July 25, 2014

Touched by God’s love: Bond between mother and daughter shines during Church’s outreach in prison Mass

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin anoints Kimberly Stewart as she receives the sacrament of confirmation during a Mass that the archbishop celebrated on June 29 at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis. Kimberly’s mother, Theresa Stewart, rests her hand on her daughter’s shoulder. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin anoints Kimberly Stewart as she receives the sacrament of confirmation during a Mass that the archbishop celebrated on June 29 at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis. Kimberly’s mother, Theresa Stewart, rests her hand on her daughter’s shoulder. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

(Editor’s note: This story is the third in a series called The Catholic Connection: Changing Lives in the Criminal Justice System. See part one and part two.)
 

By John Shaughnessy

In the bond between a mother and daughter, it was a moment touched by tears of joy and an embrace that seemed to silently express this thought for both women: “I hope you know how much I love you.”

For Kimberly and Theresa Stewart, it was also a moment touched by God’s grace, acceptance and love.

The emotional scene between mother and daughter unfolded on the summer evening of June 29 as sunlight streamed through the windows of the chapel at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis.

Ever since she entered the prison last October after a drug-related conviction, Kimberly Stewart has been on a journey to try to turn around her life.

That journey took a significant faith-filled step when she received the sacrament of confirmation from Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin during a Mass he celebrated for Catholic and non-Catholic inmates in the prison chapel on June 29.

Shortly after the archbishop anointed Kimberly, mother and daughter dissolved into each other’s arms as the tears flowed.

Later, Kimberly repeatedly told people, “I’ll never forget this experience.”

Her mother noted, “She’s turned around her life and turned it over to God which I really haven’t seen in the past 10 years. It’s like I’ve got my daughter back. I’m very proud of her. I told her, ‘God has seen you through this, and he will see you through even more.’ ”

The emotional reactions touched Archbishop Tobin, too.

“Parents would say, ‘That would be one of my worst nightmares—to have one of my children incarcerated.’ But I had to be impressed with the openness of Kimberly to the God whom prison bars can’t keep out—that met her in love in the prison.

“And I had to almost weep from gratitude for Theresa—a mother who like the mother of Jesus stood by her daughter in a shameful and painful moment, and rejoiced that the Church was there for her with the tremendous gifts of the sacraments.”

The archbishop also noticed another gift as he watched and heard the other women react to Kimberly’s confirmation.

“I sensed, too, there was a sort of appreciation among the other women for the step that Kimberly was able to take,” he said. “And perhaps, there was an appreciation for the Church that Kimberly belonged to, that recognized her dignity as well as her need for an even stronger relationship with God.”

‘He wants you to stay connected to him’

That emphasis on dignity and a deeper relationship with God pervaded the archbishop’s Mass at the Women’s Prison on June 29. So did his connection with the women who poured into the chapel, many of whom were not Catholic.

The archbishop established that connection from the beginning of Mass, when he used humor and compassion in introducing himself to the women.

“My name is Joseph. I’m your brother. And I know what it means to be a brother because I have eight sisters. So I’m used to taking orders from ladies,” he said, drawing smiles and laughter from the women.

“I’m also your brother as one who has turned to the Lord, at times seeking forgiveness. So we ask God to begin this celebration as only God can do. And that’s to forgive us, heal us and open our hearts.”

The connection continued during his homily when the archbishop told the women that the Church was celebrating the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul—“two saints who knew what it was like to be arrested, who knew what it was like to be cuffed, who knew what it was like to have to stand up to trial.”

The archbishop told the women how much he identified with Peter—“a big guy” who “talked a lot” and “ran away from Jesus when Jesus needed him the most.”

He noted how some people make comparisons between Peter and Judas, and their relationship with Jesus—two men “who loved him enough to follow him,” two men who betrayed him. Then he shared with the women the difference between Peter and Judas—how they reacted to betraying Jesus, the one who called them and loved them.

“I don’t know about you all, but I want to be connected to the one who dearly loves us, the one who forgives us,” the archbishop told the women. “Judas couldn’t do that. Ashamed, disappointed in himself, he said, ‘I can’t do this. I’m out of here.’ Peter stayed.”

Moments later, the archbishop ended his homily by sharing this belief about God, “Sisters and brothers, whatever failures in our lives, whatever shame has built up in you, he wants you to stay connected to him.”

‘A great sense of mutual love’

After the Mass, the women presented the archbishop with several gifts, including a handmade lace creation that spelled out “Tobin”—a gift that reminded him of the lace creations that his Irish ancestors made when they first came to America.

Touched by the gifts, the archbishop invited the women to stop by his office upon their release from prison so he could congratulate them. Touched by that invitation, the women lined up to talk with the archbishop, asking for his blessing and even his autograph.

“It was a grace-filled evening,” noted Mary Schaffner, a member of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis and a volunteer at the women’s prison who helped with the liturgy.

“The joy, the sense of community and the welcoming of so many additional women—who for the most part were non-Catholic—to the Mass was a powerful experience. Our Catholic understanding of the dignity of each person seemed tangible. And Archbishop Tobin’s hospitable, down-to-earth and approachable presence made everyone feel at ease. There was a great sense of mutual love from both sides.”

For his part, the archbishop praised the 15 Catholics who regularly volunteer at the Women’s Prison and the priests from the Indianapolis West Deanery who celebrate Mass at the prison every Sunday evening.

“The point of departure for prison ministry is that this is something that Jesus expects his disciples to do,” the archbishop said. “And it’s very eloquently supported in Matthew 25 when he said, ‘I was in prison and you visited me’ (Mt 25:36).

“To have these parishioners, from all different places, give up their time to be with these women was a tremendous gift to me. I watched the relationship they had with the prisoners. It showed me this wasn’t a one-time, flash-in-the-pan gesture. They knew these women, and these women had confidence in them.”

Setting ‘things right with the Lord’

The volunteers’ consistent effort is reflected in the way they helped lead Kimberly Stewart to her confirmation.

“At first, she sat in the back row of our classes, but before long she was sitting in the front row at Mass and during the classes,” said Laura Kazlas, a volunteer from St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg. “She wanted to set things right with the Lord.

“As time went on, you could tell she had begun to embrace our faith in a whole new way. It grew from the faith she was taught as a child to the faith she had come to believe in as an adult.”

That journey culminated in her receiving the sacrament of confirmation—and the tears of joy and the emotional embrace with her mother that followed.

In that moment, Kimberly Stewart thanked her mother and told her, “I’m going to be a soldier of God. I’m so looking forward to it.”

The tears flowed again for Theresa Stewart as she thought of that moment with her daughter.

“It was very emotional for both of us,” Theresa said. “I know that she has found God.” †

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