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From fear to tranquility: Sister Dorothy Rasche and prison ministry

Sister Dorothy in her prison ministry stands outside the gates to the chapel at the United States prison with the Catholic Chaplain Fr. N. Ponferrado in 1980.

In the fall of 1976, Sister Dorothy Rasche had just started a new ministry. She joined with Sister Mary Moloney and Sister Gilchrist Conway (RIP) as part of the Southeast Pastoral Team in McAlester, Oklahoma.

After serving in six places in Indiana as a teacher and as director of religious education at two others, Sister Dorothy was in unchartered waters. But despite trepidation, she forged forward.

“We went,” she said, referring to their first visit to the prison. “We went unwillingly; begrudgingly.”

McAlester housed the only women’s prison in Oklahoma at that time and visiting with inmates was one of the “multitude of things on our job description,” Sister Dorothy said. Also included were visiting three parishes and four mission churches, working with a team of three priests, visiting a Native American boarding school, a hospital and a regional mental health facility.

From fear to seeing anew

“Who wants to go in a prison?” Sister Dorothy lamented. “We were scared. We were afraid.”

After a brief pause, Sister Dorothy said, “It was ignorance and fear that made us scared.”

After the first visit to the facility, Sister Dorothy said the three Sisters of Providence were ready to leave.

“We were so relieved to get out of there,” she said. “It was so uncomfortable. For a good while, we all went together. It was a brand new experience. We knew nothing about prisons. Nobody told us anything. We were shoulder to shoulder.”

“The next week at a service with a group of women, those who came to the service were so happy to see us,” Sister Dorothy said. “We were still scared, though.”

It wasn’t until after the Thanksgiving of 1976 that Sister Dorothy said she felt comfortable going to the facility by herself.

“I spoke to the warden after one woman said no one was there for a Thanksgiving service,” she said. “So I got permission for a 9 p.m. Christmas Eve service.”

As the other two sisters were out of town, Sister Dorothy traveled to the prison by herself for that service.

Five decades of prison ministry

As the decade came to a close, Sister Dorothy began a ministry closer to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods as a pastoral associate in Seelyville, Indiana. She also began ministry at local prisons.

She began traveling to Rockville to visit the women at the Rockville Correctional Facility, the largest state prison for women in Indiana.

“I’ve been going 50 times a year since 1979,” Sister Dorothy said. “If I don’t show up, they all ask where I was because I go every Friday.”

She also serves at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute. She helps with the Life Connections Program, a rehabilitation program for inmates.

Sister Dorothy said the program is 18 months long and all inmates who attend are required to take two-hour classes weekly, of which she is the instructor. During that time, the inmates must participate in three 15-minute presentations called “Word of the Day,” where they look for a word in the dictionary and describe themselves with that word. All the inmates must also complete 500 hours of community service within the facility during their time in the program. Sister Dorothy helps them by collecting donated yarn for a group called “Real Men Crochet.” All items created by the men are gifted to the Neo-Natal Unit of Union Hospital in Terre Haute.

“In the program, we have a curriculum we follow,” Sister Dorothy said. “If they don’t do the work, they are out. But it’s wonderful. You see the results at the end of the program. They come in with a negative attitude about themselves and the world and they leave with a positive perspective.

Results that matter

“I like the end results.”

“These are grown men who a lot of times act like they are in junior high,” she said. “They react with anger. But the program teaches them how to control their emotions and how to feel emotions. They are so proud of themselves when they complete it.”

Sister Dorothy says it is results like these that keep her going back to prison ministry.

“These men and women complete the program as new men and women,
having learned right relationship with themselves, others, God and the
environment,” Sister Dorothy said.

(Originally published in the Winter 2020 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Jason Moon

Jason Moon serves as media relations manager for the Sisters of Providence. Previously, he spent more than 16 years in the newspaper industry.

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