug offenses. Barilla does not know what crimes her students committed, nor does she ask.

She had the men turn to Matthew 25:31, which she called “our final exam with Jesus.” She asked Joseph to read it.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,” Joseph read, as Barilla smiled. “I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

(OPTIONAL TRIM FOLLOWS)

One inmate named Tony, who asked for the class originally, said it will help them in prison and beyond. “When someday we get released back into society, we’ll be able to take all of this with us and be good, law-abiding citizens,” he said.

The class closed with a prayer, the men crossing themselves. As they left, Barilla said, “I want you guys to know I pray for you every day.”

“Thank you,” replied an inmate named Joseph. “I pray for you every day, and twice on Sunday.”

(Charles Honey writes for the Grand Rapids Press in Grand Rapids, Mich.)

KRE/CM END HONEY

Photos of Sister Barilla are available via https://religionnews.com.