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On policing and Providence

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Sister Pat Mahoney outside the District 22 police station in Chicago where she volunteers.

From the way Sister Pat Mahoney greets the receptionist and walks right through the gate labeled “POLICE USE ONLY,” it is apparent that she feels right at home. Still, Sister Pat laughs, she never guessed she would volunteer at a police station. “But I never thought I’d leave teaching or stop wearing the habit when I entered religious life, either.”

Sister Pat, a volunteer with the Chicago Police Department on the south side of the city, says this is not the first time she has taken a non-traditional path. She was one of the first Sisters of Providence to leave teaching and go into parish ministry.

“This is really where my gifts are,” she said. “The needs change and women religious change. I’ve loved everything I’ve done.”

Responding to a call

During her work as a pastoral associate at St. Leo’s Parish in Chicago in the 1990s, a parishioner asked Sister Pat if she would consider getting involved in the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS). The aim of the CAPS initiative — now operational in all Chicago neighborhoods and one of the most ambitious community policing initiatives in the U.S. — is to bring police, community stakeholders, and city agencies together to work on neighborhood crime issues. The woman who invited her was thrilled when Sister Pat agreed. The group had previously tried to get Catholic leadership involved with little success.

For Sister Pat, the invitation soon grew into a full-time ministry. Her community organizing experience led her in 2000 to a position in the State Attorney’s Office, where she worked for ten years as Prevention Coordinator.

Today Sister Pat continues her organizing work as a volunteer in her home district 22. Her work often involves advocating for victims, which means being present with them in court. She also facilitates monthly beat meetings. She helps organize events such as weekly peace walks during the summer and an educational series on gang awareness.

“I have always said crime is not the police’s problem, it’s the community’s problem,” she explains, “and the community has the power to resolve it.”

By bringing people together to build a community spirit, Sister Pat says they can have a proactive impact on other issues like crime.

Sister Pat gives an example of a response to a recent hate crime. Last summer, vandalism involving racial slurs painted on parked cars was reported in the district. Residents of the area known for its uniquely successful history of racial integration were appalled. The night after the incident, Sister Pat, along with a local pastor and another CAPS volunteer, met with the victims to talk with them and show their support. Within days, the community had organized a candlelight vigil for the victims. More than 100 residents were in attendance, including a number of local ministers. CAPS volunteers and police officers decided to go a step further and developed a committee on diversity and inclusion, which continues to address issues of racism and intolerance in the community.

Sister at the station

When she first became involved with the police department, Sister Pat admits she was unsure how co-workers and clients would respond to her as a sister. She did not immediately introduce herself as “Sister.”

In a meeting with police and other community volunteers.

Sister Pat, right, in a meeting with police and other community volunteers.

“Everybody ended up calling me Sister Pat anyway,” she said. “There is a sense that they feel really more blessed to have a religious working with them. It gives them a sense of hope.”

Today Sister Pat is renowned for her work with the police department.

“I have a reputation on the South side. ‘Sister Pat,’ they know who I am,” she admits.

Commander Daniel Godsel says that Sister Pat is an invaluable part of the work he and his officers do.

“Sister Pat was one of the first community stakeholders I met. And I remember someone saying, ‘You’re going to see a lot of her.’ And they were right.”

He commends Sister Pat and others who make the CAPS initiative what it is today. “I marvel at the amount of time and energy people like Sister Pat devote to this. They really care about the community, and I don’t know what I’d do without them.”

Providence on patrol

What does all this have to do with Providence? In Sister Pat’s words, “Providence is moving into the unknown with the firm assurance that God is present. I never thought I’d choose this, but it’s another way to be God’s presence in the community. I never thought I’d spend my retirement in a police station, but it’s a blessing to be there.”

She describes her philosophy in ministry as inspired by Charles de Foucauld. “He said it’s not necessary to teach, take care of, or change people, but that the important thing is to sit among them and share the human experience. That’s what I do, and that’s what makes a difference.

“I don’t have all the answers, but I sit with people, and we explore together. You have to really be part of the community in which you’re involved.”

The same attentiveness to Providence that called Sister Pat to respond decades ago continues to motivate her as advocate, organizer and minister of peace in her corner of Chicago.

(Originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Sister Tracey Horan

Sister Tracey Horan is a Sister of Providence in formation. She professed first vows in 2017. She is a former intern at White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, a ministry of the Sisters of Providence. She currently ministers as education coordinator at the Kino Border Initiative/Iniciativa Kino para la Frontera where she works with an education team to coordinate and host individuals and groups for immersions to the U.S./Mexico border in order to engage participants on the current reality of migration.

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