David Hammer: a personal journey
By David Paul Hammer
Connection with the Congregation
My connection with the Sisters of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods came by accident. On July 13, 1999, I was transferred from Florence, Colo., to the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind. Along with 19 other men I became one of the first inmates to inhabit the newly activated Federal Death Row Unit. This unit was the first ever in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. [It is] a place to house those male inmates who have been condemned to die by lethal injection after being convicted in federal courts around the country.
In December of that year I was visited by my spiritual advisor Sister Camille D’Arienzo, RSM, and our friend Edward Dougherty, a former priest. The Sisters of Providence were providing hospitality for them. While sharing a meal with some sisters, Sister Camille mentioned that we wanted to find someone local to visit me and to serve as a spiritual advisor because she couldn’t travel all the way from New York City to Terre Haute on a frequent basis. As a result of that conversation a request was made and Sister Rita Clare Gerardot agreed to visit me once and to see how things went. Our first visit occurred in February 2000 and Sister Rita Clare has visited me regularly since then. We usually visit at least twice each month. There were times when she visited me every week. This connection with the Sisters of Providence has grown and strengthened with the passage of time and life-altering events.
On Oct. 27, 2000, I was confirmed by [Indianapolis] Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, OSB, at a service held on the Death Row Unit. Sisters Camille and Rita Clare were in attendance as I received First Communion and we celebrated this special ceremony with three of my fellow inmates and several staff members.
Timothy McVeigh and Juan Garza
2001 brought with it two federal executions. Timothy McVeigh and Juan Garza were both executed in June of that year. The Sisters of Providence provided hospitality, prayers, support and a safe harbor for Juan’s family and for others in Terre Haute for Tim McVeigh’s execution. They held prayer services and SPs attended the peaceful protests and prayer vigils on prison grounds during these executions. These events only served to demonstrate love, mercy and justice which are all practices of the Sisters of Providence.
I watched throughout the following years as other men here on the row and their families were assisted by the Sisters of Providence with hospitality and personal connections and as other SPs became spiritual advisors to several of the men here. The sense of love and spirituality offered by the sisters brought light into this dismal place. They spoke of God’s love and forgiveness, and above that, they were examples in action. Through their works and ministries and their commitment to community, I observed first hand just what it means to be a Sister of Providence.
This bond grew stronger as I became friends with Sister Mary Mundy as she and Sister Rita Clare lived in the novitiate with the novices. The relationships I formed with these sisters continue today and I’m so blessed by these friendships. Through my interactions with the novices I experienced their personal journeys and spiritual journeys. My own faith was strengthened through this process.
Connecting with Providence Associates
In December of 2006 I received a letter from my friend Professor Paul Salstrom. He was at that time a candidate-associate in the Providence Associates Relationship. Included with his letter was some information about the relationship and he wrote of how his discernment and preparation to make a commitment as a Providence Associate were progressing. This was the first time I’d heard of the Providence Associate Relationship, but I knew immediately that I wanted to learn more about the possibility of me being accepted as a candidate-associate. I knew in my heart that I wanted to be a part of the Sisters of Providence in an official way.
During my first visit, I learned more about the program and what would be required of me if accepted as candidate-associate. She is such a warm and loving sister and our visits, her direction, prayers and support continue to influence and guide my growth as a person and as a Providence Associate. My sister-companion is Sister Rita Clare. The time spent as a candidate-associate taught me so much about the Sisters of Providence, myself and my faith journey.
Spiritual Integration Units
The Spiritual Integration Units which are included in the study materials served to deepen my understanding of the Sisters of Providence, their history and what it means to be a part of their community. As I read “Love, Mercy, Justice: A Book of Practices of the Sisters of Providence” it became clear to me that over the years I have seen these practices in action through the ministries of Sisters Rita Clare, Mary Mundy, Dorothy Hucksoll, Adele Beacham, Carol Kimes, Joseph Fillenwarth and so many other Sisters of Providence.
For me, the two Spiritual Integration Units which spoke to me the most were on the Practice of Hospitality to One Another and to the Stranger and the Practice of Forgiveness and Reconciliation. These practices are a very real part of my everyday life. It was the Practice of Hospitality which brought the Sisters of Providence into my life. I began this writing by saying that the Sisters of Providence came into my life by accident. Now I know that it wasn’t an accident at all — it was PROVIDENCE!
Living Mother Theodore’s words
I have grown to feel a special connection with the Sisters of Providence. Sister Rita Clare is not only my friend and sister, she is also my family. She is a shining example of what it means to be a Sister of Providence. I’m a better person for having known her and for all that she has taught me. I know that Sister Rita Clare and all of our sisters continue to exemplify the teachings and missions of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin. I take comfort in her words for living which include these: “Do not give way to uneasiness about the future. Put yourself gently into the hands of Providence.” I live these words to the best of my ability with the realization that I have no control over the future. Being a Providence Associate and a part of the Sisters of Providence community has given my life both a meaning and a purpose. I will honor and cherish this commitment and strive to live as my sisters do. Being a living example is the best way I know of doing so.
Among some of the things I have made a commitment to do as a Providence Associate is to continue with my efforts to raise funds for children who have been abused or are at-risk, and to support the poor and needy children in Haiti. I’m able to do so through the collaborative efforts of Sisters Camille and Rita Clare and myself. I design the cards. Sister Camille writes the text and with Sister Rita Clare’s assistance we all market them.
Since 2001 we have raised and donated over $75,000. These funds are distributed each January to groups and ministries such as the Woods Day Care/Pre-School, Providence Food Bank, St. John Bosco Boys Home (in Jamaica), St. Bartholomew Friends for Haiti and many others. I correspond with the boys at St. John Bosco and with three of the children in Haiti. This personal connection is such a blessing. I’m able to see love, mercy and justice in action as the lives of these children are made better. My incarceration on Death Row limits my physical abilities, but God has provided me with opportunity to use the talents he gave me to help others.
Spiritual role models
Recently I was asked who some of my spiritual role models are. That’s an easy question to answer. Some of my spiritual role models are the Sisters of Providence and the Sisters of Mercy whom I have come to know. My spiritual journey continues as I learn more and more about our Father’s love and what it means to serve him. I am inspired by these sisters and their commitment to a lifetime of service and devotion. They have influenced me and shown me how important it is to spend time in prayer [and] meditation with God each and every day.
Two of my other role models are St. Francis of Assisi and Thomas Merton. Their written words and how each lived his life serve as a spiritual inspiration for me. I feel a spiritual connection to them.
I am convinced that everything happens for a reason. My path in life has taken many twists and turns. As I continue to treasure each day I do so with the realization that I live with 47 other men who have been condemned to death by man. However, God awaits me and them where we will be welcomed with open arms. I look forward to that time.