Sister Maria Larkin lifts spirits in jail ministry

“I was in prison and you visited me.” 

By Sister Barbara Ann Mayer, OSB

Sister Maria LarkinWhen people see the tall, slender gray-haired lady walking to town they often offer her a ride. She has become a familiar figure going to the Atchison County Jail each week to share God’s word with the inmates. Usually she brings religious or uplifting materials to discuss. Sometimes she brings homemade post cards or valentines that the inmates can send to their families. Always she brings a smile and encouraging words.

Sisters at the Mount have been ministering at the Atchison County Jail since 2000. Sister Rita Claire Judge began visiting men and women at the jail during Lent 2000, sharing Scripture, prayer and song with them.  In 2001, a growing number of the detainees were immigration prisoners temporarily housed at the jail before their deportation. Since many of them had limited English language skills, Sister Rita Claire invited Sister Maria Larkin, a former Spanish teacher, to join her in ministering to the Spanish-speaking.  When Sister Rita Claire left Atchison, Sister Lucille Borengasser joined Sister Maria in the jail ministry.  Several years ago, Sister Lucille had to discontinue due to health reasons. A Marian Sister from Waverly, Neb., also ministers at the jail.

Sister Maria has made weekly visits to the jail for the past 14 years. She feels enriched by the experience. “Prayer, spoken and sung, Scripture study, shared pain and laughter bring awareness of Christ’s presence both to the incarcerated as well as we who minister,” she said. “Also I receive great hospitality from the inmates as well as the jail personnel.

“The detainees often need to hear that God loves them and is ever present to them.  They need to be reminded that they are made in the image and likeness of God.”  She emphasizes their personal dignity and encourages them to see Christ in each person, even the ones that “get on your nerves.”

But she admits there are challenges, such as the underground pods with an abundance of metal and concrete and little outside light, limited space, and the noise level. The jail has three pods with a capacity for about 70. There are generally two to a cell, but when it is overcrowded there might be three or four. Although the majority are men, there is space for eight women. 

Some of the inmates request that Sister Maria correspond with them after they leave the jail. “It’s harder when they leave because with a felony or misdemeanor on their record it is difficult to find a job.” 

Many of the incarcerated  are very gifted and frequently give her artwork and poems. Once the inmates expressed their appreciation with a hand-written poem:

To some it may not be much
To others our gift might seem small
But from our hearts we offer our appreciation
And in sincerity we give you our all.

The world brands us as worthless
Yet you still come and take time
Demonstrating to us the love of God
And leaving us with peace of mind.

Surely Calcutta had Mother Teresa
And other places have their saints too,
But we feel Atchison has one of its own
For we have met Jesus in the person of you.

So we honor you Sister Maria,
And extend our gratitude to thee
For the Lord said, “The least you have done
To these my brethren, you have done to me.”