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“You don’t give up on a person” Sister Rita Clare’s journey with a prisoner

For Sister Rita Clare Gerardot, SP, an important relationship over the past 16 years has been with David Hammer, a convicted killer. She began visiting David 17 years ago. He had been on death row at the Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.

During her 72 years as a Sister of Providence, Sister Rita Clare has seen the power of engagement first-hand. For 32 years, she was an elementary school teacher and principal. Since then she’s focused on serving the poor, the elderly, the sick.

In her weekly visits with David for many years, “we used scripture and prayer. His favorite prayer is the prayer to St. Francis. We’d discuss reflections about the Gospel readings during our visits. If the time for visiting was growing short, David would make sure we made time for prayer.”

Sister Rita Clare has walked alongside David during hard times. He’s been within days of execution only to receive a stay. He’s lost fellow inmates to the death penalty. He’s shared details of surviving severe mental, physical and sexual abuse by his mother. And, most recently, he’s lost his eyesight.

Sister Rita Clare has also witnessed a transformation of faith with David. He joined the Catholic Church in 2000, receiving his first communion and confirmation from then Archbishop Daniel Buechlein. He became a Providence Associate of the Sisters of Providence in 2008.

“He’s always felt remorse. I’m not condoning the evil that he has done. But he’s also a human being who needs support. He needs someone who is a positive influence in his life and can help him improve. He grew up taking a lot of the blame as the eldest of three children. His mother was not a well woman and did awful things. He attended 21 different schools before he dropped out at age 15. His family was very poor and he and his sister worked out in the fields,” said Sister Rita Clare. “We can never get into anyone else’s skin to know why people do some of the horrible things that they do. We are called to visit those who are imprisoned as part of our faith.”

David Paul Hammer, center, on the day he was received into the Catholic Church in 2000, with then-Archbishop Daniel Buechlien, left, and right, Mercy Sister Camille D’ Arienzo and Sister Rita Clare. At left, a Christmas card David designed to sell for at-risk youth.

Sister Rita Clare says David has learned to give back. He helps inmates with appeals. He’s designed and sold Christmas cards and raised $95K for at-risk children in the U.S.

A friend

David’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison in 2014. He has since been imprisoned in Springfield, Missouri in a prison that provides for his serious diabetes complications, including blindness in his left eye and open sores on his feet. Sister Rita Clare writes him a weekly letter in 20 point, bold, all caps font so he can read it. He replies back about every two weeks. Sister Rita Clare just received word that he lost sight in his right eye. David’s lawyer will have to read Sister Rita Clare’s letters to him now.

“David is really my friend. I’ve learned a lot about him and the way he accepts things that can’t be changed. The way he handles his own physical infirmities. He’s someone who bears his physical suffering with great grace. He’s a very intelligent man. I’ve also seen a generous spirit in him,” she said.

David is currently being investigated for another crime.

Sister Rita Clare says, “I am willing to stick with him no matter what. You don’t give up on a person because of what they’ve done. There is always a kernel of goodness in him.”

Sister Rita Clare’s advice to us, as we seek to engage with others different from ourselves, “Be faithful to the person you’re engaging with. Don’t give up on them. Try to be a positive influence. We have to respect each other’s opinions. We don’t have to agree but we have to speak our truth. We are called to reach out to others who are in need.”

(Originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Diane Weidenbenner

Diane Weidenbenner is director of marketing and communications for the Sisters of Providence Mission Advancement office.

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