Story by Lois Rogers | Correspondent
It’s been more than 30 years since Dominican Sister Elizabeth Gnam first entered New Jersey State Prison, Trenton, as a chaplain to share God’s love with those incarcerated there.
In doing so, she became the first religious sister to serve in that capacity for the state’s maximum security prison population. Throughout that time, she has made it a practice to begin each day within those vast walls with a simple prayer to Christ: “Let me be totally with whomever I meet or what presents itself.”
The encounters may be brief, she said, “but you make them count,” especially since these moments are at the heart of a ministry of presence. “When you [visit] someone locked up, you are acknowledging them as human beings with dignity and respect.”
“You have to live with limitations,” Sister Elizabeth continued, sharing that she sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night worrying that she was unable to meet the needs of someone she encountered during the day. But what’s most heartening is that the prisoners “are very forgiving. They know you and realize that you are doing whatever you can to meet their needs.”
For an example of how Sister Elizabeth is regarded by those to whom she ministers look no further than the words offered at last year’s annual gala to benefit the work of the Dominican Sisters of Amityville.
Bringing personal greetings from those in the state prison, Dominican Sister Margaret McVetty, councilor for mission, shared with Sister Elizabeth how “the inmates implored the prison administration to allow a coffee and cake celebration to honor the commitment of your enduring and powerful response to the Gospel message, ‘You visited me when I was in prison.’”
Vincentian Father Martin McGeough echoed that message. He was the diocesan coordinator of prison ministries from 2011 to 2017 until he was named pastor of St. Joseph Parish, Emmitsburg, Md.
“I always thought that one of the most impressive things about Sister Elizabeth was that she was offered the job as chaplain supervisor and turned it down,” he said. “She knew that if she took it, she would have to spend more time in front of a computer and less time with the men, and that it would take her away from ministering to them. Her sense of purpose and dedication in this ministry is really about them.
“What she is doing in that place is very much about seeing Christ in every face and going to bat for them,” Father McGeough said.
Lifetime of Ministry
Sister Elizabeth was born in Brooklyn to parents who emigrated from Germany. Educated in Catholic schools from grade school through college, she went on to teach and serve in parish life, where she volunteered in prison ministry in the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Riverhead, N.Y., before becoming a chaplain in the state prison.
Her ongoing commitment began during a tumultuous time, which saw Sister Elizabeth ministering to those in the AIDS unit during the 1980s. She spent eight years with prisoners on death row and became a leading advocate for ending capital punishment – which was abolished in New Jersey in 2007 – and collaborated with leaders of various faiths in ministry.
Her ministry continues to be very active. “On an ordinary day, there are planned groups for Catholic religious instruction, Bible studies centered prayer. There is Mass on Monday. Of course, there is administrative paper work and hospital visits. A group of Catholic inmates helps plan for these events,” she said.
An innovative bereavement group meets regularly to help inmates in confinement deal with the loss of loved ones, and under her supervision, a team of volunteers visits different areas of the prison to pray with inmates and distribute religious literature.
With the prison population so widely varied culturally and religiously, the ministry of presence can be very challenging, she said. “When you are in a parish with a group of motivated Catholics, it is one thing. But when you reach out to people who are of many faiths, it can be a formidable task.”
The entire experience, however, has been very formative, Sister Elizabeth said. “I have loved everything I have done, from teaching to parish work to prison ministry. I must say that probably because of the uniqueness of this ministry, I have learned so much about hope eternal.”
“Some of the inmates have very long sentences and yet, I still find them hopeful. Sometimes I look at them and say, ‘If they can endure, then I have to try to measure up.’”