Helping women successfully transition into society after incarceration is the mission of Angela House, a residential facility in Houston founded by Sister Maureen O’Connell, OP. It has welcomed hundreds of women since its 2001 inception, fostering the spiritual growth that Sister Maureen considers vital to full rehabilitation.
“If we’re going to talk about recovery, there has to be some spiritual dimension,” explains Sister Maureen, a 73-year-old Dominican sister originally from Chicago. She and her colleagues go about that in a thorough, thoughtful way. They require attendance at 12-step meetings and Sunday morning worship. They host centering prayer every Sunday night and bring Catholic deacons-in-training for Bible study every Wednesday night.
Faith is often the vehicle that leads Angela House residents to redemption. “One of the things we need to recognize is that these women are so filled with shame and just believe that they’re bad,” Sister Angela said. “If they weren’t bad, they wouldn’t have ended up going to jail. They wouldn’t have lost custody of their kids. The spiritual dimension is to recognize that, no matter who we are, God is always going to love us. We may do things that separate us from God, but God is never gone. The more we can encourage them to believe that about themselves, I think, is the way we can empower them to make the changes they want to make.”
Therapy offered at Angela House – on an individual and group basis – helps residents work through their latent sense of shame. They are also provided with various channels for self-expression, including a weekly creative writing course and a weekly photography course. A professional photographer comes to the house every week to teach the women how to see the world through the lens of a camera. Often, Sister Maureen says, they come to see their whole world differently.
“The women learn about color and shading and shadows. They have done some unbelievably beautiful things. One women told me, ‘I never knew I looked at the world this way, Sister.’” Another resident said she found photography calming – and empowering. “It helped me not be so tense. It all made me feel like I was worth something.”
Residents enjoy monthly visits from a range of Catholic sisters – from some of Sister Maureen’s fellow Dominicans, who come for lunch; to the Sacred Heart sisters, who join residents for bingo; to Sister Deenan, CCVI, a board member who comes for dinner and a movie. The women religious make a powerful impression on Angela House residents.
“They love the sisters,” Sister Maureen said. “Some of them will say to me, ‘I think I want to be a sister. How do you do this?’”
Sister Maureen is happy to talk about her own vocation, which brought her to Houston 30 years ago. “I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” she said, “otherwise I wouldn’t be this happy.”
Editor’s note: Pass it on!
Sister Maureen’s story is worth sharing this National Catholic Sisters Week (March 8-14), as we raise awareness of the profound, ongoing contributions of women religious. Please pass this on! And if you share it via social media, be sure to use the hashtag #NCSW2016.