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Ministering on Death Row

Sister Betty Donoghue has ministered with federal death row inmates for 10 years, but she is very familiar with the Terre Haute Federal Penitentiary, having ministered with other inmates housed there for 20 years prior to that.

For 20 years, Sister Betty ministered with non-violent offenders in what is referred to as the “prison camp.” In this ministry, which included a handful of other Sisters of Providence, the sisters would meet with the inmates every Tuesday evening to offer a reflection, watch a video and then conduct a discussion.

“Most of them were there because of white-collar crimes,” Sister Betty said. “Most of them in the group were not Catholics, but we sang a lot of songs. We sisters got to learn many, many songs we did not know before, but we joined them.”

During his time as Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, shown here speaking with Sister Betty Donoghue, also ministered with Dustin Lee Honken.

Ten years ago, Sister Betty was asked to transition to begin ministering with inmates on death row, something she did willingly. That was when she began her ministry with Dustin Lee Honken, who was executed by the federal government on Friday, July 17.

She ministered with Honken for 10 years, often by phone or email.

“I talked with him by phone, but not often,” Sister Betty said. “We could not call him. He emailed frequently. He had a friend who had a sister visiting with him and asked if he could find one for himself. The sister asked me if I would be willing and I said yes.”

Sister Betty said they often talked about their faith. Honken had converted to Catholicism while in prison.

“We spoke about Catholicism – our faith,” Sister Betty said. “He often spoke of his family, which was very supportive of him. He also spoke about his concern for other inmates. He helped them if he could. He often said everyone on death row was a broken person.

(From left) Sisters Paula Damiano, Jan Craven, Jessica Vitente and Jeanne Hagelskamp with others at a peaceful protest/vigil prior to the federal execution of Dustin Lee Honken.

“Often, we spoke about scripture. He loved the Sermon on the Mount.”

Sister Betty said they also discussed their mutual love of books and politics.

“He talked about the books he was reading and recently, he became interested in the mystics,” Sister Betty said. “All of our visits were meaningful.”

Sister Betty added that the other two inmates – Daniel Lewis Lee and Wesley Ira Purkey – who were executed last week also had Sisters of Providence ministering with them.

Sister Dorothy Hucksoll (RIP) ministered with Lee while Sister Joan Frame (RIP) had ministered with Purkey.

The federal government has one remaining scheduled execution this year. Keith Dwayne Nelson is scheduled to be executed on Aug. 28.

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Jason Moon

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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  1. Avatar Jeanne Kenny, S.P. on July 27, 2020 at 9:46 am

    Thanks Betty for your pastoral life-giving ministry with the vulnerable prisoners for many years.

  2. Avatar Gail Smith on July 27, 2020 at 10:11 am

    Love the sign on the right. That is the most succint expression of the idea that I have ever seen. Straight to the point and clear.

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