The Women’s Conference Honors Sister Terry

For hundreds, if not thousands of years, there has been a special group of women actively engaged in changing the world– humanitarians whose contributions have often been over-looked and under-valued. They are true “sisters of mercy,” nuns who support religious orders, organizations and institutions around the world– be they Catholic, Buddhist, Protestant, Jains or any other number of women who have dedicated their lives and work to their faith and helping others.

More often than not, these “sisters” are among the 750,000 Catholic nuns who work around the world teaching, healing and nurturing people, communities and church congregations. They are true architects of change, working in schools, prisons, hospitals, churches, orphanages, even war zones. These women have dedicated their lives to service, often without demanding or being given the recognition they deserve.

Over the past 7 ySister Terry Dodgeears of the Women’s Conference, eleven Catholic nuns have been nominated for the Minerva Prize. One of them, Sister Jennie Lechtenberg, was honored in 2006 for starting the PUENTE Learning Center in Los Angeles. Given the highly charged environment in which these Catholic nuns find themselves today, we would like to acknowledge the other women who’ve been nominated over the years as well for their work with the poor, the homeless, the addicted, the abused and the young. Our focus is on Sister Terry Dodge, because she was nominated several years in a row, but in recognizing Sister Terry, we honor all the other remarkable nuns who have been submitted to us over the years as well.

Sister Terry works with one of the most unpopular, forgotten populations: women being released from prison. Often they have committed terrible, unspeakable crimes, have histories of severe substance abuse and been institutionalized for decades. They are damaged souls in many ways. And when they are released, most are ill prepared for life outside prison, many ending up right back behind bars. They are released from prison with a couple of hundred dollars in their pockets and a bus ticket back home-usually right back into the environment in which their troubles began. Many don’t even make it past the first bus stop, where predatory drug dealers are waiting for women with cash in their pockets.

That’s where Sister Terry Dodge of the Order of St. Louis steps in. She wants to end the revolving door back into prison by providing newly released women with a safety net that stops the cycle. It can start with a simple step: picking up a woman at the prison gates, by-passing the drug dealers at the bus stop, and driving her to one of her three transitional housing units this nun runs. Step two takes more time, sometimes years, and involves getting a woman to adjust to life outside prison walls– a big world that for many seems frightening and indifferent.

Those feelings of not belonging can be the reason these women don’t adjust to life outside, and that is why Sister Terry is determined to address them. She knows how hard it is for people to be given a second chance at righting their lives. Her brother served time in prison for his many drug-related crimes. Time and again, he would end up released, then back behind bars. There came a day when he said he wanted to change his ways, but there was no person or program to help him learn the small but critical acts expected of law-abiding citizens: how to fix his credit, sign up for an apartment, get back into school and integrate into society.  Sister Terry stepped up to the plate. She signed him up for an apartment, helped enroll him in vocational school and talked and counseled him for months on end. Tragically, he was killed in a motorcycle accident a year and a half after leaving prison, but by then he’d finished school, found a vocation and job as a welder, lived in his own apartment and had a healthier sense of self. In the act of helping her brother succeed on the outside, Sister Terry found her calling.

Today she is the executive director of Crossroads, Inc. which provides transitional housing, education, career and counseling services and support to women released from prison.The accommodations are modest, but the mission and the program’s success rate spectacular and grand. This is a long-term transitional facility where women are taught how to adjust to life outside prison and its regimen. They attend AA, are taught to read and write if they don’t know how to do so,  learn how to apply for jobs, how to open bank accounts, how to engage in communal living, how to cook and socialize. They are shown how to get their birth certificates, a driver’s license, and any of the other pieces of paper that legitimize those of us who have not spent years in prison. They open up emotionally, sometimes learn how to engage with their families again and are encouraged to build new lives away from their old haunts and habits. Many of these women live with tremendous guilt and heavy hearts, but as Sister Terry says, as a community, we owe them some mercy to help get them back on their feet. And, as she points out, we certainly owe it to ourselves to make sure they don’t end up back on the streets or behind bars, given that is the one scenario in which everyone loses. And losing souls is not what Sister Terry is about.