As Advent begins, we turn our minds to selflessly giving to others - not just material items, but giving of ourselves. One person who does that throughout the year is Sister Teresa "Tesa" Fitzgerald. And there are many people who love Sister Tesa because she has had such a profound impact on their lives.
For the past few decades, Sister Tesa has been running an organization called Hour Children, which provides family services for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and their children. It all started a few decades ago when she and four other members of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Brentwood, New York, founded a home for children whose mothers were in prison. In a story for Global Sisters Report, Chris Herlinger writes, "The sisters became, in effect, foster parents for the children, even accompanying the children on prison visits."
Soon their mission expanded to provide support for incarcerated mothers when they were released from prison so they could successfully transition back into society. Summarizing Sister Tesa's explanation of the organization's name, Hour Children, Herlinger writes, "The significance of the program's name stems from the various hours children experience: the hour a mother is arrested, the hour the children are allowed to visit their mothers in prison, and the hour a mother is released."
Today, Hour Children provides transitional housing in six communal homes and three apartment houses. They run three thrift shops in Queens, New York, a food pantry, and an infant nursery. They provide employment training for women just released from prison and they also mentor prisoners' children.
An article published in Marie Claire chronicles the challenges faced by Makeda Davis, a woman returning to society after eight years in prison. At one point, she provides a disappointing update on her situation, saying, "I'm still in a studio [sleeping] on the floor. I still don't make any money. I still feel uncomfortable. I still feel ugly. I just want something good to come out of all of this." But later, in a small but significant turnaround, she sent a text, reading, "So far so good," after taking a place at Hour Children, where she was able to bring her adult child to live with her.
Another woman helped by Hour Children is Johanna Flores, who spent four years in prison in her early twenties. In his story for Global Sisters Report, Herlinger caught up with Flores many years later. She was 40 years old and attending an Hour Children social event for Mother's Day 2020. "It's a day to demonstrate to people I care about, who have made a difference in my life, how special they are," Flores said. Talking about Sister Tesa, she added, "She believed in me before I believed in myself."
Flores spoke about the Hour Working Women program, which provides job training to prepare formerly incarcerated women for careers, and she mentions how surprised she was when Sister Tesa encouraged her to pursue a college degree. “Me? College?" Flores recalls herself questioning Sister Tesa's suggestion but then adds, "She gave me an idea I'd never had before. Sister Tesa wants me and the other women to be successful."
Sister Tesa's story demonstrates what an amazing gift life can become when lived for the benefit of others. What joy she must have in the difference she makes. It is a joy we can all attain when we let go of our own cares and begin to serve. It is a joy that is unlike any other.
This essay is a recent "Light One Candle" column by Father Ed Dougherty, M.M., The Christophers' Board of Directors ; it is one of a series of weekly columns that deal with a variety of topics and current events.