Sister Mary Sean Hodges
Sister Mary Sean Hodges chose a lifetime of serving others when she was 17 years old. At the age of 60, she charted a new path of service, working with prison inmates to help them integrate back into society. She shares with us the things she’s learned along the way, including the universal need for balance and forgiveness.
Are you familiar with Vatican II Council?
It was an enormous movement in the church. When there is a Vatican Council, which is when all the major bishops and cardinals in the whole world meet together in Rome over a given topic, it takes years and years to have the effect of the council spread throughout the world. The Second Vatican Council started in 1962, called by Pope John XXIII. His whole view was to open up the doors and the windows to the church. And immediately, there were a lot of changes in the church for what he was wanting to do.
Just to go back a moment to why this needed to be done, the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s and 1600s stopped a lot of growth in the religion, because there was such a divide between the Catholic and Protestant churches. In order to keep the two separate, both made their own rules and didn't want it to get confusing. And so, the rules didn't change. For example, the religious garb of the church were these long habits, a very formal long habit that the Catholic Church laid in stone from the 1600s to 1962. I was in the long habit for probably ten years before our dress was updated to make it appropriate for the times.
For another example, my sister married in 1962 and I was in Northern California at the time. So, I got to fly down and stay at our convent, which was San Gabriel, and she could come see me after the wedding. I couldn't attend the wedding because that was secular. She and her husband came after it was all over. I thought it was ridiculous. Why would I travel down there to be in the convent while she's getting married, and then I can come see her for ten minutes after?
There was no change whatsoever in that time?
There wasn't. And so the Pope said we have to adapt our church to the modern world. That was what the purpose of the council, to update the church to today's world.
We shifted from the idea that the world is a pagan place, to the idea that the world is a sacred place. Since the world is a sacred place where we live, then we can find our holiness, our redemption, within the context of the world. Whereas before Vatican II, all that was secular and therefore not holy. Incredible, huh?
So, Vatican II Council ended in 1965 and some of these changes came out right away. We shortened our habits within five years. Sisters did not have to live necessarily in a convent, but could live in an apartment, could live in homes, could travel by themselves, could teach in other places than just Catholic schools. That some of the immediate impact.
It’s been more than 50 years since Vatican II, and the impact has been slow in growing. There are many who hold onto the tradition of the Church and do not want any changes from Vatican II. And then there are those who really see the value of Vatican II and totally adopt it.
Did you ever question your decision to go into the church?
I am sure I did. Was it anything that was monumental enough to say, “Hey, I'm considering going home?” No. We lost a lot of sisters in the late ‘60s, early '70s. Thirteen sisters who were strong leaders in our congregation left to form their own group, because they didn't feel we were moving fast enough with Vatican II.
You didn't want to go with them?
No, I didn't. I still have disagreements with some of the rules of our congregation, but not enough to say I don't want to do this. Basically, I love what we do.
What does it mean to be a sister?
That I belong to a community. There are many, many different religious congregations and communities, and each one was founded for a specific purpose—this is called its “charism.” Dominicans are preachers. Order of Preachers, or OP, is our name. We were founded to spread the Gospel of Truth to the world. Our particular congregation was founded in 1876 to teach migrant children and persons on the margins, the poor, the vulnerable. All congregations started in New York, which was the hub of religion. And then bishops from other dioceses throughout the United States asked for congregations to send sisters. So, the bishop of San Francisco asked if we would come out to San Francisco and work with the German immigrant people.
Now you work with PREP, the Partnership for Re-entry Program. How did you get involved with that?
In the '80s, sisters began to do different ministries. I taught in our congregation’s schools for 39 years. When I got to be 60, I thought I’d still want to be active in the ministry and I’d still want to work. And I had better change what I was doing then, because otherwise I would be too old to want to do something new. So, when I was 60, I stopped teaching and I took a year off school to look at what else I could do. I decided to do prison work; I was just continually drawn to it.
I think a strong influence was my younger brother, who's an alcoholic. He tried many alcohol treatment programs, and became homeless in the process of all of that. I kept thinking, “Okay, how can my brother want this so much and yet still go back to alcohol?” I realized the problem was that nothing changed in his cycle. He would go into a program, go home, and go back into the program. He didn't know how to get into a different situation.
When my father was passing, we needed somebody to take care of him. We said, “Paul, will you live with dad? None of us can.” And so Paul moved from LA to the San Luis Obispo area to live with my dad. And it was enough to change my brother's life.
Yeah, it was. He didn't even go back into any kind of program, but he began going to AA meetings. His responsibility became to take care of my father. He’s been sober for 20 years.
That inspired you to do prison work?
When I took my sabbatical, I first went to New York. A sister there knew somebody in the prison ministry. So, I went to visit her and I was intrigued by the work. After that, I went to Arizona and I volunteered for Catholic charities. A sister there was doing prison ministry, so I asked if I could go with her to the prison to visit inmates. And I just liked it.
At the time, I was a big runner. So, I came from Arizona to do the LA marathon. And I went to see a sister who had established what's called “detention ministry.” I told her I wanted to work with people who come out of prison. They needed somebody with the skills to put a program together. So, I got hired immediately.
The idea of “restorative justice” became a known term then. “Detention” is so negative, because it means to hold a person back. “Restorative justice” means to hold a person responsible for their actions, but make it a healing relationship. If I hurt you, I need to be accountable for it, which means I may go to prison. But it also may mean we work together to heal the brokenness. What do I have to do to make up for the crime? That's the idea of restorative justice. Many of the offices throughout the United States have changed their name from “detention ministries” to “restorative justice ministries.”
How does the program work?
It’s not so much like therapy, or even like spiritual direction, as much as it is rehabilitation. I work with the “lifers” who are in prison for serious crime. I realized that hardly anyone is in prison without having been a victim when they were a child. There's a saying that I use a lot: “Pain that is not transformed is transmitted.” For example, if I'm your parent and I just continually batter you, always yelling at you and physically beating you, then you're going to grow up that way. You're going to grow up believing you're no good, because that's what you've learned from me as a parent.
I spend a lot of time working with inmates in groups. By talking to them, I help them to understand what happened to them as children, which led them into crime.
Do you think they’re already aware of that connection?
I don't think they put two and two together. That's the way life is and that's the way they grew up. And that's the way their dad grew up.
How do they see themselves in prison, then?
I think prison is the worst thing that could happen to them, because they still are in that anger, that rage.
If I've been beaten down so much and I go to prison, I'm going to stay in that mindset of being beaten. They look at officers that way. They gravitate toward fellow inmates who are likeminded. Then gradually, they come to look at why they came here and begin to do things differently. I call it a moment of transformation. I ask, “When was the exact moment when you realized you needed to change your life?” In some cases, for example, they’re motivated to see their son or daughter. Their children say, "Daddy, are you going to come home?" That person realizes that they’ll never come home unless they change their life.
Do you think that it's a genuine change?
Yeah. It's interesting. In my work, I get a ton of mail. One inmate, in particular, would write to me. All his letters were just superficial and he wasn't doing anything. But he kept in touch all the time.
Because I would write him. Personal letters. I would tell him to take a course and he wouldn't do it. But we kept in touch. And then, a couple years later, I could see a change happening in him. Then, he was in a place to take on a course. As years went on, he would begin to do more and more and more. I could see the change. It just takes time for all that to happen.
Do you feel a great deal of responsibility for these men?
I can't say I feel responsible. But, I feel I have the gift to offer them, which will help them to get out. And so, I don't feel the weight of responsibility and I think that's nice.
At the very beginning of my work, I worked only with persons who were doing short-term sentences for drugs or alcohol. And that was a vicious cycle. If a person gets picked up for drinking and goes to prison for two years and doesn't get treatment, then they’ll come out after two years and they're not healed from addiction. So, then I began to look at the “lifer” population of serious criminals, instead. When these people are up for parole, they have to go before the parole board and explain why they feel they should get out. If the board decides that they have not changed their life enough, then they will deny parole.
One of the reasons for not getting out is not having enough life skills. If the inmate grew up in a dysfunctional family, then they’re not going to have good life skills. They didn't get that education.
I would ask different inmates to write a lesson on a life skill, and then we would use that as the format for the course. Things like: Who do I hang with? How do I relate to an officer? Am I seeing myself getting out of the cycle of crime? What are my principles of life? So, we developed all these lessons.
Have you ever felt any fear doing this work?
I've never had it. But I think part of that is growing up in LA. When I was a child we didn't even lock our doors. We walked to school. We didn't see violence. I didn't live in violence. But I am a person who's not afraid. When I became a runner, I lived in Oakland. Everybody said you can't run on the streets of Oakland. I thought, “I'm not giving up my running because I should be afraid.” I used my common sense, I wouldn't run on a dark street, I wouldn't run at the wrong time. Use your common sense and don't be afraid.
I like this idea of common sense and fear. Fear can be so irrational.
Yeah. And I have my fears, but not in that way.
What are your fears?
I come from a very work-driven family, so I fear that I don't do enough. Or I'm not efficient enough. When I was a teacher, I felt that the job was never done. I'm not relaxed in that way at all. And this job, too, is intense. There's always more to do.
Where is the balance between your work and personal life?
As I get older, I need to take time off for myself. That's becoming more evident. A couple weeks ago, I worked the full weekend, Saturday and Sunday, and I didn't take time off for myself. I just wasn't good. And I thought, “I can't do that.” I had a ton to do this weekend, too, but yesterday I met people for dinner anyway. It cannot always be just straight work.
Do you think there's a pressure to sacrifice, because you work for the Church?
I don't feel that way. I just feel whatever a person chooses to do, whether that’s getting married to someone or following a religious life, that's a choice and commitment. Once I make that choice, I'm not open anymore to anything else.
Can you change your decision?
Yeah. I could have left at any time. And I wouldn't call that wrong. But I do like what I've chosen and I want to be faithful to that. It's like marriage, though. Once a person marries, it rules out everything else. Same with a career—if I choose a career, like being a photographer, then I need to be faithful to my photography. I can’t just do a bunch of things. Because then I jump all over the place and I'm not good at anything.
I had a very strong lesson from my mom. My dad was a harsh man, and he was verbally abusive to my mom. At one point, my mom left my dad—not in the sense of divorce, but she traveled around to stay with my brothers and sister and her brothers and sisters. She was gone from the house for six months. At the end of the six months, she came home and she said, "This is where I belong. I'm not giving up my home because of my husband." She stood up to him from then on. And he stopped. That was a strong lesson for me.
What was the big lesson that you took from that?
Stand up for what I want. Hold on to it and don't give it up. And don't let somebody take it from me. It was a beautiful lesson for me.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Be true to your own self. I strive to be truthful to myself and truthful to you. And hold to my own values. It took me a long time to know who I am and appreciate that, with all my flaws and mess-ups. This has been good for me in my work, because our men have messed up. But it's precisely because they have messed up, and because I have messed up, that I can come to know who I am today and become the better person. And that does enter into my Catholic faith: I am a very strong believer that I am forgiven for everything I did. First by my God, and then by myself. It's harder to forgive myself than to know I am forgiven by my God. And to become who I am because of the messes.
Photography by Magdalena Wielopolski ©